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This article is an extension of the panel at Circle Summit: How to Find Your First 100 Founding Members. I spoke on this panel with Tatiana Figueiredo and Josh Hall, and it was moderated by Andy Guttormsen, co-founder of Circle. Watch the replay here.
How to find your first founding members: 20 tips
If you're launching a community and trying to get people in the door, here are some things you can do — tips, tricks, and strategies against discouragement. Without further ado, it's time for a good old fashioned listicle!
What else would you include? You can always @ me on Twitter 😽
- Be clear on what your community IS. What are the goals? How will people know if they belong? Is your community a series of events? Meetups? Discussions on online forums? People should know that you're not just throwing around community as a buzzword. Here's a rule of thumb: if you wouldn't call this a community in real life, it's not a community.
- Let people know what to expect when they join. I should have done a better job of this (and still honestly have a lot to figure out), but Josh said the best thing he did in the early days was a Live Q&A. People who were interested could sign up, and 150+ did! Right after that call is when he started his public founding member launch, and it helped people see what was actually going on. I have something similar on the Soapbox site, but I should consider a live Q&A.
- Start a list of where your members already are. Tatiana recommends writing down some podcasts and communities where your members already hang out. Even if it's a tiny podcast with less than a hundred listeners, it could be where you find your true supporters! Small ≠ ineffective. As you're starting out, look for things you can do that are high-quality and overlap with your members' existing spots, even if these are small opportunities.
- Host your own events where you don't need a ton of people. Tatiana talks about how Petminded is a hyper-niche community that talks about dog science, but their events and discussions don't need a high quantity of attendees to be good. 5 people is enough for a thorough dog-science discussion and it could be enough for you!
- Build with your members, not just for them. The idea of launching a community for Soapbox Project has been brewing for a while. The biggest piece of feedback I'd get on our bite-sized climate change newsletter (which has been going since 2019) is that people feel isolated and small against this huge, daunting problem. The input I got every week from my members not only empowered me to launch a community (because they ASKED me to), but also shapes the offerings that I create. I don't consider myself a super creative person, but I'm excellent at actually implementing the stuff people want to see, like 1:1 member matching, a leaderboard, biweekly fireside chats, and even a "Soapbox Santa" sustainable gifting event coming up in winter 2021!
- Diversity must be a priority from the start. The best thing I unintentionally did was make our demographic info box open-ended. Even within our first 30 members, we had already spanned so many ethnicities, cultures, genders, and even less-talked-about things like physical ability, rural vs. urban, body type, and things I would never even know to ask. Because we know who our members are and what a wide range of experiences they represent, we can find some really incredible speakers for our events that go beyond your usual climate tech bro lineup. We've heard from women farmers in rural California, ad tech entrepreneurs combatting white supremacy, environmental science authors, formerly incarcerated leaders, and more. It's almost impossible to "fix" diversity later down the line. Diversity is beautiful and makes your community an inclusive place for people to hang out, which is the whole point, right?
- Soft launching is fair game! As a community builder/manager/steward, you do a LOT of behind the scenes work. Josh tells us about how he takes his web design courses to the next level by connecting students through his new community. He sent personalized invitations (calls and emails and discounts) to people he knew would be likely to join — students who had already asked questions, chimed in with input, etc. This is a common thread for many new communities — we do a ton of 1:1 outreach that no one really sees, so we can start strong.
- Reach out to people you already know — it's not cheating! My first few members were people I've become friends with; people super engaged with my newsletter; folks I'd met IRL before the pandemic.
- Don't automate yet. You. Do. Not. Need. A. Drip. Email. You don't need it. People don't remember the automated Mailchimps. They will remember you reaching out to them personally and offering your time. Do things manually so you know they work (or quit when they don't). Once you are intimately familiar with the manual process from everything to onboarding to measurement to event hosting, then you can automate.
- Focus on quality over quantity. People will say this to you over and over again, BUT IT'S TRUE. Josh talks about how he played the long game and still is — it's not heavily marketed, and it's an upsell for his serious students. You want committed, engaged, and enthusiastic members, not a ton of crickets hanging out.
- Do 1-2 things really well. Tatiana says every community solves a problem and you should find the smallest version of how you're solving members' problems. When you have under 30 people, you don't need fancy events with famous headliners. Can you do an accountability group? Meet once a month? Put together some basic structure that people are coming back to? The key is to scale down before you scale up.
- Start a challenge. Another tip from Tatiana when you only have 5-10 people is to just start with a challenge. Just get them on board for the first 30 days by participating in a challenge! Your goal at this early stage is to really learn the problem that your community is solving, and challenges are a bite-sized way to do this before launching some grand community. You can experiment with this even before you launch an online forum.
- Offer discounts for your earliest supporters. Josh gave his first few members 50% off as a token of gratitude for supporting him early in this journey. This was even before the public launch! The first few members who signed up when it was public still got a discount, but Josh made sure that his 1:1 outreach people felt personally welcomed. Discounts aren't a novel idea, but you should focus on the way you're making people feel by offering a discount, not just hoping that a low price will draw them in. Basically, you want to show people how valuable you think they will be to your community.
- VALUE YOUR PEOPLE! Communities are SO different from products, services, subscriptions, etc. You HAVE to show your earliest members why they matter. Whether that's making sure they get responses to their posts or giving them exclusive perks or reaching out to them 1:1 on a regular basis, make sure they know how important they are. Within the Soapbox community, when ANYONE joins, I offer them a personalized tour where I talk with them for 30 minutes about their goals, hopes, dreams, and answer their questions. I've had over 100 conversations so far, and many have gone on beyond our allotted half-hour slot.
- Dissolve the digital-physical divide. It's a little hard in COVID times, but instead of just sending people an email, how can you make them feel like they're part of an actual community? For Soapbox, that was 2 things: 1) launching local action where we can partner with non-profits in our cities and volunteer together and 2) we sent postcards!
- It's okay to shut up sometimes. In the early days of community building, you might be the only one posting stuff. You might be tempted to post every day. YOU DON'T HAVE TO! As I learned from Carrie Melissa Jones, it's okay to step away. Once I started chilling out more and holding space for other people to post, they did! They showed up! They asked questions! Your earliest members are here because they want to be — so trust them.
- Observe how different people engage and tailor experiences accordingly. People who aren't posting comments or fresh content are considered "lurkers", but I've learned that's not always true! Many people who don't post discussions or even log in to our Soapbox community show up to almost every event we host. Once I started reaching out to some self-identified introverts (which I am NOT), I learned that those folks felt more comfortable participating in small group settings, but they enjoyed the larger events where they didn't have to participate. This was really helpful in putting together our now-weekly events.
- Lurking ≠ disengaged. Tatiana shares some of her favorite communities — although she might only log in once or twice a month, she still considers herself engaged, while some people might consider her a lurker. Be careful what you measure! Communities are NOT social media where we have to obsess over always having something to say.
- Dead periods are fine. Don't get discouraged if there's timespans that no one signs up or engages. Again, rule of thumb, think of your real life! There's times you're on vacation that you don't talk to your friends. Tatiana says you can anticipate this seasonality and find ways to get around it, like launching a daily challenge or something else that pulls people back.
- Reiterate that the community belongs to everyone. If you're a community manager, "your" community is NOT about you. It doesn't belong to you. People join communities that they can belong to, not just contribute to. Message this over and over so people really take it to heart, especially as you're getting your first 100 members.
I'm closing with a pic of the Soapbox Seattle squad hanging out and painting for Weld, a non-profit that provides housing and jobs for formerly incarcerated people. Despite only having 100 or so members, we've been having a wonderful and impactful time.
What other tips do you have? What have been your favorite ways to engage in a community, whether that's your religious group, high school best friends, or distributed global hobby-based chat room?