Community building…for beginners
Community building is one of the buzz words flying around – too sexy to understand, too important to ignore. As lots of things in life, things seem too complicated when unknown but not to so hard to grasp after all when you dive into a little bit into the topic.
And as strange as it seems I ended up building a career in community building without even working purposefully on it. Now, covering a friend, I had to host a workshop on Community Building for Synergy Bulgaria’s Changemakers’ Academy (educational & leadership program for future female entrepreneurs). I took time to look back in my past experience, connecting the dots that led to my passion about community building. I had some surprising findings and learnings and because I believe community building will be one of the next big things for any entrepreneur (or builder of anything to be quite frank), not only marketer, I would like to share them with you.
But let’s start from the beginning.
The job of the co-founder slash CMO – the ESCREO way
I cofounded and took the role of CMO at ESCREO in 2015 without prior experience in marketing (and no knowledge in community building whatsover). My responsibilities were to build the brand, craft and execute the mareketing strategy. But at the end of the day the main job was sales and business development. I was just using marketing tools to achieve it. Some of the activities included:
Building relanships with
It’s not something so uncommon with startup products – you have a version of the product that’s ready to be sold – not a MVP, but not a perfect one either. We were selling while continuously working and improving the product. Our customers were not only users of the product they were co-producers. We were asking questions and receiving feedback from them. After using our product out clients were happy to leave (happy) testimonials which we posted in our social media channels, on the website and shared in all communication channels. These positive reviews got us a “stamp of approval” from experts in the field and helped us get new customers growing organically and with very little marketing budget in the first months.
One of the first things I did as a marketer (and all cofounders) was to dig deep into my network and find relevant stakeholders who might be potential customers, partners, employees, etc. We were approaching close and not so close people within our networks in Bulgaria and abroad. We asked for feedback, like or share. Or just saying hi and sending presentation of the product along the way (My job title was “Outreach fan”). We were kind of preparing everyone in our reach for the products and milestones to come and then in time our network became customers, mentors, strategic partners, investors, teammates. All for free.
We were just starting to learn more about the role of mentors (after our Summer Entrepreneurship Program in the USA) when we joined the accelerator program of Eleven. It became obvious quite quickly that mentors were a deep well of knowledge waiting for us to make the most out of it. We met experts in all kinds of business spheres. Some of our biggest customers came by mentors introductions. Mentors helped us build the value proposition, construct the go-to-market strategy, establish the sales strategy, refine our pitch deck, etc. It was like we were 10+ people in the team instead of 3.
Being a startup has lots of advantages and one of them is that you can open some doors easier. For example, journalists are much more inclined to talk to you if you are providing them with the story of young and a bit crazy entrepreneur, willing to build a business in Bulgaria, producing a product in Bulgaria. We were getting lots of PR and visibility for free by positionining ourselves as experts in our field and in entrepeneurship, updating regularly and working closely with media and journalists. Don’t forget “there are always two sides of the coin” – it’s important not to overabuse with the fact that you are a startup.
[Connections with media ultimately led to some inspiring videos like “From 0 to Hero”; Participating in startup competitions is another great way to get some exposure, even though at some point such events beceme pretty useless and waste of time.]
Partners were so crucial for us – they resold our products, they recommened us, together we co-organized events to educate our audience on the “Future of work”, we wrote articles and use cases in our blog about how they use our products in their projects, etc. They were a resource just as the mentors who helped us expand to new markets and unlocked doors as if they had magical keys.
Last but not least, some of the most important relashionship you will ever build as a entrepreneur is the one with your colleagues. No words can be enough to stress on the importance of the team in these first few years – people can make or break the business. All new comers become integral part of the core team, they become the ambassadors of the brand, they encompass the product itself. Most of the projects got through the hands of the whole team and most of the promotion happened with the means of their own personal and professional network. We now have an ESCRazy FB group with all people who were part of our family at any given time, trying to help eachother and stay in touch…
Participating in events
Every month we took part in some kind of event – events in architecture/inetrior design or entrepeneural events. We traveled around Bulgaria with a truck full of samples and walls painted by ESCREO paint. We talked and talked and talked with people until our tongues got sore but we collected so many business cards, we could not process. It was useful to talk in person with people (little did we know what was awaiting around the corner), shaking hands and building relationships one event at a time. Because results came after we met someobody for the third time.
Was I doing community building executing each and everyone of the activities mentioned above? Without a doubt. But I did not know it back then.
What’s community building?
You can find multiple definitions in the context of startups and here’s one I like.
Community, at its most basic, is a group of people who’ve come together with a shared purpose. That shared purpose could be your product, it could be a company, it could be a topic, it could be whatever, but they’re all there intentionally around that thing to gather and talk and learn. [resource: Techcrunch]
In my opinion, community equals all the stakeholders around your startup. And community building is all about building relationships with them.
Why build a community?
By building community you do customer development. By staying close to your customers you learn more about their needs and pains. By collaborating with them you develop and co-create your current and future products. Imagine having an immense pool of design talent working on your next model of shoes. And then, it helps you grow and expand the business by reaching new audiences efficiently without paying Google or Facebook tons of money.
- Marketing – you not only promote your brand, but also drive referrals and establish social proof; community is a good source of content you can distribute via your marketing channels;
- Support – your community can act as the perfect customer service agent; especially if you are a small team;
- Competitive advantage – communities are hard to build – it takes time, it takes effort, but they are hard to copy as well; they present a great asset and add value to your company;
- Improve your UX – it’s just like having test users at hand – your community tests your products, sends back propolsals for improvement and they do it willingly, happily, without being pushed; and then – imagine when you actually work on their feedback – they will be forever grateful and loyal to them, they will feel valued and most probably engage more with the brand, will recommend, etc.
Examples of community driving
In times of Covid the best thing to do would be to have both online and offline building community activities. That’s the perfect scenario, but if you need to start – start online, as it’s cheaper and easier.
Online space – like facebook group / Discord server / Reddit channel; But the real challenge starts when you start engaging with your fans; it’s important to foster dialogue – you can create polls, ask open-ended questions, request feedback when you share new features, you can have virtual events (or just informal meetups).
Connect with influencers – you can host a community event or instagram live interview with them.
Newsletters / exclusive email list – keeping your customers and potential partners up to date can drive loyalty; and people like feeling special; As a next step you can form a reward scheme to drive customer loyalty (with discount codes).
The Patagonia Way
I am a big fan of Patagonia [read my article on the founder’s autobiography book]. They are doing numerous things in the field of community building but I will give just one interesting example.
Patagonia Action Works Platform connects local, national and global grassroots organizations fighting to save the planet. Users volunteer skills and time, sign petitions, donate money to nearby causes, etc.
Patagonia’s case is by the book – they have a cause that connects people – environment protection. They facilitate it with a platform.
This example is quite extreme, especially if you are a small startup. But it’s the mindset that I want to encourage here – communities are much more than video testimonials of tryouts of products – communities change politics, drive societies forward and if you can be on the front wheel of your target market’s transformations, you are doing great job in community building.
[Interested in more use cases? Read more about the NIKE way – 5 Ways Nike Wins With Community Marketing]
Back to ESCREO and key takeways
In time we started a facebook group “Офис визионери”, launched an eco-campaign “You buy online, we plant a tree”, recorded a good amount of video tutorials and interviews with opinion leaders (especially after Covid-19), we sent exclusive newsletters, etc. We did not focus on building community specifically. We instinctively thought it was the right thing to do because we always wanted to stay close to our customers and we wanted to build on this relationships to further grow the business. We saw it worked and it was not expensive.
- Looking back in my role as a CMO, one of the mistakes I did was that I did not take enough risks, I was afraid to go big. I had a couple of excuses “we are not NIKE after wall”, “we don’t have the budget”, “we have other priorities” and the list goes on and on. Now I would have chosen another approach – not hiding behind the “we” and starting sooner, leaner – with small, experimental steps, steadily, conscious about the benefits of community building.
- Like in the real life relationships are hard to establish and an everyday job to maintain them. You have to be authentic, you should be able to listen, to get negative feedback, to give rather than receive… to invest. As founders we copy-paste much of our own style on the relationships we build from company’s perspective and thus on the communities around it. So ask yourself “What’s your strength, whan can you improve?”
- Put your audience in the centre. They should be the driving force, you can only create the right conditions for them to interact. Your role is to be the moderator.
Jacob Peters puts it this way: Building a successful community requires two things: 1. A reason for people to gather 2. A reason for people to reengage. It’s the content that will get you an audience & the audience will help you build the community.
- Don’t build community for the sake of it. Ask the WHY and always know your goal.
Community building might not be for everyone, but sometimes it could make all the difference. Be mindful you have a choice.
Continue reading: 3+ thoughts from Seth Godin