4 Tips for Building Better Community

The day before my talk at the Erickson Barnett on building community I sat down to put together some speaking notes.  When I got up, I noticed that I had written around 5 or 6 pages and it all centered around 4 points.  Well tonight I wanted to sit down and polish the thoughts into something that I could share with all of you.

First off, while I have experienced and lived these four tips for many many years, there are three gentlemen which have done an amazing job at helping me to articulate them, Gary Vayernchuk, Saul Colt, and most of all my dad. So… these thoughts are by no means original but pieces that I have pulled down from my experiences of hanging out with people who are a lot smarter than myself.

So the four tips are…

  • Step away from your computer
  • Find someone who LOVES your product and company to lead your community
  • Find your community and get to know them personally
  • Make love to your users

Tip 1: Step away from your computer

Seems like whenever you talk to someone about community, the first thing that they do is bring up some social media tool… blogs, twitter, or social networks.  Well let me get it out here in the open.  Building community isn’t a tool.  It’s not a campaign.  It’s not a piece of technology

If you want to build community, the best thing I could tell you is to step away from your computer and take a breath.

Community starts with it being a value within your organization.  It’s gotta be a value that you’re going to love your users.

Back when cell phones were the new thing, a friend of ours from church Bill worked at the Verizon Wireless store.  Prior to meeting Bill, my thoughts on going to the cell phone store had been on par with going to a used car dealership.  Well,  Bill changed that.  He took care of us.  He loved us so much that when we went to Verizon one day and found out that he had left for AT&T across the street, we walked out and switched to AT&T.  We haven’t looked back since.

Now he’s the manager of the store at AT&T.  You can really get a sense of how service and loving your customers… loving your community is something that has radiated down from the top throughout his entire staff.  Now you can’t go in there with out seeing tons of customers.  I wonder why… Bill and his staff love their customers!

Tip 2: Find someone who LOVES your product and company to lead your community

If you want a community, you’re going to need someone to lead it.  You’ll need a person that’s going to help tie it all together.  In a smaller company, this may be the CEO or one of the founders.  As you grow, it’s good to hire someone for this.  Hire a Community Manager.

This is a tough job but you need them.  They’re going to be out there talking with the world.  They’re not necessarily selling  but they’re making friends and raising the overall presence and awareness of the company. They’re helping to resolve problems and answer questions.  They’re also their to help solicit and analyze feedback.  They have the finger on the tap of what folks are thinking, feeling, and saying.

If you’re going to find someone who can do this, you need to find someone who’s going to love your community and your company.  Probably some of the best advice I’ve heard around this is that you should hire your most passionate user.

The fact that I was passionate about Clearspring and the problem that they were solving helped me get my job.  And now that I have the job, being passionate about our mission and users, is what keeps me going when the Red Bull wears off.

Prior to Clearspring, I worked at the Library of Congress and was assigned to develop a widget strategy.  I saw all these potential problems and places we’d run into issues.  Then a co-worker showed me Clearspring.  I was blown away to the extent Clearspring had a solution which solved all of the problems I’d be battling with.  I was so impressed that I became quite the passionate user of Clearspring.  I told my friends.  Well this got noticed by folks at Clearspring and the rest is history.

Tip 3: Find your community and get to know them personally

So… now that community is a core value of your organization and you have someone who’s the face of your company and leading the charge of the movement your creating, you need to go out, find, and personally meet your community.

Now, this can take many forms.  It can be online but it can also be in person.

Probably, the easiest and cheapest thing you can do is go to something like a Twitter Search or a Google Blog Search, put in the keywords for your company or product, and see who’s talking about you.  Go to something like Alltop and figure who’s writing about the issues that pertain to your industry.

Before you put your fingers to the keys and start responding to what folks are saying, just listen.   Figure out who’s who.  What are their backgrounds?  What are their motivations?  Who are their friends?

Once you feel like you have a handle on the situation, start responding.  It doesn’t have to be anything special.  Just respond to things like if you were talking to the person over coffee.  Be yourself.

In addition to online interactions with your community, I think some of the even better interactions that you can have our offline, in person.  My guys (and girl 😉 ) at FreshBooks are the best at this.  When they travel to different cities, they dip into the registration database and figure out who’s there.   They then email those folks and ask them to dinner, which they pay for.  The dinner isn’t to pitch them on something.  It’s not to tell folks about new features.  It’s just to tell their customers thank and to meet their customers face to face.  It’s about forming a relationship.

I’ve forged so many amazing relationships with customers and folks in industry over drinks, coffee, or lunch that I’d never be able to do over e-mail, IM, or the phone.  If your company doesn’t travel much, I’d recommend taking a chunk out of your marketing budget and start pumping the pavement.  It’ll be the best investment.

Tip 4: Make love to your users

Recently in NYC, I heard my buddy Saul from FreshBooks give a talk about how you have to make love to your users.  What he means is that you have to show them that you love them.  You have to show your users that you want to be in a relationship with them where together you work to build the best product or experience possible.

A few weeks ago I heard my buddy Gary Vaynerchuk speak and he told about an experience which I think matches this perfectly.  Gary runs a wine store in New Jersey.  Once on the day before Thanksgiving, a customer rang him up and told him about how she hadn’t received her wine and if she didn’t have it her Thanksgiving would be ruined.  So, what did he do?  He drove it out to her.  Did he have to do that? No but he did it.  That’s loving your customers.

When you give and give to your users… as Kathy Sierra would say, when you help your users kick ass, thats when they become passionate about using your product.

The key is that most people forget is that you first have to give, give, and give some more if you want to be able to get something back from your users.

I think about all the times that I’ve gotten an e-mail from someone and you can hear the panic in the e-mail.  Something’s not working the way it’s supposed to and they’re supposed  to launch their widget tomorrow.  This is an amazing opportunity to really show love to your users.


So, you have to make community a value within your company.  Then you have to identify a passionate user who’s going to be the face of your company.  You have to meet your community and then love them like they’re guests in your house or even your own family.

What experiences have you had with companies that have acted this way?  Please share.

9 thoughts on “4 Tips for Building Better Community”

  1. This is an amzing post. You just got a new subscriber.

    Three things I loved:
    1. Customer service — Tat story about following Bill from Verizon to AT&T sounds like a story my dad would tell. Good customer service is THE most important thing for a company, because it’s the face of the company and the interaction with the customer. No matter how finely tuned things are behind the curtains, if that lady at the front desk isn’t smiling and making a connection with the customer– it’s over.

    2. Higher your most passionate user. — This is amazing advice, I love it. I’ve never heard it put quite this way before and I’m defintely taking this phrase with me. Having a passion for what you are doing is invaluable.

    3. Listen — With all the communication tools out there today, it’s true, we are so quick to hit “@whoever” and respond to the discussion. This is a great reminder NOT to do that. You learn SO much more when you are listening that when you are talking.

    Also. I love hearing stories about Gary V like that, I’ve heard a few and my respect continues to grow for him. What a cool guy. Great stuff Justin!

  2. Justin, great advice, especially the part about community not being technology.

    It’s so easy to get caught up in all the bright and shiny tools and forget about what the community brings to its members.

    Focusing on truly trying to help or facilitate the needs of the community, as you point out, is really the secret to creating a successful community.

  3. Great post Justin – I would add you have to use your product, pay attention to email, know communities don’t just happen over night and geniuses are never appreciated at home.

    Part of good customer support is looking at your company/site as if you were a user. And I don’t just mean going through the motions during an initial testing phase.. actually use your product without thinking.. what are the expectations with each click. This will help when you get an email from a visitor or member that makes little sense. You’ll be able to decode what they are asking for as quickly as possible. It’s the fastest way to keep them a member/customer.

    I would also add… answer emails to customers/members immediately. The likelihood that they are still at their computer is high if they just sent an email. Plus, they are usually thrilled that someone “anybody” got back to them at all so you’re already doing great.

    Probably the most important lesson is patience. Rome wasn’t built overnight and neither will your community/company. But if you knew that you probably wouldn’t have tried. 🙂

    And my personal favorite.. don’t expect your closest friends to be your number one supporters or be out there preaching your gospel. It’s most likely not going to happen. Your first handful of members will take your company a lot further and give your more credibility than someone closest to you. Treat them as if they were your family and they will not let you down.

  4. Another great post. It’s posts like these that keep me(and everyone else I’m sure) coming back for more. Don’t change what you’re doin!

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