LearnBuilding a community from scratch?


Ryan Carson
writes on March 19, 2009

Building a thriving community around your company/app/service is fuckin’ hard work.

A boxer's bloody hands

I just came out of a meeting with a potential client who is interested in us helping them build a community and create a discussion with their target market. They’ve got amazing products and smart people – but they just don’t know where to start with Twitter/blogging/word-of-mouth/etc.

They’re a powerful, well-known and smart company. But they’re starting at zero – they don’t have an online community right now and they need to build one from scratch. And they’re not the only ones.

It’s amazing we’ve ended up in a world where huge corporations are on the same playing field as us little guys. All their powerful marketing campaigns, brand power, and advertising dollars seem to be less effective. Big spend TV ads? Mute. Banner ads? Come on. ‘Branding’ campaigns? Not personal.

There is no ‘personal’ life anymore

I know a lot of folks who try to separate their personal life and their professional life. If you’re interested in building community, there is no difference. It’s all the same. ‘Bleasure’ is a word Lisa Price coined, and I think it’s a perfect description: the melding of ‘Personal’ and ‘Business’.

You need to accept every friend request on Facebook. Hate that idea? Try this: The Facebook homepage re-design makes it really easy to create groups of friends. Add all your real-life friends to a group called ‘Buds’ (or something similar) and filter the updates. When you get friend requests, just allow them to see your limited profile. This isn’t as good as sharing everything, but for you more private folks, it should work fine.

Screengrab of Facebook homepage showing the groups of friends

Also, if you’re serious about building a community, you better not even think about protecting your updates on Twitter. If you need a ‘personal’ account for your family, that’s fine (and you can use Matt to update multiple accounts). But for your ‘public face’ it’s got to be wide open.

There’s not shortcut

It’s going to take you 1 – 2 years minimum to build a real community around you. Not only is it going to take a long time, but it’s going to require real passion and time. No faking this one. Hiring a part-time blogger to throw up a couple posts a week isn’t going to work either.

If you have 20 minutes, you’ve got to watch this. Gary explains it better than I can.

Money isn’t the answer … or is it?

Traditional methods of reaching customers – basically spending huge amounts of money – are being rendered obsolete. When was the last time you clicked on a banner? When was the last time you clicked on a link in Twitter? Exactly.

Spending money on big media campaigns is a bad idea (in my opinion) but spending big money on a full-time community manager, is a good idea. So the truth is it’s still expensive to create a community, but the money is being spent on something completely different. You should now be spending your marketing budget on:

* Meetups and beer
* A community manager
* A designer and developer to be creative

Here’s a really good example of creative content. Instead of spending a ton of money on banner ads or TV campaigns, Samsung did something smart and creative. Check it out:

So what does work?

The point I’m trying to get across is that creating a community from scratch is hard, time-consuming and fraught with danger. But it’s the only way to reach people now.

Would love to hear your thoughts below.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/mdutile


Learning with Treehouse for only 30 minutes a day can teach you the skills needed to land the job that you've been dreaming about.

Get Started

40 Responses to “Building a community from scratch?”

  1. Ryan, Thanks for clarifying the bloodied knuckles.

    For a more constructive image I’m recommending a deep dive into Clara Shih’s just released book:
    “The Facebook Era: Tapping Online Social Networks to Buld Better Products, Reach, New Audiences, and Sell More Stuff”

    You may recall Clara Shih, as developer of Faceonnector that allows Salesforce users to integrate Facebook profiles, is somebody I suggested as a potential Future of Web Apps presenter. After hearing Clara speak at the Business of Community Networking in Boston this week suffice to say you MUST connect.

  2. I’m pretty young and have started a company with my brother. Our basis is the idea of building a community for the interaction of people around is extremely interesting. I found this when checking our web traffic sources. This blog along with other’s I’ve been finding as offshoots of this are amazing in how to use social media for the community. Our website is weak and needs more before we can even really begin community building.

    I just wanted to say thanks for the info, and I’ll be keeping an eye on everything else that comes up from now on.


  3. Hey Jenny,

    Thanks for the kind words. BTW, the image of the bloodied knuckles doesn’t belong to us, it’s courtesy of flickr.com/photos/mdutile.


  4. Just preparing a lecture for my MA students and finding myself referring again to the excellent ‘Cluetrain Manifesto’ which lies behind many of the points in the above discussion. For anyone that doesn’t know it, it’s well worth a read, still entirely relevant (now perhaps more so).

    Better still you can get it for free:


  5. Ryan, Thanks both for the timely article and inspiring such helpful and thoughtprovoking comments.

    I have to tell you we’re shamelessly borrowing, with credit of course, your bloodied knuckles image for a workshop on “Developing a Community Strategy” at the Business of Community Networking conference in Boston tomorrow. http://snurl.com/edt9r I trust that is OK.

    I thought your potential clients trying to understand the work involved in engaging customers in online spaces might find a piece colleagues and I wrote for Inside Knowledge Magazine last year about learning from our Facebook Groups in Business Investigation. http://snurl.com/edtda

    We pulled out 7 key lessons. “You have to work it. Active facilitation is essential and pays off.” was second only to: “1. Clear purpose is tied to business objective.”

    I’m also sharing a slide from our FOWA Miami Workshop that we find helps people appreciate the levels of engagement and roles success demands. http://snurl.com/edtoo It builds from Ross Mayfield’s classic 2006 “Power Law of Participation” blog post. http://snurl.com/edttc

    I appreciated Dorothy Briggs Mead’s observation that:

    “Thinking about the why first is, as Mel and others say, so important. Is it about better internal engagement? About embracing customers as part of your organisation? Making stakeholders closer to the business? It’s not a lazy solution to a big problem, it’s the first step to improving a way of being.”

    The words reminded me about hearing pioneering venture capitalist Ann Winblad speaking in 1997 describe “community” as a “comfort word of 1996”. As an investor she wanted, first and foremost, to see how a business was serving their customers.

    Much to ponder. Thank you all.

  6. Kathy & Ryan, yes, yes, yes! Your comments and the article are RIGHT ON. Thanks for helping me, and by extension, the people in my communities kick more ass.

  7. Furthermore: many companies that are trying their hardest to “build community” forget that, many times, the community they are trying to build already exists!

    Rather than trying to build from scratch, survey the land. Intuit, for example, didn’t try to build community from scratch. They realized that there was already a community of smart, responsive people out there sharing information based on their tax law knowledge. Rather than try to make a new community, they provided a tool for the existing community, in the form of http://www.taxalmanac.org. The amazing thing about this effort is their lack of blatant branding: they truly created a valuable home for their users without making it a “brand play” and in turn, provided an opportunity to create a real bond with their customers.

  8. If you want to see an amazing example of community development and mobilization, watch the recent movie “Milk” with Sean Penn. I was so moved by it that I wrote an essay about the key steps to developming a community from scratch that I gleaned from it. The four steps I found are:

    1) Inspire – As a community organizer, your first move to action is to not be alone. Inspire those around you, and gain some critical mass. From that critical mass, identify new blood to continue recruitment and spreading of the message.

    2) Motivate – As a community organizer, your second action is to show people the tools, and then give them the tools. Every follower should look to you and say, “I can do that, too”. And then your response should be, “yes, of course you can”.

    3) Organize – As a community organizer, your third action is to organize, but not micromanage. Delegate goals. Reward success with new goals. Reward failure with education. There’s far more to be learned from failure than there is from success.

    4) Mobilize – As a community organizer, your fourth action is to provide a point of reference, and lock on. Fire when ready.

    Rinse, repeat. You’re never done.

    You can read the entire essay, “A Roadmap for Community Organization“, on my blog.

  9. @Kathy – Wow, wow, wow. I think you’re comment is more valuable than my whole post 🙂 Thanks SO much for putting that in focus. You’ve given me some amazing ideas and a new direction for our community.

    THANK YOU! 🙂

  10. Kathy Sierra on March 20, 2009 at 6:31 pm said:

    Important topic, and I agree — building community is both tricky and time-consuming. But if you’ll forgive me for using lolcatspeak– if it takes 2 years, ‘ur doin it wrong’. The painful, least-effective way to “build community” is to hire a Community Manager who tries to connect users with the company. Far quicker/better to hire a “Director of Kicking Ass” whose sole job is to help users get better and better at whatever it is you can help them do, and to connect users to other users who share that passion and can help.

    A look through Gary’s WineLibraryTV comments shows why he is so successful… it’s not because Gary is the guy everyone wants at their dinner party–it’s because he helps his *viewers* become the guy everyone wants at a dinner party.

    Some community managers appear to have a strategy modeled after: “Get users to want to party with you.” More sustainable (and do-able) might be: “Give users a reason to party… *without you*”

    Meetups and beer are awesome — especially when they’re about connecting users with other users. Our job as community builders is to not so much to connect with our users, but to give them more and more compelling reasons to connect with one another. And the best way to do that is through helping them learn and grow and ultimately–kick ass. The “at what?” doesn’t matter nearly as much.

    I agree that the marketing budget could be far better spent on community–especially when community means putting the user–not the company–at the center of a passion-fueled ecosystem. Even things like openness/transparency matter *only* to the extent that they dramatically support (or potentially harm) our users’ ability to do whatever it is we’re helping them do.

    Think about some of the things that truly make your life more interesting, engaging, productive, etc. — and most of us can find things where the product, service, support, user community is so damn useful that we really don’t even notice (let alone care) that the company isn’t “engaged”. In the end, we’re just not that into The Company. And a community manager that tries to change that is in for a long, painful, ultimately disappointing journey.

    We are “into” our own journey, and any company that helps us do it–either directly through products/services that help us kick ass — or indirectly through sponsored community efforts that help us learn/grow/kick ass at something (even entirely unrelated)– will win our hearts. Excitement for a company/product is simply a wonderful side-effect of a company/product that helps us do something amazing. When a community manager makes passion for the company as a goal, two years or even ten will likely never be enough.

    God I love this topic, Ryan. Thanks.

  11. Great post Ryan. Building a community is hard work and there is definetly no way to fake it.

  12. Great post Ryan

    Its a great post.

    Community building online is something that ultimately needs to be genuine.

    I also definitely echo that the meetups, user feedback/rating and email all play a big part.

    Its not getting any easier – but I think we’re starting to understand it more – and ask the right questions – so thanks for this contribution.

  13. Great post. One can’t help but note that the two factors you identify as being most important to success in this endeavor – patience and openness/transparency – are both anathema to most corporate cultures, particularly in the U.S.

    This may be another example of an area where smaller, more agile companies have an advantage over their giant competitors, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  14. Excellent article and comments saying far more far better than I can manage. But the crux to me is that community build is in danger of becoming the new fad without thought – last year it was ‘let’s not spend money let’s market virally’ – now it’s ‘must build a community’. Thinking about the why first is, as Mel and others say, so important. Is it about better internal engagement? About embracing customers as part of your organisation? Making stakeholders closer to the business?It’s not a lazy solution to a big problem, it’s the first step to improving a way of being. The great thing is there are easier ways to do it than say 10 years ago when communities started to emerge sidelong to the KM initiatives. But being able to do it easier doesn’t mean that you can shortcut the strategy, otherwise you’re just ticking another wasted project box. If community is to be the new king, need to make sure that it’s an active serving one and not some grand statue. And that the community manager talked about here isn’t just another reassigned job title – oh we’re bored with the CRM initiative would you like to be community manager now?

  15. Great post and very timely with the rise, rise and rise of Twitter and other social networking applications that are bringing people together in ways that haven’t been possible, or were very difficult and/or expensive, before.

    Mel Kirk (above) hits the nail on the head here:

    I think one of the main factors that hasn’t been touched on here is looking at why you’re building a community.

    Building a community takes time. Before you invest the considerable amount of time, energy and devotion to building a community, ask yourself why you’re doing it.

    All too often businesses enter into the ‘community building’ phase expecting the payoff to be a month or two down the line. This is obsolete business thinking. I think Ryan’s timeframe – one to two years minimum – is much, much more accurate.

    Building a community requires a considerable amount of energy and commitment and shouldn’t be embarked on lightly. However, one of the beauties of the new business landscape we’re all inhabiting now, is that this level of effort is low barrier to entry and levels the business playing field. If you’ve got the time and, equally importantly, something interesting to say, now’s the time to get started. Expect the payoff around 2011.

  16. @adam – meant to be business and leisure 🙂 But you get the meaning.

  17. The fact that so called traditional methods of online advertising are fast becoming superseded by more creative and engaging user experiences can only be a good thing.

    Banner ads for one have always been just an unimaginative extension of the print publishing standard and one where web design layouts are dictated (to some degree) by ad dimensions rather than actual useful content.

    If hard work, creativity and word of mouth via online communities can help to compete with the mega-budgets of corporations, then there’s a real chance that we’ll see some innovation in online marketing.

  18. Tim Sutcliffe on March 19, 2009 at 4:54 pm said:

    Good post; I think building the community is the fun bit!

    As an aside you have to check out this video, also a viral for Samsung. If a company is going to put this much effort in to making a vid as playful and charming as this- then I’m in!


  19. Wouldn’t “business” and “personal” = “Bersonal”?

    Good ideas to chew on. Thanks!

  20. Communities are being turned inside out, in a good way.

    I’ve been building communities for a while. I started my first Internet based community in 1994. Since then I’ve built and managed communities of various sizes, from a couple of hundred to over 100,000.

    Each and every community effort is unique. Money does matter, but not in the way most execs would think. The most well funded efforts I’ve seen were the most dismal failures.

    However, there’s a huge changing happening right now. The notion of building a community has flipped inside out. Once upon a time, the effort was to build a place to “host” a community and attract users into your walled garden. Communities lived on platforms such as a forum and largely interacted in a vacuum.

    There’s a growing trend against this. Setting up a community on Ning, for example, gives a user the opportunity to connect their identity across various Ning sites. Connect, in the loosest since. Still, Ning is an excellent example of how community building has moved on to a point where technical knowledge is no longer key.

    Anyway, inside out… Let me put it this way, Social Media Marketing is somewhat like what Community Management used to be. Where we used to have the community hosted on our own software, users now prefer to live on more open platforms like Facebook. Now a user can be a member of half a dozen different groups but still have their singular Facebook profile and interface to interact in their key communities.

    Community building techniques that were considered defacto just a few years ago are null and void tomorrow. Progressively, the Internet is evolving and closed gardens are becoming less popular.

    The total volume of Internet users is still vast enough that massive numbers of closed gardens still exist and thrive. They will probably exist and thrive for a long time. However, that is *not* where the momentum is going.

    The Internet brought about an ability to form community based on interest rather than geographic location. Still, within the Internet, communities gathered on software platforms that, on an abstract level, still provided a gathering point. Users recreated themselves over and over on these new virtual communities each time they joined a new one.

    From there, networks like MySpace, Facebook, Youtube, Flickr, Live Journal, Xanga, Orkut, and thousands of other social sites created a bubble in which the user could maintain one self image (iow, profile) and move in and out of various communities with ease.

    The next logical step will be the ability to move anywhere on the Internet and maintain identity – including your social network.

    All of this evolution has a huge impact on how marketing has to deal with the topic of community.

    Just my $0.02

  21. Great write up and it speaks volumes to what I think most of us in the web community are already doing. now the focus needs to be on explaining that to our clients.

    I’ve found the best way for me has been through osmosis. i connect with clients on linkedin, tripit, etc… but then I also connect with them on Facebook and Twitter. What I’ve noticed is there is a deeper dialogue between us.

    It should also be noted that this is what folks like Dale Carnegie and Jeffrey Gitmomer have been preaching all along. Essentially they live by the creed that, “a friend is a customer for life”. Now we’re finally seeing brands catch on so I can only imagine of the possibilities around the corner once government and large corporations really take to this type of methodology – if they ever will is the larger question i guess.

  22. Great post… building online communities definitely takes way longer than people think and great advice to have a dedicated community manager if you really hope to have a flourishing community. Love the Gary V talk.

  23. Some pretty solid points Ryan.

    I definitely agree that the appraoches corporations are used to taking, in generating buzz and community, are quickly becoming obsolete in such a real-time envornment.

    Also, I might add that as a company, it’s important that the relatioships you work to build are reciprical, in the sense that you’re also their for your community. If you start out with a mind set of self-benefit, your only community will turn out to be the spam bots around twitter.

  24. I find myself in a similar situation, briefing PR agencies as part of my work for a digital comms agency. I preach the gospel of “you can’t” and “you need to change your organisational culture”.

    Sadly I find glazed looks coming back across the table. Maybe one or two enthusiasts nodding but the rest seem unaware of the imminent demise of their once strangleheld influence.

    Which leaves a great opportunity for decision makers who do get it. Because it takes time, because you can’t fake it, companies that steal a march can secure a lasting competitive advantage.

  25. I think one of the main factors that hasn’t been touched on here is looking at why you’re building a community. There’s no point building a community because that’s what the other folks are doing. You have to be committed, passionate and bringing something to the table.

    It can often be expensive to build and manage a community. Companies need to ensure that they have resources that they can commit in the long-run. There’s no point dedicating resources to then find that it’s too expensive and scrap the strategy before moving on to something else. You’re building relationships, they’re sacred and if done well these people will become your advocates. I wrote a whole piece on it here… http://randommel.com/2008/07/23/personal-vs-professional/

    It’s no longer acceptable to keep content ‘private’ and to be secretive about business methods and tools. The more open and honest you can be, the easier it will be to gain trust with your target audience. Once you have the trust, maintaining it is essential.

    Good advice Ryan. I think that some traditional marketing techniques still need there place, after all they build mass brand. However with changing times and climates, I think we’ll see more and more advertising spend going online.


  26. porridgelady on March 19, 2009 at 3:11 pm said:

    Really interesting post. As a ‘little guy’ or rather Lady the post has made me realizse the importance of putting the hard work in now, before I launch.

  27. You mean Intel?

  28. Great post Ryan. I think people are all coming around to the fact that it’s all about real people, not just passive eyeballs. And it’s mostly about hard work, and hard work all the time. If you’re not a gregarious person, then you’re right, you better hire one! More than ever, it’s who you know.

  29. I didn’t read the post but I love the first image and the Samsung campaign – quite creative.

  30. Good post. My Twitter-feed would definitely fit in the ‘Bleasure’ category!

    I’m wondering what you’re thoughts are on the Skittles.com approach and their Extreme Social Makeover. I think at least it took guts to do that.

    (P.S. Matt says the server is drunk ;-))

  31. Brilliant post, guys.

    I’d like to offer a small glimpse into our world: We are extremely fortunate to have our beer sponsored by a large organization in Toronto, and our monthly meetup costs are also being subsidized as well.

    I personally handle the development of our site from a code perspective, and I have a visual designer who helps us with the UI/UX side of our site.

    As much as I would LOVE to have a community manager, we simply cannot afford one right now. As such, I take on this role as well. It’s exhausting and it takes up alot of my time.

    We are working towards getting funded so that we can hire a community manager, but it’s going to take another year to get all of our ducks in a row. We are currently working on finalizing our business plan which is another item on the agenda that takes up a great deal of our time.

    How this relates to the article is that the recommendations you’ve made are spot on with the action items we are working on, which validates what we are doing and tells us we are on the right track.

    Thank you for posting this.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

man working on his laptop

Are you ready to start learning?

Learning with Treehouse for only 30 minutes a day can teach you the skills needed to land the job that you've been dreaming about.

Start a Free Trial
woman working on her laptop