Strategies and tactics to form critical relationships with your early members, plus, a practical template to help you implement.
As I’ve been working through the early days of my community membership program for community entrepreneurs, The Community Center, I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences and intricacies of communities at different sizes. That prompted me to create my last post, which focussed on taking a macro-look at how community engagement strategies differ based on scale. Today on the blog, I want to take a closer look at one extreme end of the spectrum of scale: the first ten community members.
Your first ten community members are incredibly important people: they’re early adopters who believed in your vision and took a chance on a brand new community, and they’re the ones who are likely to determine the direction and culture of your community going forward. In today’s post, we’ll focus on strategic and tactical approaches to activating them. Plus, if you stick around, you can download a brand new template to help you put some of these strategies into action.
Doing things that don't scale—sort of
Like I mentioned in the intro, recently on the blog, I wrote about how which engagement strategies work best can vary based on the size of the community. One of the things that came up quite a bit, not only in my own experience, but in speaking with other experts on this topic, is the need, in large communities, to focus on engagement strategies that are scalable. And while this is largely true, your very early members may be a place to break from form—somewhat.
“Do things that don’t scale” is nowhere near an original statement nor is it unique to communities. It’s actually probably over-repeated in the community world, so I want to be clear—we should still be wary of putting our effort into things that have no clear return, and shouldn’t use this phrase as a justification to do work that's less rigorous.
(A quick soapbox: I think community pros who over-rely on largely unmeasurable factors like “connection” as justification for their strategies, without ultimately linking those factors back to business impact, do more harm to the community industry than good).
However, I do think we should understand that in a community context especially, what it means for a strategy to “scale” is a bit more nuanced.
A broader interpretation of what it means for something to “scale” tells us that the strategy has to be possible to apply to a wide swath of people or situations, that it has to be possible to at least batch or ideally automate. In other words, for something to scale it has to be able to withstand growth without becoming less effective or so costly that it is no longer justified. So, a broader example of a scalable strategy might be not just emailing one-on-one to provide support, but using knowledge bases or AI chatbots to answer common questions.
In a community context, though, we get an advantage, which is that we get to see the people themselves as a possible vector for scale. So, we get to think about not just whether the strategy itself is possible to apply to wide swaths of people, but we get to think about whether the strategy has potential to create a person inside the community who “scales” the strategy to others.
You should see your first ten members as a vector for scale themselves.
All this to say: you should see your first ten communities as a vector for scale themselves. In other words, your objective with early members is to make them so engaged and so autonomous in their usage of your community that their presence in the community might have a big impact on activating others. For example, highly-engaged members might take on valuable tasks in your community, whether formally or otherwise, such as creating engagement content and prompts, leading live group events, welcoming new members, and more.
Because these activities can be so valuable in allowing your community to meaningfully grow, they often warrant the effort to do not-very-scalable things you might otherwise avoid—as long as you pay attention to how those early investments “scale along the vector of people.” For example:
Having 1:1 or small-group live onboarding sessions (rather than more automated, scalable sequences) with new members where you show them how to use the community and help answer some of their questions, ultimately delegating “hard to scale” aspects of onboarding like responding to new member intros
DMing or emailing members directly to suggest how they can contribute to your community and when—sometimes in a very early community, in the absence of lots of examples in the feed they can go off of, early members appreciate this scaffolding. Check out the flywheel method in this post on engagement techniques for some support with this strategy!
Going above-and-beyond for your members' requests, even if it’s "over-serving." While your community is still small, you have the opportunity to “wow” early members by giving them a higher level of service than you might otherwise—for example, instead of just responding to their questions for help, creating custom resources for them. While this won’t last forever, it’ll help build loyalty and evangelism for your community. The strong good will of your early members can be incredibly important to build on as you grow.
De-centering the forum
When we think of “communities” online we’re often thinking of text-based environments where members can start and respond to conversations with one another—in other words, forums. Community professionals have been very protective about “definitions” of communities, and for a few good reasons—namely, they’re protecting against the dilution of the profession by brands engaging in “community-washing” (i.e., using the term community for to “re-brand” traditional broadcast marketing strategies, like email lists, without actually launching any meaningful peer-to-peer experiences). However, this protectiveness over terminology can have its downsides, as it can lead to an industry where we’re more focussed on reproducing what we think is a “real” community than creating something that’s an appropriate strategy for our scenario.
In very small communities, it can sometimes be appropriate to eschew even aspects that may feel core to building a community at all—like the forum—in favor of creating opportunities for peer-to-peer connection that are authentic to the size of the group. In most cases, a community as small as ten people is going to be difficult to maintain what feels like a lively discussion in a forum environment. You may feel awkward and inauthentic trying to create a “big community feel” with a small group of people, and you might feel your community is "failing" simply because you launched a forum too early.
You might feel your community is failing simply because you launched a forum too early.
One option is to either de-center the forum experience or not introduce it at all until you reach a larger, critical mass of people (or your members actively ask for a forum). With your first ten, you can instead focus on formats that are more authentic to the group size and give you the opportunity to build deeper connections. With my clients whose communities are in this phase, centering their community experience around live events and calls is a popular strategy for both builders and members. That can look like something pretty formalized—like visiting expert workshops you curate for your members—or something pretty casual—like recurring “office hours” where you co-work together with your members or answer questions. In this way, you can take “engagement for engagement’s sake” off the table a bit and focus more on activating your early members through meaningful, authentic engagements.
Using the "stoplight method" (template included)
Even when I’ve run huge communities with tens of thousands of people in them, I’ve always felt there can be some value in focussing on small groups of people in my community management strategy. One strategy I’ve used frequently in large community settings that also works well with communities at inception is something I call the “stoplight” method. This is essentially a method for tracking the engagement of a small group of people and choosing catered approaches to engage them based on the behaviors they’re exhibiting.
Here’s how it works:
If I were running a big community, I would pick ~30 members somewhat at random to focus on for the period of a month or a quarter (on top of the rest of my community engagement strategy). For our purposes in this blog, we’d use our first ten community members for this.
I would then assess the group’s engagement level, giving each selected member a color code: red, yellow, or green. I’d give a label of green to someone who I think is autonomously engaged—i.e., doesn’t need much prompting or reminding to engage actively. I’d give a label of red to someone who is not engaged—i.e., I don’t hear from them at all, getting them engaged would be a 0-1 strategy. I’d give a label of yellow to someone in the middle—i.e., they engage, but only when prompted or reminded. If you have a data source that can help you make these buckets a bit more concrete, that’s great—but, gut checks are also fine for this purpose.
Then, I’d go about trying to escalate the engagement level of each person on my list (with the exception of those with a green label) by using strategies targeted at that specific group. Generally, those strategies either center around rewarding, escalating, or inciting engagement for my green, yellow, and red groups respectively.
Then, at the end of whatever time period I'm looking at (month, quarter, duration of a beta test), I'd re-assess what "bucket" the person's engagement fell into. For any strategies I used that were effective in escalating an engagement ranking, I'd look for ways to automate that effort or otherwise programmatize it into my community experience as a whole.
This strategy is sort of like a more structured version of the engagement ladder concept—it’s all about using engagement strategies that recognize and cater to where the member actually is rather than using broad-brush engagement strategies on everyone.
If you’d like to use the stoplight method—whether you’re using it as a strategy for your first ten members or on a small group in a large community—I’ve put together a template you can use to structure your work that includes some suggested engagement strategies for each segment. You can download that, and any other templates in my template library (when you get one thing on my blog, you get them all), using the button below:
Beta testing, even if you're not beta testing
As you’ve been reading this post, you may have been wondering: who counts as my first ten community members? Are we talking about my beta testers here, or are we talking about the first ten people who buy my community membership at full price after general admission? The answer here is that when your community is at this size, you’re still beta testing in every practical sense, even if you’re not calling it that.
In practice, this means that when you’re working with early members, you should be ready to pivot to deliver what they want, even if it doesn’t match up with the plans you originally made. This testing mindset and responsiveness is a great tool in your toolkit for any stage of your community-building journey, but it’s especially important here. Unless there's a reason to think that your first ten community members are not a great representation of who you're ultimately looking to attract to your membership, you should see them as an extremely credible source for co-designing a community that will be valuable as it grows.
For example, even though I did run an extensive beta testing round for my community membership program, The Community Center, I ended up making three semi-major changes after launching based on the feedback I got from early members:
On the practical side, I changed the time of my recurring group coaching calls based on the suggestions and availability of early members
I started theming group coaching calls based on what was coming up for members in the group, rather than keeping them entirely open-ended
I changed the pricing scheme I launched with to make it easier to understand and to make sure everyone in the community was getting the most value possible
Those are three pretty big changes, and they won’t even be the lasts ones I make based on the counsel of my early members—at the end of the day, I see my early members as my core and most important advisors, and as the people I’m most invested in helping.
Community Center members, if you’re reading this, huge shout-out to you!
For everyone else, I hope this article has supported your thinking about activating your first ten members. If this article brought up questions, please feel welcome to leave them as comments or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org—I love hearing from readers and I’m always keen to update my blog posts to make them more beneficial to you.
Want to take any of this a step further?
I hope this post has been helpful for you and given you a strong start to thinking through your early member activation. That said, I understand that this can be complicated stuff, and sometimes you need a hand to help put it all into practice. The reality is that no matter how comprehensive a post I try to make, there will still be lingering questions that apply to specific projects. I work with clients every day as a strategic coach for online community projects, and community engagement is one of the most common topics my clients want to discuss. If you would like to work together 1:1, you can learn more about how I work and get in touch here. If you're reading this at the time of publishing in January 2024, I have a new client special running that will get you a discount on your first session.
For folks who want to deepen their community work but don't have the budget to work with me 1:1, I also offer an online program called the On-Demand Coaching Core Bundle—it distills the most common topics I work with my 1:1 clients on into a self-paced format with videos, my most in-depth templates (seriously—there are five of these templates and most of them are 5-10 pages long), coaching scenarios. Plus, when you purchase the bundle you get access to a quarter free in my client community with bi-weekly group coaching. All of that comes for a one-time purchase of $500 USD, less than the cost of 2 1:1 coaching sessions with me. You can learn more about that here or enroll now below:
I hope I'll see you in the community center—thanks again for reading!