Launching a Membership Community (Without a Community Manager)
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
A lean community launch framework for entrepreneurs and young companies
So, you’ve decided you want to launch a membership community for your brand. But, you’re a small business, or even a solopreneur—and you don’t have the resources to hire a community manager to help it all go off without a hitch. You’re not alone. For lots of businesses, the moment when they know they want to start a community program comes before the moment when they’re ready to hire a community manager. In fact, that’s what happened with the community I run—my company started a community on Facebook years before they hired me, their first dedicated community manager, as a place to learn more about how our members were really using our product.
But, even if you’re not quite ready to hire a dedicated community manager, you shouldn’t start a community unless it’s something you plan to scale and invest in throughout the life of your business. That’s why I created this framework—so that even if you’re starting a community with few resources, you can set yourself up to be healthy from day one and scale effectively down the road.
This framework is intended to be used by small businesses without a dedicated community manager or entrepreneurs setting up a community for their personal brand, but it could also be used by an early-career community manager starting their first community from scratch.
Please note—this is not a conclusive guide to a community launch for scaled-up enterprises. View this guide not as an exhaustive list, but more of a list of things that you absolutely cannot skip, even if time and resources are limited. If you’re looking for something more comprehensive, I really love Brian Oblinger’s Community Launch Guide.
While this is intended to be the most stripped-down version of a community launch possible, I’ve still gone into some detail here on the five major categories: 1) setting goals 2) validating, 3) creating a content cadence, 4) choosing a platform, and 5) activating members. To make this easier to follow and implement, I’ve created a templatized guide you can duplicate and fill in as you read. I know that if you’re reading this, you’re short on time, so I packed this guide full of everything you need to make this process painless—email templates, exercises to help you define goals, and more. You can access that here:
First...are you sure you want to launch a community?
This bears asking. I wouldn’t be able to write this post without providing this word of caution. If you’re considering starting a community because you think it will make a good “bonus” to accompany a marketing campaign or because it’s something that seems popular among similar businesses, or for any other reason that’s tied to a short-term goal, I would encourage you to not start a community.
A community is a product in and of itself and if you start one, you should be prepared to tend to its growth and health for a long time. This framework can help you figure out the long-term goals of your community and have a better grasp on the work that will go into it in the long term.
Step one: set goals.
The best way to ensure your community launch stays focussed, manageable, and impactful is to make sure you have clear goals from the beginning of the planning process. These goals will help you understand what’s most important to focus on, and importantly, what you shouldn’t focus on.
Communities can accomplish a lot of different things, but it’s helpful to focus on one or two of the biggest-picture reasons you want to start a community. Whatever those goals may be, it should be clear how the goal manifests within the community and how the goal ties back to a larger goal of your business. Here are a few common goals of communities and how they connect back to business goals to help grease the wheels:
Don’t set goals for your community that are about patching holes in other parts of your business—I call these “stopgap” goals. These can get you in trouble down the road. For example, if you plan to at some point have a formal support process, don’t create a community to fill that need in the meantime.
Along this same line, it can also be helpful to set explicit goals for what this iteration of your community will not attempt to accomplish—even if those accomplishments would be valid. When you have limited resources, laying this out can help prevent an ever-broadening scope from derailing your project. For example, “a primary aim of my community is not to provide support,” “a primary aim of my community is not to get product feedback,” and so on.
(If you’re looking for more information on goal setting for communities, I talk a little bit about how I established goals for my community here, and outline a framework for measuring community success here.)
Step two: validate with user interviews.
Once you have set the goals for your proposed community, it’s important not to skip the step of validating the community you have in mind. You do not need a super fleshed out community strategy in order to do this step—this should go very early in the process.
One of the best ways to validate a community offering is to conduct user interviews with some of your prospective community members. Five to ten is a good number to start with. Try to choose members of your audience or customer base who are likely to bring diverse perspectives: i.e., some who are very engaged, some who are not; some who are very successful with your product, some who are not. Ask them questions about what they’d look for in a community, what would make them participate, what other communities they are a part of and more. Ask open-ended questions whenever you can to allow them space to share what they really think about your brand and how they’d like to engage with it.
Don’t be afraid to ask some leading questions that help you figure out if your thinking is on track. Before your calls, brainstorm a bunch of things you think you might like to offer as a part of your community, and prompt your interviewees to weigh in on them. Ask things like, “what if we provided [x piece of content, webinar series, partnership opportunity, etc]?” After each interview, make sure to take some notes while the interviewees fresh and your mind, and analyze all your interviews for themes at the end. (I included some suggested questions and space to customize them in the template that accompanies this post).
A brief note that most community launch frameworks include an extensive research and strategy portion. There are a lot of other ways to more comprehensively research before a community launch—but if you had to choose just one, I think user interviews are not to be missed.
Step three: set a content cadence that includes a “showstopper.”
One of the biggest mistakes I see first-time community builders make is expecting their community to be filled with organic, user-generated content the moment they start it. But, it’s important to remember that a community is, at its heart, a content channel—when you start a community, you should expect to maintain a content calendar.
The purpose of the content that you create as the admin for a community may vary slightly depending on your goals, but admin generated content tends to play the role of seeding and modeling organic user generated content, sharing any important logistical announcements, and providing exclusive value for community members that keeps them coming back.
At a minimum, you should be making posts geared toward starting conversations somewhere between once a week and once a day. Once a week might be a little sparse, but what’s most important is that you choose a cadence that’s realistic for your workflow and that you are consistent. Part of the utility of content that admins share is that community members can count on it—they know when they visit your community, there will be something there for them.
In addition to the engagement cadence you set for your community, it’s important to set a cadence for providing at least one content type that your community really wants (you should try to figure out what they want in your user interviews in the previous step)—I call this a “showstopper” and I believe every community launch should have one.
Your showstopper can be anything from a weekly Q&A with you, a monthly private workshop you coordinate for your community with experts, challenges, or a product ideation board—get creative. But, there should be at least one predictable, beyond-a-forum element that your members can rely on, as this will help you communicate the value of your community to your new members and give them a reason to keep coming back.
Step four: choose the right community platform.
Because I work with a lot of independent entrepreneurs, I hear a lot of conversations comparing softwares. Another community manager I connected with recently joked that “What’s better, MailChimp or ConvertKit?” is the most commonly asked question in any community even slightly related to entrepreneurship. The truth is, searching for the objectively “best” softwares for any purpose is always misguided, and community is no exception. When evaluating community platforms, make sure to start by creating a list of your must-have features, your nice-to-haves, and your price restrictions. (Note many community platforms run on price-per-seat structures—look out for this if you plan to scale). When thinking about your must-have features, it might be most important to try to get a clear picture of what your community space will look and feel like, how conversations will be organized, and how community members will access the space. From there, identify about three comparable community platforms and compare them based on the criteria you’ve set forth. To get a sense of the landscape of community platforms, check out this wonderful resource compiled by the team at Commsor that maps the ecosystem of community tools. They do a great job of breaking down the ecosystem, so it should be easy to tell which platforms are comparable to one another once you have a general sense of what you’re looking for. I use a platform called Circle.
By the way—if you’ve been reading this assuming you’d just host your community on Facebook groups, it might be helpful to take a pause to read a bit more about the pros and cons of hosting a community using Facebook.
Step five: activate members.
Alright, we made it to the last step—you’ve already chosen and set up your platform, you know you’ll be delivering on a content cadence your community members actually want, and you have your macro goals identified that you can lean on as you experiment and grow. Now, it’s time for the fun part: activating your members. Note, this part is not about digital marketing. This post assumes you have an audience for your product or brand already that you are launching your community to, and that you are able to announce your new community and how to access it via your usual marketing channels (email, social media, or any other way you typically reach your audience). This is about how you'll activate your members in your community once you announce it. Depending on the size of your community, a simple and effective method for activating members is to approach your members in small batches. Bring them into the community in small groups (10-20 at a time), and focus all of your energy on just those members until you feel they are participating in the community autonomously. This means really getting to know who they are, why they’re in the community, and what interests them—this will enable you to tag them into conversations that are relevant to them, email them one on one to ask them to contribute to the community, and ask them for feedback. Once you feel you’ve activated one cohort, it’s time to invite in your next round. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This process can be time-consuming at first, but I love it for small teams and independent entrepreneurs because it’s so simple, and it’s one of those manual processes that really yields dividends going forward in how much you get to know your community members on a personal level. It provides a rock-solid foundation, and it gets easier over time as your members start to take over some of the work of setting norms in your community and welcoming new members into the fold.
If you haven’t already, make sure to grab the templatized guide you can duplicate and fill in—that should help you implement this framework more easily.
I know as an entrepreneur or small business you’re short on time, so I added a ton of stuff to this guide for you to make this as seamless as possible, including email templates to send your members, goal-setting exercises, user interview questions, and more. I’ve even included my favorite engagement strategy for communities just starting out as a bonus:
If you need more personalized help, I'd love to work with you. You can explore working together here.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you found this helpful! If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below, or make sure to join my email list to stay in contact.