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JUN 28, 2021 - 22 MIN

So, You Want a Community: 3 Considerations with Orbit


In this DevGuild: Software-Defined Movements presentation, Orbit’s Patrick Woods shares considerations and questions to ask yourself before starting a community.

  • So, You Want a Community: 3 Considerations
    • The Orbit Model + Orbit Platform
    • What Kind of Community Are You Building?
    • Value Capture vs. Value Creation
    • Common Failure Cases
    • Do You Understand Your Potential Community Members?
    • Study Your People
    • Build Real Relationships
    • Curate Content
    • What Have You Learned? Where is the Momentum?
    • Tracking Activities Accross All Channels
    • Airtable Templates: Try the Orbit Model
    • Creating Value Where It is Needed Most
    • Experiment with Ideas + Build Flywheels
    • Is the Whole Company Ready?
    • Practical Ways to Involve the Whole Company
    • Conclusion
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So, You Want a Community? 3 Considerations

I'm Patrick, CEO and co-founder of Orbit. You can find me on Twitter @PatrickJWoods. on the right. You see members of the Orbit team. I just love this photo because we're all donning weird space gear. You can imagine with a company named Orbit, we really lean heavily into space metaphors, space jokes, space emoji, you name it. But this is us.

The Orbit Model + Orbit Platform

We're the creators of a framework called the Orbit Model. The Orbit Model is a community-centric alternative to the sales and marketing funnel. It was created from the ground up to help you organize, engage, and connect with your community and to measure the impact and the out the outcomes of that. Over time, you can read more about the Orbit Model on GitHub. There's a deep dive there if you just Google it, or you can see a high level overview at OrbitModel.com. We're also makers of the Orbit Platform, which you heard about some in the panel a moment ago. Orbit's mission control for your community, provides you and your team with a single view of what's happening across all your community platforms, no matter where your community needs.

It let's you get insights, generate reports and provide your team with tools for taking action on your data.

Before You Begin: What Kind of Community Are You Building?

And so, as we think about diving into this question of, should I build a community, wanted to briefly level set with a couple of key concepts that we've seen over the past couple of years of doing this. First is asking yourself, what kind of community are you building? And this may sound like an obvious point, but the reality is community, as a term, as a vocabulary word, can mean so much and so little at the same time.

What I mean by that is you think about Kubernetes is a community, but so is my local fencing club. They both use the term community to describe them. And yet they couldn't be more different.

Now of course, fundamentally, community is really just a group of people coming together around a common purpose, but the definition community itself can really feel too high level to be meaningful. So what we've done at Orbit and the way we talk about this stuff with our own community and our customers, is thinking about a three-part taxonomy. I think if you can think about these three types of communities, you can reason more specifically about what we mean when we say the word community. So three types of communities. First type is communities of product.

So the members of these communities, they're interested in getting better at a specific tool or technology or platform, and they primarily want to share ideas and get feedback and to talk about that specific tool. So some great examples are Circleci's community, which is massive and folks talking about how to better use that tool. And also the Rome research community. Rome is a note-taking tool kind of on steroids and their community self identifies as the Rome cult. And these people have a huge Reddit presence, they have a huge Slacker and they talk about things like how to hack the program, how to hack the system and tweak the CSS and build better workflows inside the tool itself. So product-centric communities are all, about as you guessed, the product. But there's also things we call communities of practice. And folks in these communities, they're all about leveling up their craft and connecting with other practitioners independent of any specific tool or platform.

So Demuxed that Matt just talked about is a great example of this. The folks in that community are interested in video technology, generally, and they want to share best practices, ideas, tools for leveling up their game. The On Deck community is another great example. On Deck is a cohort-based learning platform where folks get together for multiple weeks to talk about podcasting or to talk about angel investing or to talk about becoming a better founder. Communities of practice are increasingly popular these days. And then finally, communities of play are kind of about everything else. So fun, hobbies, you name it. My fencing club that would fall into this category. Top Shot is a great example of this. It's a community where people buy and sell NFTs related to awesome NBA plays.

And the SoleSavy community as well. It's a community about seekers and people who love them. So if you think about these three types of communities, you can start to specifically talk about the type of community either you want to build, or you have today. And I think this is interesting because you can actually assess your in community, really along this taxonomy and figure out what the actual distribution is. Because most communities don't have to be all of one or all of the others. So a gaming club, of course, that's a community of play for sure. But a writers group, it might be half practice, half play because you have people wanting to get better at writing, but they also want to read some cool stuff that's been written. Support for them would be all product. On Deck, as we mentioned, would be all practice. And then the Orbit community, our community is a little bit of product and practice. So I would say it's probably 60 to 70% product-centric. So people coming to talk about best practices and workflows on top of Orbit, how to use our API, how to build into our web hooks.

But increasingly as more and more folks joined the community, I think we've got 500 or so people in our Discord server today, we're seeing more and more organic conversation that I would consider conversations of practice. So people talking about how to build a community programs, how to build better developer relations programs.

And so for you, you can assess yourself. Where are you today? What's the community that you have and where do you want to go in terms of these three community types?

Value Capture vs. Value Creation

And the second key concept is one that I want to point out and dwell on for a moment. And we sort of touched on in the panel a moment ago, but it's this idea that the most successful community programs are focused on valued creation and not entirely on capturing value. So value capture versus value creation. We say value creation, we made things like a gift-first mentality that focuses on connecting and educating and equipping and inspiring your audience. Practically, this means things like creating content and events and tutorials and guides and places where people can connect. Value capture of course, is essential to the success of a business, but should be viewed as really like a second order impact of an effective value creation machine.

Common Failure Cases: Examples

Finally, a couple of common failure cases that we've seen over the past couple of years of talking to hundreds of community builders. One rationale that doesn't always work over the long-term is this idea that, hey, our competitors have communities, we should probably have one too. That may be the case, but it may not be the most holistic motivation for building a community for your company. Another thing we see often is hiring a junior community manager, maybe someone who's just out of college and just crossing your fingers and hoping they figure it out. That's usually coupled with failing to define success. And then finally, maybe the most common is quitting too soon because reality is, community stuff takes a long time. So you got to have perseverance.

Do You Understand Your Potential Community Members?

So I hope through the talk today, we'll work through some of these potential failure cases, and de-risk some of your approaches to build the communities. So in the rest of this talk, we're going to talk through, what I would consider some fundamental questions and tactics to answer those questions. Really, there's a lot of frameworks out there for community building. Jono Bacon's got a great one. David Spinks has a great one. There's lots of high-level frameworks to reason about communities, but really since we're talking today about early approaches and the spirit of today's theme, I thought, we should start from the very beginning. And you'll notice as we go through these points, we're not going to really dig into the tools and platforms as much as I love tools and things like that. Because the reality is debating whether you should use Slack or Discord or Discourse or something else, really should come later after the fundamentals are in place.

When It's OK Not to Scale: Study Your People

So the stuff we're about to talk about will sound pretty manual and at the beginning they actually are.

But we've had conversations with hundreds of community builders and the folks on the Orbit team have built some pretty impressive communities themselves. So you can be confident that everything that we're going to talk about today is actually distilled from this collective wisdom, with the hope of setting you off on the right path of either launching a new community or potentially resetting the community you have today. So first things first, section number one, or tactic number one is studying your people. So this is basic customer discovery, or as we call them in the community world, community discovery. It starts by being genuinely interested in the people, the potential members of your community. Because the reality is if you don't actually care about the people, for example, if you only view the individuals as potential sources of leads, the long-term approach to community building probably won't work for you. Some ways to do this tactically are things like signing up for community members activities like subscribe to their newsletter, jump into their Twitch stream and be the first ones to do that.

The screenshot on the right is a tweet about our community lead Rosie Sherry. She's got this mantra of, be the first person to DM a new person in the community, be their first follower, be the first comment on their tweet or their blog. Really take the time to invest, to learn and to dig in with them in the early stages. And finally, hang out where they hang. So that means joining communities that already exist. This will help you better understand the conversations that are happening there and a little bit more about the potential for a new community in your space.

When It's OK Not to Scale: Build Real Relationships

Secondly, you want to build relationships, try to build real relationships. So we have this idea of, instead of calls to action, to buy, we actually try to offer CTTs, a call to talk. It may sound silly, but facilitating conversations is such a huge part of early stage community building. On the right, we have Rosie again, interacting with one of her new friends on Twitter. Rosie publishes a newsletter called The Observatory and what's happening in this tweet is that, this person Hillary is asking a question about it or making an observation. And Rosie said, hey, do you want to talk about it? Let's have a conversation.

And that actually led to a nine minutes mini podcasts on the tool Racket, which we mentioned during the panel. And Rosie and Hillary just jumped into a room together and had this conversation. So it's a pretty interesting way to have a call to talk. In service of building this relationship, to learn more about these potential community members, some other tactical ways to do this, or find excuses to do stuff together. In the case of Rosie, she hosted a Racket. And importantly, don't expect anything in return at this stage of the process.

When It's OK Not to Scale: Curate Content

Another successful tactic for early stage community building is, curating content. Curating content, lets you do two things at once. On one hand, it lets you learn about what your people are interested in, to see what they're talking about and what they're struggling with. But it also gives you the chance to make sure you're fully ramped on the subject matter yourself. Two of my favorite examples of communities that started with content and curation are, on one hand, [inaudible 00:10:40] newsletter. He's got 63,000 subscribers and his Slack community has, I think, four or 5,000 members.

It's definitely a community of practice where people talk about product management and growth and share just all sorts of amazing wisdom about these topics. But it all started with the newsletter. It started with curating content. The second example here is a community called Front End Mentor. The Front End Mentor community has around 50,000 members in their Slack group, which is just enormous. But it all started with a content site and the founder actually created a resource site for people wanting to learn about front end development. And so, really, it's a great way to get to know your people through the types of things they're writing about and consuming.

What Have You Learned? Where is the Momentum?

So after you tried some of these steps, we say take some time to reflect. Decide what's working and what's not before moving on to the next question. So once you started to explore your audience and build these relationships, you want to understand that momentum. If you've gotten to know your people, you know there's a need, here's some ways to think about identifying and leaning into that momentum.

Tracking Activities Accross All Channels

So first to understand momentum you'll want to understand what kinds of conversations are resonating across which platforms. So if you're like most communities today, your community will be distributed across Twitter and maybe a forum, maybe a newsletter, maybe a turtle tools. There's lots of conversations having across lots of platforms. And so initially it's great just to set a baseline. So how many community members are active on each of our platforms? What does that look like on a given day or a week? And then you can start asking questions like, does tweeting more, drive more engagement in the forum or in other parts of the community? Or do meet ups, do events actually increase foreign participation or vice versa? And really start to lay the groundwork for measuring these things over time so you can assess the impact.

Airtable Templates: Try the Orbit Model

One lightweight way to do this is to start testing these ideas and this measurement using the free Orbit Model air table templates. And you can grab those at template.orbit.love. You'll recall that the Orbit Model is a framework for measuring the health and growth of communities over time. We actually turn those concepts into a spreadsheet that you can actually plug in some data to. Play with that and see what's working and what's not.

Creating Value Where it is Needed Most

So once you start to set a baseline, I think the next step is to start creating value where it's needed most. You can start segmenting communities based on engagement, or as we call it in the Orbit Model, we call it Love. On the right is actually the chart of the growth in Orbit levels or vis-a-vis growth, the growth in Love for the Orbit community. And the idea is that once you know who's the community and where they are based on their engagement, you can start to ask more specific questions about how to build programs for each one of them.

So how can you further encourage and platform your champions? Or alternatively, what are some ways you can build relationships with the folks who are further away from your center of gravity? One of my favorite examples of this is from one of our customers named Emma at Rasa. They were using Orbit to understand a segment of the community and they realized that they lacked contributors at what they call the hero level. So according to our plan here, they first segments of the community and identify the gaps and said, we need to figure out how to get more heroes. So they figured out, what would a heroes like to do? And then they created an engagement initiatives for contributors based around that to drive more momentum.

Experiment with Ideas + Build Flywheels

Finally, we like this idea of experimenting with community flywheels. So as you're testing your approaches during this phase, we say take an experimental mindset to community building and community tactics.

Instead of focusing on what big bang, we've really seen that building on these small loops really compounds over time and helps you build momentum for your community. So what do we mean by flywheels? So these are a couple of just small tactical examples here, but in your forum or on your chat, you might ask new members to introduce themselves in the introductions channel. And then you have a second step is when they do that, you would want to comment on their intro, maybe ask a follow-up question or comment on something they mentioned. And then the third step is add lots and lots of emojis to their replies and the conversations that happen. And this may sound really silly, emojis is this is really the stuff of hardcore community building. But what we found is that this type of interaction, de-risks that initial touchpoint with someone as they're onboarding to the community. When they see other people having conversations and lots of emojis and comments flying around, it says to me as any member of the community, this is a safe space. So I might as well dip my toe in the water or dive right in. Here's actually one example from our Discord server.

So look at here, joined our server and share a lot of context about who he is and what he's working on. And you can actually see all the emojis associated with this message and below the fold here, there's just tons of conversation happening around this initial post in the introduction channel. You'll even notice this little call out to Rosie about reminding him to post. And this is actually a big part of community building. Because, as we mentioned, the stuff doesn't scale. So in the case of our intros channel, it's a pretty active channel, but that's partially because we actually do the manual work of encouraging it to happen by reminding people to say hello. Another great thing to test out is writing about community members. So maybe someone in your Slack community had some really cool observation or shared some amazing tip. So you decide to write a tweet thread about what you learned from them.

After you write the tweet thread, you probably will tag them into that thread and maybe share it back into the Slack group for further conversation and tag them there. And then the third step would be after you've done, that include that content in your newsletter. So you might take the initial tweet thread that you wrote, any comments that came out of it and feature that and feature your community member in the newsletter. And the idea is that as you do that more, as you share that content that's been created with the world, other members of the community will then be willing to start sharing ideas as well. So by starting building incrementally, you end up understanding what's working and what's not and hopefully why. And of course, hopefully you're measuring impact along the way.

Everyone is a Community Builder: Is the Whole Company Ready?

So the final question for you is, is the whole company ready? So you've learned some things, you've gotten to know the people, you understand what they're struggling with and why a community makes sense.

Why now and why you should be the ones who build it and you're tracking the impact, you're leaning into what's working. And the final question is this, it may seem like a non important question but the reality is that everyone is a community builder. And what we've seen is that companies that create longterm value with their communities, they understand that community is no longer the job of a single person. It's not a department or a person sort of out on the periphery, but rather it's a discipline that permeates the entire company. When the whole company is having conversations, when everybody in your organization is out there doing the work we've discussed in these slides, maybe not as their full-time job, but at least some of it, you increase the surface area for opportunity and that's opportunities to build relationships, to connect to people in the community, to learn something, to feed that information back into the organization. Ultimately to help people and to create value.

So the thinking for us is that, this is sort of central question for you to ask yourself today, is, are you ready to do this?

Practical Ways to Involve the Whole Company

So it's a practical way to involve the whole company in your community. One is simply asking the team to participate in discussion and to attend your events. Most, if not all of Orbit team members or in our Discord server every single day. Not all day, not every day, not that posting memes constantly, but participating and engaging. And sometimes that's responding to product feedback. Sometimes that's helping out with bugs. Sometimes it's just sharing an interesting news story that's relevant for the conversation, but just a great way, some low-hanging fruit is to just engage the whole company. Invite others on the team to curate and create content. Try to expand the sort of ideation for content creation away from just a community manager or a content manager to everyone in the organization.

Kind of along the lines of what Mary was talking about during the panel, it's really important to share and socialize that community input and their ideas and their concerns back with the company. And more specifically, we see this in the form of product feedback and make sure that the product team is looped in on what the community is saying about the product, assuming you have a product-based community.

And importantly, close the loop with your community members when either that the bug is squashed, or the feedback is implemented. Take the time to go back and say, hey, we heard you.

Last week, you said this thing was broken. We fixed it. Here's how we fixed it. We've seen that that community members really appreciate that. And then finally, if you have a recruiting team, connect them with active community members.

This is a common case where people in the community become active in the community, on the platform, and then become team members. This has actually happened for us a couple of times at Orbit. We're very thankful for that. But it's a great way to build that pipeline of community members into the community as well, in service of helping the whole company realize that, we're all community builders here.


I love flywheels. I love loops here. So I think it works like this when it comes to early stages of building community, is that, that initial understanding leads to programs and ideas for testing your demand. And then you can assess and measure the impact of those programs, measuring the momentum, focusing on what's working.

And those programs that you build that you've tested, can involve the whole company and having the whole company involved means you can do more to understand your people. And so I think it's a virtuous cycle that begins with a deep understanding and appreciation of the people you're wanting to work with, applying some rigor to building and measuring programs and then engaging the whole team around those opportunities. So after hearing all that, if you still want to build a community, I think you have some raw material here to start exploring what that could look like for you and your organization. As you embark on this journey, I would leave you with a few exercitations. First, don't give up. It can take many iterations to get this right.

I know for the Orbit community, it took us the better part of a year, I would say, to get the big flywheel spinning to the point where the community felt like a self-sustaining entity. It can take some time, a year or more easily. I would also say that the steps that we've talked about today are accessible and they're kind of bite-sized on their own and try to take them step by step, but also collectively keep in mind that take it together, the things we talked about today do represent an investment. So in light of the failure cases we mentioned earlier, just make sure you have the conversation internally about what it's going to take to invest in this process, to build a community and to make it something that's worth doing.

So, in the meantime, I would say, good luck. The community building journey is perhaps one of those rewarding things you will do. You'll learn a lot and you'll meet some amazing people along the way. And I would say, feel free to ping me on the Veo platform or on Twitter. If you'd like to chat more, I'm @PatrickJWoods, or drop me a note via email, happy to keep the conversation going. We talk about this stuff all the time, and we'd love to hear how things are going for you.