How do you build a community around your brand? If you work for a charity or non-profit, how do you grow an engaged community that believes in your cause?

If your focus is internal, how can you have a work-based community that helps members to do their jobs?

A passionate, thriving, engaged community is a great way to spread the word, share experiences and build enthusiasm around your purpose or brand. But few organisations do it well.

Testing and prototyping

This week I learned many things at the Community Managers Unconference (run by James Cattell). An unconference is a conference with no pre-set programme or speakers. Instead, attendees build the agenda collaboratively on the day.

The event in itself was interesting. Because James is keen to build a community of practice for community managers. So everything we test and prototype here can effectively be re-used by everyone attending for growing and nurturing their own communities.

We met at Newspeak House. Food and drink was paid for by Common Room. And we collaborated using Miro. It was a hybrid event: around half the group came in person and others joined via Microsoft Teams.

We used a Meeting Owl to capture individual camera streams of people in the room. This made things more immersive for the virtual joiners.

How to build a community - the Meeting Owl captures individual camera streams
The Meeting Owl (on the table – centre) captures individual camera streams of everyone in the room
How to build a community - writing on the whiteboard
A participant adds topic suggestions to the whiteboard

We kicked off with everyone in the room thinking about the topics we wanted to discuss and writing them on a whiteboard. Virtual joiners added notes into Miro. James copied everything from the whiteboard into Miro.

This is the Miro board.

After this, we voted on which topics we wanted to cover. And then we agreed which one we wanted to start with. So, the final agenda for the day looked like this:

  1. What is a community?
  2. How do you measure success?
  3. How do you keep people engaged?
  4. Model, culture, rituals and burnout

Here are my notes from each session:

1: What is a community?

  • Do you see your group of people firstly as a community (ie: having a location or particular characteristic in common) or a network (ie: an interconnected system)?
  • Is your community for profit (eg: Spotify) or non-profit (eg: Digital Charities? Each has very different goals.

What is the role of a community manager?

  • A mix between facilitator, cheerleader and moderator.
  • The first responsibility of a community manager is to make people feel safe.
  • It’s important for a community manager to understand emotions – eg when people are grieving.
  • A good community manager knows how to get others involved. Ideally you’re not particularly visible: you do a lot of work behind the scenes, in the wings – pulling strings – almost invisible.
  • You’re like a spider in a web – everyone knows you’re there. You’re trying to build an infrastructure for your base. You want to maximise peer to peer engagement.

How do you get others involved?

  • Plan activities that keep the community going: eg events, volunteer opportunities
  • Rewards (eg: badges, handwritten thank you cards)
  • Appoint community leaders/ builders (either nominate or ask others to step forward – nominating often works better)!
  • Give community leaders/ builders the opportunity to expand their professional network, see behind the scenes, get VIP invites to regular receptions/ events

Different perspectives and background reading

  • Meg Pickard came up with the model of “People, Programme, Platform” when she was community management lead at GDS. It’s important to find the right balance of these three things.
  • In the US, you don’t have the same sense of collectivism and trust in central government as you do in the UK. You have trust in local communities. And a more DIY approach. There’s a lot of focus on careers and career development. So it might be easier to convert lurkers into leaders.
  • It’s important to lose the formalities and reignite curiousity. It’s amazing how much of Silicon Valley is built on community – and how important these community networks are. People appreciate that successes come from relationships. A lot of stuff starts with people just playing.
  • Get Together is a good book on how to build a community. It’s focused on how to create a unique culture with chapters covering things like rituals, rewards and branding.
  • Rosie Sherry has created a useful concept called Minimum Viable Community.


How to build a community - participants discussing a topic
Three participants discussing a topic
How to build a community - participants joining virtually via Microsoft Teams
Participants joining virtually via Microsoft Teams


2: How do you measure success?

  • The really valuable stuff is hard to measure. How do you measure things like collaboration, sentiment or emotions – eg: “this has changed my life!” experiences?
  • Picking out quotes and stories can help.
  • Easy to measure: Number of people, number of new subscribers, etcetera. Surface level quantitative stuff. Often known as vanity metrics.
  • Feedback forms can be an issue – people rush them off at the end of sessions
  • Don’t be scared to change key metrics if they’re not working for you.
  • Out of the box metrics (that come with software) are seldom enough.
  • Make a long list of every metric you want, then shorten it.
  • Balance metrics between what your stakeholders care about versus what participants care about/ want.
  • If vanity metrics are important to stakeholders – eg: will get you more funding – then give them vanity metrics!
  • Reduction in internal email is a good metric for success (or not) of an internal work-based community.
  • Business school model of 3 “killer” metrics to create a community (you need at least one to succeed):
    • Application – for example, can be your purpose
    • Community – people you meet exclusively here
    • Content – you can’t get it anywhere else
  • Examples of things to measure from the group:
    • What’s been trending
    • Stars for your piece of software on GitHub
    • Community questions answered correctly

3: How do you keep people engaged?

  • One way to get people to engage more is to ask them to like an update/ share an update/ make a comment – or be completely removed from the community/ mailing list.
  • Short forms are a good way to find out what people are thinking. Eg: a Google Form with 2 or 3 questions plus optional box you can add more comments if you wish. Don’t overuse!
  • Commercial and nonprofits have different conversion goals.
  • There’s always assumption you’ve got to move community members up the “engagement funnel” – but why? They might be perfectly happy with their level of interaction. The community might still be valuable to them.
  • We can’t control the narrative. A community can mean different things to different people.
  • If you pressurise people to get involved, then what?
  • “Lurker” is a negative phrase. Members is a better term. Or less active/ passive members.
  • Each member is using up resources – passive or not. If not directly financial, they’ll have an impact on the carbon footprint/ sustainability.
  • Some bad actors can be difficult to control. Eg: senior managers watching what everyone else is doing without contributing (in a workplace community).

Best practice

  • Know where your boundaries are. Eg: if something falls below accessibility and inclusion standards, you may have to draw the line and call people out (ideally privately).
  • Always turn a criticism into something positive. Eg: if someone is complaining events are always on a Wednesday, respond “OK, what day do you want? We’ll do our best to make it that day next time”.
  • Ideally, the community manager’s hours will go down in time as the community grows and becomes more self-sustaining.
  • How do you measure or foster belonging? We talk about growing and being inclusive and diverse but to what extent is that a problem if you’re getting stuff done? The question of depth versus breadth is interesting. Example given of a Mennonite community in the US: they had communal memories, rituals etc that united them and excluded others. But the community was very useful to its members.
  • If you go deeper you’re going to lose people – and that’s ok.
  • Remember that your top contributor may share 150 posts a month but the mode (most common) may be 1 post per month.
  • Fundamental role of the community manager at the very start of building a community is to demonstrate best practice/ good behaviour – eg: cross-pollination
  • Observe value of online versus offline relationships (different aspects to both). Eg: Utterly Content online conference has a great therapy/ coaching stream. Those sessions may not work so well in real life as access couldn’t be made in private.

What does the life cycle of a community look like?

  • Building Successful Communities of Practice – contains good graphic showing life cycle of a community.
  • The Cold Start Problem – shows life cycle containing a period of velocity where the community reaches a tipping point; after this it continues to grow exponentially as “the calling” – or falls into “the moat”.
How to build a community - using the Miro board collaboratively
Using the Miro board collaboratively
How to build a community - a section of the final Miro board
A section of the final Miro board (camera zoomed out)

4: Model, culture, rituals and burnout

This session wrapped together all the remaining topics we’d voted to discuss, using the lean coffee format. We had seven minutes to talk about each topic.

Online, offline or hybrid?

  • What form should your community take? A hybrid model is great if you can get the tools right.
  • Mentimetre – a democratic tool for asking questions.
  • Utterly Content – make good use of coaching online.

Dealing with burnout

  • An issue for both community managers AND members.
  • Good idea to have a “wellbeing” stream (like Utterly Content).
  • The community manager should always be thinking about a succession plan. So ask yourself, who can take over from you?
  • Communities have ebbs and flows. Sometimes you need to let a community go and that’s ok.
  • Adopt the open space philosophy: the people who are meant to be there are meant to be there (and when it’s over, it’s over).
  • You never know, it might pop up again in the future.

How you make it about more than just the meetings?

  • People feel more empowered if they can co-create.
  • Try to have collective experiences together – play is really important in any context
  • Get curious together, having fun, explore – experience something meaningful as a group.

What is the role of ritual in a community?

  • Rituals are important for emotional catharsis (examples of rituals for communities: unsung hero of the week or graduation ceremonies).
  • When does a ritual become outdated? There are cadences and changes in all communities. The trick is listening and staying aware of others’ needs. This means you’ll know when it’s the right time to stop.
  • Check-ins are a nice, easy ritual to have: allow everyone to contribute how they’re feeling.

How do you create culture in a community?

  • Give rewards for top contributors – eg: badges, stickers.
  • Hand out T-shirts/ hoodies – as long as they use recycled material and are nicely made.
  • Set up randomised coffees – a great way to pair people up and encourage collaboration.

Final thoughts

This blog is a tidied up transcript of my notes from the day. If you want more detail, please check out the Miro board which was worked on collaboratively so contains a lot more information.

What did I learn about how to build a community? To be honest, my most important lesson was the one about letting go. As community managers, we care about and nurture the communities we’re responsible for. We invest a lot of time and emotional energy. This means it can be hard to take a step back and know when it’s time to shut things down. As they say in the startup world, always have an exit strategy!

Big thanks to James Cattell and everyone else who took part in the day.

Rockin around the virtual water-cooler