Creating and sustaining healthy communities is part art and part science. 


When I think of a healthy community, I think of a party. At a party, just like in a community, you are bringing together people to meet each other, form relationships and possibly even create something amazing together. You are bringing together people from different backgrounds, who may even want different things -- how do you make it work? How do you get people to come to your party when they have so many choices?

Your job is to create the right conditions (a word I’m borrowing from my friend Matt Partovi, because I love it so much) -- through awesome community design.

Let’s dig in …

Ask Yourself These Questions

Who are they?

The first step in designing our virtual party is putting together the invite list. Whom does your community aim to serve?

This is a deceptively simple question. While it’s tempting to build one big community for all of your customers, that may not be the right thing to do. Simply being a customer of yours is not a trait that defines them; they want to talk to other people who are / have been on a similar journey. Build the community around the journey the customer is going on, and connect it to their self-identity.

Who’s bringing the snacks?

Now that you identified people you will serve, explore what do they want from you and the community. Why will your guests come to your party and what will they bring with them?

Here’s a super high-tech big-data solution: ask them! Identify a few folks that represent your key groups, pick up the phone, take them out to coffee. Share your initial idea and ask them to become your founding members. Choose wisely, these early members determine the tone and culture of the community -- members that come after model their behaviors after these members. Think of them as your party planning committee. Don't forget to also talk to customer-facing groups inside of your own organization for additional insights.

Start with jobs customers do and design with the object of creating business value for each member. Balance of skills and experiences is key in a community -- understand what expertise exists and what needs to be cultivated. Just like at a party, you need to know what each member brings -- you don’t want to end up with just drinks and no snacks. Think of artifacts that your community creates as food at a dinner party -- and how much fun it is to create them together.

What’s in it for me?

A community will never work if people don’t participate, which takes time and effort. How can you make it worth their time? Dig deep and understand their WIIFM (what’s in it for me?). Your customers don't buy your product; they buy a solution. They continue to buy those solutions that make their lives better and / or helps them look good in front of others.

What does your solution mean to their self-image? This can help you start to understand the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for participating in your community. What are they passionate about? How can you channel their passion for the benefit of the entire community? Exploring member personas and roles is useful here -- some people may want to be seen as experts, some people may want to learn from them, some may want to co-create great things together.

You'd be naïve to think that your community is the only one trying to offer this experience to your customers. What else is competing for their attention in helping them get their job done? How can you provide something unique that they can’t find somewhere else?

What’s in it for the host?

Most likely, you are reading this article because you are building a community that has something to do with your business. While figuring out the needs and wants of the community, you also need to create something that benefits the business. Shockingly, only 34% of companies align their social strategy to business goals, Brian Solis said at a recent fireside chat I led. Your community doesn't exist in a vacuum; look for ways to add explicit value across the organization -- this will get you the funding and respect in your community endeavors.

How do I RSVP?

Now that you know whom you want at your party, it’s time to send out some invites. Having answered all questions from above will help you determine if your community should be external and public or private, and what the join process looks like.

If it’s a public external community, how will you promote it to drive membership? Is there a vetting process? Are there clear expectations? How do members leave the community? Keep in mind the trade offs: the more highly vetted, the smaller and tighter-knit the community, and perhaps the more engaged the users are. The larger the community, the less trust and collaboration there is, and the more important sub-communities become. This is not to say that you shouldn't have a large community, but you want to make sure that the right sub-groups can easily find each other.

Their first experience with your community determines whether or not members come back. How will they start deriving value from the beginning, and how does it change over the course of their customer journey? If they come into an empty party, they'll leave and won't come back. If your party is awesome, they will come back. From a design perspective, your job is to make sure that people can easily discover value and step through an onboarding process that clarifies and draws them in.

Design Elements

Public and private spaces

Structural design is important because it helps organize all the knowledge created by the community --its artifacts -- and give people spaces to meet and collaborate. It’s like having different rooms at a dinner party -- first, people come in and grab a drink, mull around the kitchen, and then head into the dining room. You need a blend of big public spaces for serendipitous discovery, as well as some private and public narrowly-defined spaces.

Word of caution: you want to create just a few of these spaces, to help people get started and create their own spaces -- but give them an opportunity to design their own. When you are first starting out the community, work with your founding members to create the right spaces to kick things off.

Another word of caution: don’t try to get everyone to engage -- some members will never post, and that’s OK! Active listening is a valuable learning process. Design your community to encourage various levels of participation -- from the founding “core,” to ambassadors and group leaders, to contributors, to curators and listeners.

Map to customer journey

Be sure to think through your customers’ touch points with your company outside of the community -- on the phone, at events, on your website. Understand what role your community plays in the overall journey, and how to link it to other steps. Work with people in your company to augment what they are doing and create a fluid journey.

For example, your sales force needs to know at what point to invite the customer to the community. Is there a customer training component? If multiple communities make sense, how do you flow people between communities?


The test of community design is whether people know what to do when they get there. At a good party, there’s always someone greeting guests at the door, showing them around, pointing out snacks, drinks and restrooms, and introducing them to people. Your community should be the same. Through the onboarding process, members should know the vision and mission of community, sub-communities and groups, and be familiar with the kinds of people and activities in the community. New users should also feel welcome and "safe,” and on their way to building trusted relationships with other members.

I have found public welcomes useful to onboard new joiners and serve as a signal for the community to welcome them. Start with a low-barrier ice-breaker, which helps build trust and get the more shy members to participate.

Outline a 30-60-90 day user experience. If a member hasn't posted, reach out privately to find out why. Make sure there aren't usability issues, and ease them into contributing at their own participation level.

Have a vision and a policy

Your community members won't participate if they don't trust each other, and your job as the community manager is to help create a trusted environment. It starts with a clear vision (which you should co-create with your founding members), and a solid policy / terms of service. Think of it as an opportunity to inform members of what’s expected of them, in order to maintain a healthy community. Focus on what TO DO vs. what NOT to do, and clarify the difference between something in bad taste and a major infraction that’s cause for expulsion.

Having a clear policy will also put you on the right side of the legal team and other stakeholders, which is where you want to be. Make sure to have a clear escalation path, plan for worst-case scenarios and do fire drills before putting out real fires.

Commit to education

Education doesn't stop with onboarding. You should be working with your founding members and ambassadors to educate the rest of the community on best practices, which is the only way you can scale sustainably.

Education is not limited to the members of the community though. You need to continuously level set expectations inside of your company; make sure you set realistic expectations with your execs. To have the best experience for your customers, you need well-rounded representation from across the company. It’s your job to help clarify the roles that employees play as official company ambassadors. This is especially effective when built into onboarding, but you also need to invest in ongoing coaching.

It takes many people from across the company to create a truly great customer experience. Establish a collaboration channel where you can work with the right groups to solve customer issues and communicate relevant information -- you want to come across as organized and committed to your customers, no matter how large and dispersed you are.

In the end, a well-designed community will help members trust each other and have the kind of collaboration that creates a unique experience that will keep people coming back. If you design for value across levels of participation, you will keep the vocal minority from crushing the silent majority. By paying it forward and giving up control to your ambassadors, you will have a much more engaged community that meets the needs of your members.

Image courtesy of Everett Collection (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more of Maria's insights into the customer ecosystem in Customer Experience: What the Customers Want, What the Enterprise Must Do