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February 14, 2006

The Art of Creating a Community

I admit it: I’m a user-group junkie. I got my first taste of user groups when I worked for Apple—speaking at their meetings was one of my great pleasures. Their members were unpaid, raging, inexorable thunderlizard evangelists for Macintosh and Apple II.

These folks sustained Apple by supporting its customers when Apple couldn’t—or didn’t want to—support them itself. Now that Apple is the homecoming queen again, there are lots of people receiving, taking, and claiming credit for its success. The Apple user-group community deserves a high-five tribute too.

Now that I gotten that off my chest; I can move on to the topic of this entry: how to create a kick-ass community. I anticipate many comments to this entry, so I am warning you in advance that I am going to modify and supplement this entry frequently. RSS readers beware! :-)

  1. Create something worth building a community around. This is a repeated theme in my writing: the key to evangelism, sales, demoing, and building a community is a great product. Frankly, if you create a great product, you may not be able to stop a community from forming even if you tried. By contrast, it’s hard to build a community around mundane and mediocre crap no matter how hard you try.

  2. Identify and recruit your thunderlizards—immediately! Most companies are stupid: they go for months and then are surprised: “Never heard of them. You mean there are groups of people forming around our products?” If you have a great product, then pro-act: find the thunderlizards and ask them to build a community. (Indeed, if you cannot find self-appointed evangelists for your product, you may not have created a great product.) If it is a great product, however, just the act of asking these customers to help you is so astoundingly flattering that they’ll help you.

  3. Assign one person the task of building a community. Sure, many employees would like to build a community, but who wakes up every day with this task at the top of her list of priorities? Another way to look at this is, “Who’s going to get fired if she doesn’t build a community?” A community needs a champion—an identifiable hero and inspiration—from within the company to carry the flag for the community. Therefore, hire one less MBA and allocate this headcount to a community champion. This is a twofer: one less MBA and one great community.

  4. Give people something concrete to chew on. Communities can’t just sit around composing love letters to your CEO about how great she is. This means your product has to be “customizable,” “extensible,” and “malleable.” Think about Adobe Photoshop: if it weren’t for the company’s plug-in architecture, do you think its community would have developed so quickly? However, giving people something to chew on requires killing corporate hubris and admitting that your engineers did not create the perfect product. Nevertheless, the payoff is huge because once you get people chewing on a product, it’s hard to wrest it away from them.

  5. Create an open system. There are two requirements of an open system first, a “SDK” (software development kit). This is software-weenie talk for documentation and tools to supplement a product; second, APIs (application programming interfaces). This is more software-weenie talk for an explanation of how to access the various functions of a product, and it’s typically part of a good SDK. I’m using software terminology here, but the point is that you need to provide people with the tools and information to tweak your product whether it is Photoshop, an iPod, or a Harley-Davidson. Here’s a non-tech example: An open system school would enable parents to teach courses and provide a manual (SDK) for parents to understand how to do so.

  6. Welcome criticism. Most companies feel warm and fuzzy towards their communities as long as these communities toe the line by continuing to say nice things, buying their products, and never complaining. The minute that the community says anything negative, however, companies freak out and pull back their community efforts. This is a dumb-ass thing to do. A company cannot control its community. This is a long-term relationship, so the company shouldn’t file for divorce at the first sign of possible infidelity. Indeed, the more a company welcomes—even celebrates criticism—the stronger its bonds to its community.

  7. Foster discourse. The definition of “discourse” is a verbal exchange. The key word here is “exchange.” Any company that fosters community building should also participate in the exchange of ideas and opinions. At the basic level of community building, your website should provide a forum where customers can engage in discourse with one another as well as with the company’s employees. At the bleeding edge of community building, your CEO participates in community events too. This doesn’t mean that you let the community run your company, but you should listen to what they have to say.

  8. Publicize the existence of the community. If you’re going to all the trouble of catalyzing a community, don’t hide it under a bushel. Your community should be an integral part of your sales and marketing efforts. Check out, for instance, this part of the Harley-Davidson web site dedicated to the HOG (Harley Owners Group). If you search for “user group” (with quotes) at Apple’s site, you get 112 matches. (The same search at Microsoft’s site yields 16,925 matches—I’m still pondering what this means!)

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Comments

Just came across this, great article.

Have been involved in the development of a new local online community recently and a lot of this rings true for me.

So, if you build this great community with deep purpose, how do you get the critical mass there without spending much on advertising/marketing?

Thoughts?

The house that can save life one day in wake of twisters,floods, even fires dont try to macth the design or system documented for further developments a safty house concepted for extreme storm actions DURSTORM INVEST IN ME! a marvel and can be of interest your see a better house and affordable too! can be on the market one day concepted out of plastic rubber and your like the inside the ladys will kick you out your own house and take over this is for them as well a new type of house can do many things DURSTORM is just that the inventor lives in east chicago Indiana one day you wont look at them other homes saying that wont work the ladys wont to have fun and a house is it! real ladys will like this you cant hide nothing if she got the code thats right you got to have a code to even get into this house what if your lady own or rent this type of house you cant abuse her or him that code go to 911 when you close the door if you own it a house that can be of interest thiers more .

Thanks for great advise again!!

Great post. Quick comment. I just wanted to share that creating a website worth building a community around is only a small step. I created wellness related site (www.NYWellnessGuide.com) with forums, polls, blogs and other tools to build health community around. Up to this point I got wonderful feedback and comments, however without big investments, the site has been growing rather slowly. This is a personal project and I put a lot of time and effort, but the days when "build it and they will come" are long over.

Here, you can create your own community. It's easy and takes moments, plus me.com networks all these communities which makes browsing through the specialty niche easy as pie and it's full featured, best part free.

This is really true ?? if yes i can use this is metod thx u man!

I think it is really important to be open to what people don't like about what you are doing. too often groups fail because the founder isn't open to the end result being anything other than exactly what the founder wanted. you give people a framework and see what they do with it.

Thank you Guy. My sponsored group, Jaz Jets, is a new community, this information will be educational to the lead Jet.

Interesting post -- someone just emailed me the link. We've (myITforum.com) been doing these exact things (and more) since 2001. They definitely work, which is why we are so successful.

Guy,

but if
1) the product is an (great, multifaceted, concrete)idea to build an 'interest glocal community, like noone, as a product itself and
2) if the full time prospective community leaders are those who should build its tools, as a further or 'real' product?

Mind, no fucking MLM/NWM, money of pocket in advance.

I keep its title still hidden.
Then will study your 'ten ways' and your 'About me' very carefully.
As for your books, well afterwards I'll see what to do.

aellebi (Alberto L. Beretta),
province of Milan, Italy.
Skype: aellebi.

Thanks in advance.

Great comments! I've built a 250,000 people business network and it's amazing how similiar the prinicples are. Thanks for your thoughts, Casey combden

I’ve taken a quick look at your postings, which are very interesting. Lots of material and ideas! Congrats on being so focused!

The advice given in your blog is fantastic and very complimentary to my site, check it out http://racemotion.org

A very interesting site, I think. The Idea of Technometry was new for me but worth to be read and thought abot it (although I'm not a native english-speaker and have some difficulties whith this language)

Great article! It is on my favs!! How's this for a title, "Communities, It Takes a Village".

The trouble with building communities is that you really need the right people to build them. While the points raised are interesting ideals, the simple truth is that the wrong people leading such communities could have a very negative impact on any associated branding.

Anyone associated with forums and communities is probably familiar with places where admins are too strict and unfriendly, admins are too busy and fail to keep the forum organised, and there's also the problem of cliques forming which can additionally damage the new user experience.

You may find this list more useful:
http://www.platinax.co.uk/44-successful-forum/#tips

and a number of forum admins advise each other here:
http://www.theadminzone.com/forums/

IMO, any business serious about working with a developing community for presence online needs to do so and organise it from the start, with persons known and seen to have good experience managing online communities.

2c.

Hi,

great article...

my master thesis is just about


Improving online communities member motivation

proceeding with the concepts and plans on how to do the thesis I just created a little post about it here

http://www.marketingfan.com/a/communities/how-to-motivate-online-community-members.php

I still need to find a lot of participating webmasters/community owners to help me conducting the online research survey (anonymous) among their users...

so I would greatly appreciate it, if you help me with it and pass this on to fellow webmasters, community owners and other people that might know such...

Community owners could gain a lot of useful information and research about their specific user base... (before I conclude general insights in my master thesis I have to do single evaluations of the participating communities!)

Of course a mention somewhere in your blogs or sites ... that would help me out a lot as well...

Please let me know and best regards

Christoph

Your article is great and " The Importance of Online Communities" is my next chapter in my thesis. If anyone knows of any other great sources, please send them my way. Please check out my community at haydenfilms.com that I started and give feedback.

I like your books!!! Thank you for your blog!!!

Intresting.
Good insight. User value is the key. Like you say, if you do not have a great product forgett it. I am wondering is the community market saturated or are we in the begining?

Nai,

The honest answer is, "I don't know." Eventually, every topic I've covered in my books will be covered in this blog.

However, I do not simply copy and paste from my manuscripts into the blog. Also, things like the GBAT and Adam Lashinsky's interview are brand new.

If you think that reading this blog is a waste of time because you've read my books, then you will be disappointed if you're expecting all new material.

Guy

Guy,
as much as I love your books and appreciate the ability to discuss the topics here - are you basically going to re-publish them as blog entries here now?

This post helped inspire "Laura's Ideas: Two Steps for Change" for the potential evangelist and those who might suffer the knee jerk reaction to stop them.
Jeremiah Oywang posted a link to yours, which I followed.

Hi Guy. Thanks for the great topic. Forgive me for the length of this “comment,” but here goes. It's the story of how Apple did it right in creating community around Final Cut Pro.

I started a community almost 6 years ago surrounding Apple’s Final Cut Pro (FCP) non linear editing software. If I’ve learned one thing about creating a successful and flourishing community, it is that it needs an organic genesis. What’s an organic genesis you ask? Good question. It’s something that just happens. Take FCP for example. Apple creates a great product and prices it perfectly. Independent filmmakers take notice especially because of the price. A film editor in Los Angeles (Larry Jordan, in between jobs) hears about this new software and creates a web site (2-pop.com) to discuss it. On a whim, Larry then calls up a fellow on the FCP team and asks him if someone there might monitor the discussion forum and answer a few technical questions that are sure to come up.

Now - in what can only be called a watershed event in the history of Apple customer relations, Apple said “sure,” and gave that task to Ralph Fairweather who at that time worked on the FCP Quality Control team. As far as I know it was the first time Apple ever did that and the last time too. In hindsight it was a brilliant marketing move. Anyway, within one month everyone who had heard about FCP began clicking over to 2-pop.com because they heard someone from the FCP team was on the forum and answering questions and taking feedback. And within 2 months a community of FCP users and wannabe FCP users began meeting in this forum almost daily. We all felt a bit special because we were all pioneers at the beginning of this thing called the “Digital Revolution.” We not only solved each others problems but shared our successes. Leaders and experts began to emerge from this forum. Ralph didn't have to answer as many questions as before. Tutorials began to be posted almost weekly. And, as is often the case on discussion forums, many of us became friends.

Inevitably the subject of User Groups came up. It was time to get off the internet and meet each other face to face. San Francisco (SF Cutters) was the first to hold a meeting then other cities immediately followed.

Did Apple take notice? You bet they did. Did they identify the “thunderlizards” who began to emerge? Sure. Did they recruit these thunderlizards? No. And damn good thing they didn’t.

The Los Angeles Final Cut Pro User Group (lafcpug) began in June of 2000 in a small room in Burbank with about 40 people attending all of whom met on 2-pop.com. 2 fellows from the FCP team in LA showed up unannounced. Apple didn't send them. They just heard about the meeting and showed up. They gave us their card and said, call if you need us, and that was that. We were flattered they showed up but would rather they hadn’t. Kind of hard to “bitch and moan” in front of the folks who make the product, and our meetings often do just that. But they were great guys who agreed with all of our bitching and moaning and it was nice to have that face to face contact with a couple of folks from the product team. And also nice to know some of our bitching and moaning was human error on our part, not theirs. We learned a great deal that night and was grateful.

Did Apple ever ask us to create a FCP User Group in hopes of growing this community? No. If they did, we’d never have done it despite the flattering request. We simply happened. You just can’t ask a group of professionals who make their living off this stuff to, (in this particular case) “shill” for a multi billion dollar company. It’s one reason why lafcpug is not an official Apple UG nor are we evangelical, despite the product name in the title. We exist to help each other out and advocate for improvements of this product on behalf of all FCP users. That's pretty much it. However, because we do exist, Apple has benefited I think. We make people feel safe in their purchase of this sophisticated software. We offer a place to go to try and get your problems solved and above all, we offer human contact on a scale no large corporation can possibly do.

Gosh, I’d love to be able to start a company and create a great product, but to create community around that great product is something that seems, to me at least, be something that just happens. You can identify the “thunderlizards’ easily but pay heed to rule 6. Don’t get so close to those thunderlizards as to make them feel morally obligated to toe YOUR line. They’ll be gone in a heartbeat and take the community with them.

As far as lafcpug is concerned, (which now boasts a membership of over 4500 FCP users world wide and hosts monthly meetings that attract between 200 and 300 people and national “SuperMeets” that attract over 1000 people) Apple has been nothing short of perfect. They support us when we need the support and leave us alone the rest of the time. They NEVER ask anything of us and certainly never demand anything of us. They did list us on their web site so I guess they they paid attention to rule 8. Its been a sweet relationship so far and a lot of credit goes to the FCP Marketing team, who must of read Guy’s 8 rules for Creating Community.

Michael Horton
lafcpug

Guy, I like the idea that …your product has to be “customizable,” “extensible,” and “malleable.” We are looking to create a community experience using podcasting to "break up" and "enhance" our blues harmonica instruction by adding user feedback, student interviews, and "live" performance recordings along with downloadable pdfs at:
www.harmonicast.com

Great post. btw, I bought my first Mac thru Apple's Own-A-Mac program, remember that?

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