You're over-complicating things

What matters when launching a new community

It’s Wednesday, July 19th, and today we’re talking about Death by Design and what pieces actually matter when launching a community.

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The Big Idea

Overcomplication is the hallmark of most beginners. Communities, in particular, are often launched with too many wrong decisions made ahead of time.

It’s time to stop over-designing communities.

Launching a community requires thoughtfulness, but only a few critical decisions matter before you open your doors. The rest is about showing up.

There is an allure to having a heavy-handed community plan. It feels like a failsafe, but this is a trap. The more prescriptive you are, the harder it will be to facilitate natural, quality engagement. Save yourself a lot of heartache. Focus on the right things.

Good community design in a nutshell: design minimally, expand responsively.

Perhaps the very verbiage, “Community Design” is part of the problem. A little clarity:

Traditional design puts the designer as expert, whereas community design situates the designer as facilitator, and sees that facilitation as an act of service, not an act of leadership.

Sloan Leo, “What is Community Design?”, Forbes

To help us understand the focus on facilitation vs expertise, here is a pithy look at what to focus on and what to ignore:

There is one conversation I have with almost every client, multiple times:

“Can we talk about programming? We don’t know what to do with the community?”

Me: Sure. There are hundreds of possibilities, but we’re going to be learning a lot in those first few months post-launch, so we’ll want to keep it simple.

“Ok, but we are doing our Q3 planning and want to put together community programming.”

Me: Can we choose one or two pieces to focus on so we can get a little intel and feedback?

“….can you just send us a list of ideas?”

It reminds me of my days as a professor of dance at Cal-Baptist University (v. fancy 🎩).

New choreographers were evident in the way they approached movement. They were worried about making sure it looked cool and complex. The result was usually a way-too-long assault on the eyeballs that caused most folks to glaze over halfway through.

I get it. I was once a new choreographer and new community builder. There is so much information out there about platforms, frameworks, and best practices, and having a detailed, thorough plan often feels safe.

Your plan may be the death of your community.

At this point in my career, I’ve lost track of how many communities I’ve helped launch, advised, or aided in course correction, and every single one of them had this in common: a lot of assumptions were wrong.

If we’re launching a community, chances are we know a lot about them, but not nearly as much as we may think.

“But wait,” you may be saying, “I did the interviews, the surveying, I asked them the questions. I do know!”

Ah, young Padawan.

Interviewing and surveys are powerful. Every time I’ve done them, I’ve been able to course-correct and get great insight into their language and struggles. But you know what else I’ve found? People are remarkably bad at knowing what they really want. They say they want education on X and then don’t show up for it. They say they want a plan to do Y but are wholly apathetic when the time comes.

If you want to know what really motivates people, you need a chance to observe them in action.

Key Decisions for a community launch

If you google “steps to starting a community,” you’ll be met with a host of results, all with variations of checklists and best practices. It’s my opinion that much of it is a waste of time.

There are nine decisions I want you to have total clarity on when launching:

  1. Who will manage it? This is at the top for a reason. Someone must be responsible for hosting this party. Someone skilled and invested. Don’t make the most rookie mistake of all.

Also, bear in mind:

  1. Why should this exist? You’re asking people to invest their time, which means you have a lot of competition; other communities, Netflix, and their dog…why is what you’re creating so important?

  2. Who belongs here? A community for everybody is for nobody. Gate your community. Get specific about who belongs and who doesn’t. Remember: you’re going to spend a lot of time with these people.

  3. What outcome does it drive for me? Most of my readers are launching community as a business strategy, and in such a case, you need to know what business outcome you’re driving. Reducing churn? Driving acquisition? Fewer support calls? Put it in writing.

  4. What outcome does it drive for them? Every community is promising change; otherwise, there’s no reason to engage. The change could be financial, spiritual, or just plain fun. Know where you want to take them.

  5. What are some ways we can get there? This speaks to programming, yes, but it’s not about having a concrete plan as much as knowing what the community will look like in practice. What activities and conversations will move them in the right direction? (see this wonderful post by David Spinks)

  6. Where will I host it? The platform is important. I’ve spoken about this here and here. Platform matters.

  7. What intel will I collect? The holy grail of engagement is members talking to each other without your constant nudging, but it takes a while to build that kind of trust and rapport. Intel gathering is your best friend. Always have an application to join your community and make sure it includes pieces of information that will help you get to know your members and tag them into welcoming each other.

  8. How will I welcome them?

    Think about the available containers for communication (email, 1:1 calls, pinned posts, automated onboarding) and choose a simple, personal flow with a direct emphasis on doing things that don’t scale.

What’s not on the list?

You’ll notice I didn’t talk about stuff like events, post-types, metrics, ambassador programs, swag, or gamification. All of these are lovely pieces of community design, but each is a bridge to be crossed at the right time.

For example:

Posts: You may develop a cadence around this:

  • Mondays: Question of the week

  • Wednesdays: New member welcome

  • Thursday: Office hours

But you’re also going to be testing and changing what you post. The emphasis should be on conversation, not content or automation. Sure, try the scheduled posts, but this isn’t the thing that will make your community in the beginning.

Metrics: They matter a lot. But in the beginning, it’s silly to hang your hat on any number, engagement, or otherwise. Perhaps you have a goal number you want to launch, but even that can be problematic. You wouldn’t invite a bunch of people over to a party and then run around with a clipboard measuring how much they’re talking (I hope). Chill for a minute.

When you zoom way out, this whole email can be summarized simply:

Invest in getting to know your members and taking good care of them

Ignore the rest…for now

Happy building 🥂


A few things I’ve read this week that are worth soaking in:



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