The Five Pillars for Building an Effective Community
I get a lot of questions about building a community—specifically, how I did it at OpenView.
For context, I joined OV seven years ago to build out what we refer to internally as our ecosystem, but is externally known as our executive & advisor network—our very own community. Starting from nothing, we were able to grow an impressive network of more than 300 engaged SaaS professionals who are eager to make new connections, offer insights, and meet with prospects.
Watching the OpenView community grow and take off has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career, but I can promise you it didn’t happen overnight—it took years of iteration, research, planning, and lots of coffee chats.
Looking to launch or expand a community around your business? Here are my five pillars for getting started:
1. Figure out your why
Define your purpose for this community. Why does your business want a community in the first place? Don’t decide to start a community because it seems like the thing to do—just because everyone’s doing it.
Think about how it can serve your business. Communities are a super effective way to build your customer base or brand, so consider all the ways your community can strategically grow your business.
Sometimes, this step takes time. OpenView was founded in 2006, and I joined the team in 2015. It took us almost 10 years to identify community-building as a priority. As a venture capital firm, the business case was obvious: finding new avenues for networking with and connecting people is central to our business.
Once you’ve identified your why, sit down with your leaders and the CEO and explain the value. Why do you feel passionate that your business needs to do this? What needs will it solve for your business?
2. Do your research
Doing your research gives you a greater chance at delivering a community experience that meets both the needs of its members and the needs of your business.
There are two steps to conducting this research:
- Determine your targets. Who are the people you want in your community? This should connect back to your purpose—your why. Is it your customer base? Industry thought-leaders who you want to become your advocates? Where are these people sitting right now? If your targets are already in your network, start compiling a list of people to reach out to.
- Conduct interviews. Once you’ve identified your ideal community members, the next step is to talk to them. Send an email and set up a time to chat. Prepare questions to ask, and go in with a couple of ideas of what you’re thinking. Use this research to guide your next steps.
At OpenView, we asked people what worked and what didn’t work with VCs that they partnered with in the past—and in a perfect world, what they would want to see from us. Seven years in, I am still asking that question almost every time I’m on a call with somebody to make sure that we’re still building the community that they want to be a part of it.
3. Build your community program
There are so many different types of community programs. I recently chatted with somebody who wanted to have this really broad, thought-leadership-focused community platform, but have a much smaller, exclusive community subset within that group.
At this point, you should have an idea of what you want your community to look like. Is it an exclusive group of advisors, or is it a customer community? The type of community will determine the types of services and benefits you are providing for these people.
Be sure to balance the ‘gives’ with the ‘gets’. If you’re buliding a community, there’s something that you want from your community members, but your members expect the benefits to outweigh the “costs”. Our rule of thumb at OpenView is to offer two ‘gives’ for every one ‘get.” Simply stated, we’re ideally doing two things for every one request.
‘Gives’ can be as simple as taking someone out for coffee when you’re in their town or sending them a Starbucks gift card when they participate in a survey. At OpenView, we plan quarterly. So within the span of the quarter, we might establish 10 ‘gives’. That could be anything from a simple check-in email, sending swag, inviting them to a virtual session, sharing a piece of content—it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Anything to let people know that you’re thinking of them.
For early-stage companies, the customer community is especially important. ‘Gives’ that I’ve seen work for these companies is offering a firsthand look at a new product release, quarterly AMAs with the CEO, or AMAs with an executive on the leadership team. All these efforts help community members feel special, like they’re a part of something important.
What my team lives for is making people feel so connected to what we’re doing, that when we ask for a favor, they are happy to help.
Another thing we get asked a lot about is around compensation. Should you pay community members? The answer is that it depends on what kind of community you’re developing. For an advisory community, sometimes compensation is necessary—especially if you’re asking members for a dedicated amount of time each month.
For early-stage startups where cash flow isn’t as easy, you might see something along the lines of 1/10th of a point of equity given to an advisor. But it’s always different based on company size and the length of time that you are asking a member to commit to. Work with whoever you are bringing in to help figure out an appropriate compensation that works for them.
From here, it’s time to start. It’s not going to be perfect when you first launch, but you’ve just got to take the leap.
4. Conduct outreach
That brings us to my fourth pillar: outreach. Put yourself and your company out there and invite people to join your community. My biggest piece of advice is to avoid saying you’re “launching a community.”
Instead, try framing it like, “Hey, we have this community and we’d love to see if you’d be interested. Would you be open to a short call?” They don’t need to know that they’re community member number one.
A piece of advice for outreach: don’t force a relationship. Your aim is to build virality around your brand name and your product or service, so look for people who are going to want to share and advocate for what you’re doing. There are so many people out there, so if you aren’t hitting it off with someone, you might want to conserve your energy and just move on. Find the people that you click with and go from there.
Another thing—quality over quantity. You can’t have close-knit relationships with a thousand people. Achieving closer relationships is just physically impossible at such a high number.
If you don’t need a community of 1,000 or 500 people, but you can build a small but mighty group of advocates, go with that. Then you can focus your efforts on what you can do for those specific people who will in turn, help you yield the results that you’re looking for.
5. Nurture and maintain
As your community—and your business—grows, stay flexible with change. What you need from a community at 50 people and $2 million ARR might be different from what you need at 250 people and $10 million ARR.
Check in regularly to make sure that your community is still providing value to the people who comprise it. In order to stay relevant, be open and willing to tweak your offerings or the program itself as needed.
Go beyond a business relationship. Always remember that these are other humans that you are talking to. Personally, I am much more willing to engage with somebody who asks me how my day is going and understands that I have a life outside of my job. I promise nobody is going to be upset with you if you ask them how their kids are doing or how their vacation was. I’ll let you in a little secret—people love talking about themselves.
Pro tip: now that we are returning to in-person work environments and gatherings, there’s a desire to want to get back together in person. It doesn’t need to be a huge event, but if you have the opportunity to host a lunch or happy hour, and give members the opportunity to hang out with you and others, do it!
Putting the framework into action
These five pillars are a framework for how to go about building your first iteration of a community based on the strategies that have been successful at OpenView. I may be biased, but I think we’ve done a pretty great job.
Proving the ROI of your community to internal teams can be tricky, but it’s important your company’s leadership hears about the impact of your efforts. It’s possible that building a community won’t directly correlate to growing sales revenue, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been effective—seeing the benefits can take time. When people reference your community—in a call, an email, a tweet—pass it back to your CEO or head of marketing. It’s these anecdotes that demonstrate that you and your community are making a real impact.
In the case of OpenView, we know we’re doing things right when we ask somebody for a favor or an introduction and they respond with a “yes.” Or better yet, when we get an inbound request for a conversation. That’s when I know what we’ve built (and continue to build!) is working.
Are you in the process of building your community and want to talk more? Please don’t hesitate to reach out!
With the average person receiving over 90 business emails every day, it’s no surprise that the majority of cold emails get ignored.