How To Develop A Community Strategy

Don’t develop a strategy without interacting with your audience. You can should go beyond surveys here. Surveys can yield very useful insights about which audience to target or what tactics might work, but it fails to answer a key question.

How do members feel about the behavior you want them to perform?

Speak to your audience and find out how they feel about the behavior today. This stretches beyond asking them what they do and what they think. It means speaking to members who are performing the behavior and understanding how this behavior makes them feel.

We so rarely consider what we want members to feel about the community and their contributions to it. When we do, we default to positive-sounding emotions (e.g. we want members to feel excited and happy). But what do these emotions mean and are they the best emotions to use?

What Does It Mean To Be Happy?

Imagine a member tells you creating great content makes them ‘happy’. You need to probe beyond this. What does happy mean?

Does it mean they feel respected and valued? Does it mean they feel creative and inspired? You need to identify the very specific emotions you want to amplify. This will take work to interview people about their current attitudes towards the behavior.

The first step is to set up as many interviews as you can with people performing this behavior today (aside, simply setting up interviews helps you build useful relationships that will help later on). You need to push very deep at this level to identify the exact emotions they feel. You need to get really specific answers, otherwise your entire strategy might be based upon the wrong emotion.

For example, if you want people to join the community, ask others how it felt to join the community. If you want people to perform a specific behavior, ask those that perform the behavior how it feels. This works better in a direct call/interview setting than it does via surveys.

Data Should Surprise You

The data here should surprise you. We often find the emotion we thought was driving the behavior is not the one most cited. If your data does not surprise you, you might be biasing the data towards what you expected (or hoped) to find.

Don’t confuse justifications with emotions

Be careful not to confuse a justification with an emotion. During an interview, a member might say they share advice because they want to be seen and recognized by others. They might say they want to see how other people react to their posts, or they might say they want to appear as an expert. This is useful information, but it’s a justification for what they do; it’s not the emotion that drives the behavior. You need to push beyond these answers to uncover how they feel when they perform these actions.

They might feel lonely and want to be accepted by their peers when they share advice. They might feel anxious that no-one will respond and excited when they do. They might be jealous of the top experts and want to emulate them.

Identifying The Emotion To Amplify

The answers will always be more nuanced than joy, happiness, and excitement. You need to push hard for people to explain how they feel when they make a contribution. You often need to translate this into an emotion into something deeper. The emotional wheel below will help you push deeper to find the very specific emotion that people feel.


These emotions will lead into one or more really clear strategies that you can choose between.

Let’s look at three really simple strategies based upon the example above. To illustrate how the strategy changes based upon the emotion, we will keep the goal and objective consistent.

Example 1: Excitement Strategy

Imagine your research revealed that the people who already create quality content feel excited by the response to their contribution. A few might feel anxious by the fact no-one will respond. Others might feel pride in creating something they feel helps a lot of people.

Your strategy would amplify this excitement as we see below:

Goal Generate leads by increasing search traffic.
Objective Increase quality content that ranks highly.
Strategic Objective Get existing content creators to create more content.
Strategy Create a sense of excitement around the response to quality content that has been created. This excitement occurs in seeing how it ranks, how many people mention it, and seeing how much it increases status within the community.

You can see now how this strategy could lead into some obvious tactics around gamification, status-appeals, and notification systems.

Example 2: Respect Strategy

If your research revealed that people who create quality content most desire to feel respected, your strategy should work to amplify this level of respect.

Goal Generate leads by increasing search traffic.
Objective Increase quality content that ranks highly.
Strategic Objective Get existing content creators to create more content.
Strategy Ensure content creators feel respected and valued for their work. This respect must come from people they personally know and respect, not the masses.

You can see here, too, that tactics would not be about gamification or notification systems. Your tactics might focus on levels such as a personal thank you from the CEO, reviews of their contributions by senior staff members, inclusion in staff meetings, etc.

Example 3: Worried Strategy

If people are truly honest in your interviews, you will often uncover darker emotions behind many contributions. One of the most common is fear. People might make contributions because they are worried that something bad might happen if they do not.

Goal Generate leads by increasing search traffic.
Objective Increase quality content that ranks highly.
Strategic Objective Get existing content creators to create more content.
Strategy Build on their worry that they are being left behind, their status is in decline, that others are gaining in popularity.

Again, you can see some clear tactics that might emerge here. You might highlight people who are leading the way in new trends in your field, develop the perception of newcomers on the rise, etc.

Should You Use Negative Emotions?

This is also perhaps the most controversial area of strategic community management. Should we amplify negative emotions to gain behaviors?

You must use your own ethical barometer here. If fear of something bad happening encourages people to create quality content that builds their reputation and improves their condition, that is a mutual win. If it draws people further into despair, that is clearly unethical.

Our advice is to consider whether this behavior would improve your member’s condition. If the answer is yes, then fear and worry can be a powerful motivator to drive positive action. If members are already afraid or worried, it makes no sense to us to ignore this. You can instead signpost your community as a place to resolve and alleviate those worries. If you disagree, you can stick solely to positive emotions.

There are three separate strategies to achieve the same strategic objective. Each of these will lead you down an entirely different set of tactics to achieve your goal. This is why the strategy you decide is so critical. It must be based upon clear research to avoid making a costly mistake in the wrong direction.

You should only have one strategy per strategic objective.

What About The Community Lifecycle?

In our previous work, we have based strategies upon the community lifecycle:

These are the stages communities progress through to maximize the level of activity. For many community professionals, their objective has been to maximize engagement and hope that engagement correlates with additional value.

If increasing activity directly correlates with value, then you should pursue the community lifecycle. This would be the case with advertising-supported communities, communities developed as a hobby, and many others.

The problem is that the correlation between activity and value is often weak or non-existent. In this situation, we wish to pursue a strategy that usually means less engagement overall, but more valuable behaviors. These are the behaviors which drive the best business outcome.

If you are looking to boost activity and maximize engagement, pursue the lifecycle. If you are looking to drive specific member behaviors, pursue a strategic approach to achieve those behaviors.



  1. Interview people performing the behavior you want to see more of and push deep to uncover how they feel about the behavior. Make this really specific.
  2. Build a strategy around provoking the emotions which appear most often by people who perform the behavior.
  3. Prioritize strategies by those which appear most often, or those which are going to be easiest to execute.
  4. A strategy should not include any mention of tactics or the community lifecycle.



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