Don’t Launch In the Dark: How to Plan Your Community

Communities are extraordinary assets for brands. They build loyalty, increase brand equity and reputation, and activate new members. In loyalty alone, devoted community members are worth up to 10 times as much as new ones. Sounds exciting! Let’s launch that community. But wait…

Communities are not always successful. Even enterprise brands with large budgets, like the BBC and Sony, have failed to capture attention and interest. Many communities have big launches — shiny forums, social media and PR splashes, new blogs, or that first event — but most don’t survive long-term.

Why do they fail? Likely because they forgot to ask what the greater purpose of their community was and neglected to plan beyond the launch.

Dig into your brand’s values and mission

Every brand has a story. Every brand has a reason it was founded other than making a profit. Inside this story, a light can shine on why people feel affinity for your brand. If you don’t know the lore, time to meet with someone who does. These stories explain a company’s greater purpose and can give deep insight into everything from what your community will solidify around to how you might deal with moderation. Let’s take a look at a few brands:


Whittard of Chelsea is a UK tea company, and they share their brand’s story:

“Along with a fondness for sideburns, crinolines and cucumber sandwiches, the Victorians knew the value of a good cup of tea. None more so than our founder Walter Whittard, born in 1861 to a family of successful leather merchants but destined to pursue his principal passion: to source the finest quality tea, coffee and cocoa from across the globe. His was a tale of the most refined connoisseurship, inspired by no shortage of imagination.”

From this story, you gather that Whittard is a brand of discerning tastes. While your community building would no doubt focus on discussing tea, coffee, and cocoa, it will be particularly bent to finer product. Along with all the details of how to source it, how to prepare it, and how to drink the perfect cuppa. You might bring some of those Victorian sensibilities along with you.


Unbounce is a landing page optimization software company, and their story is a little different:

“When Unbounce launched in August 2009, landing pages were little more than a marketing buzzword. Since that time, Unbounce has pushed landing pages into the mainstream by empowering marketers to quickly build, publish & A/B test without I.T. bottlenecks. Today, we continue to help businesses create better marketing experiences by improving what is already the world’s fastest and most customizable landing page builder.”

With Unbounce’s story, you discover that they’re a more casual brand when it comes to use of language. Their audience and customers are far more tech savvy, and even though, they call out marketing buzzwords, you probably won’t use Unbounce if you don’t know what an A/B test is. They’re all about agility, which means their community is probably looking for quick and new solutions to their marketing problems.

The big WHY?

iPhone launch by Chris Scott

You need to uncover these stories in order to pinpoint your community’s focus. There’s a big misconception that people will gather around your cool new product or service. But the truth is that your product isn’t special enough, and people want to focus on what matters to their lives, such as careers, hobbies, and families.

But wait, you might say, there are many products out on the market that people love. Apple gets lines out the door for every new iPhone launch. Isn’t that community around a product? While it may seem that people are nuts about Apple’s products, they’re more interested in the lifestyle Apple represents. When other computers went for fuction, Apple turned toward design. They turned toward mobile. Apple became a lifestyle brand for hip technology: sleek, beautiful, and a status symbol. The famous Mac vs PC commercials typified this change in Apple’s brand and increased customer loyalty. It said: ‘Are you a Mac or a PC?’ We can probably all answer this question about ourselves. Apple made a total of 66 commercials that addressed the lifestyle they became known for.


The company Writerfolio designs and sell website software aimed at writers looking to showcase their work. Instead of creating a community around how to create an author portfolio, they instead invested in their community Scribophile. Writerfolio knows that the vast majority of authors mostly struggle with the writing itself and publishing of their work. Their forums cover these things, and a bit more. Their brand is all about helping writers, and their community focus is there too.

As author Simon Sinek put it, “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”

What’s your brand’s gathering point? What’s your brand’s story, values, and benefits? What do your customers care about and what’s their pain points? What do they do with your product? Major brands with big money behind their communities have failed to launch because they didn’t consider the why and thought their potential community would be happy talking about blue widgets all day. But people connect with ideas.

Aligning your community’s goals and expectations around buy-in

You’ve tackled the focus of your community; now it’s time to uncover what it means for your community to be successful. Unfortunately, too many people tie success into the number of members in a community or the number of followers. But 1,000 highly-engaged people are more powerful than 100,000 people who don’t care at all.

What company goal is your community helping to solve? Communities come in all shapes and sizes, but knowing what outcome you’re hoping a community will have sets you off on the right foot. Often times, these goals are part of larger company goals. You need to align your goals correctly.

inbound, a Hubspot community, provides marketers a place to share great articles about online marketing and ask each other questions. They focus on adding brand value to their parent company with a larger goal to be the biggest online marketing community out there. To accomplish this, has two current major goals:

  • Increase the number of weekly active users by 500%.
  • Increase third month retention by 200%. needs to connect and establish habit from their members. By honing in on retention, they can wisely spend their marketing budget and time. Even’s recent site redesign lends itself to retention. They’ve doubled their focus on personalization, gamification, and other sticky community building methods.

For better personalization, must learn what their members want to see. In their site profiles, members now must add their “skills.” These skills are correlated to topical interests. By requiring members to select them, can then serve relvant articles and discussions for personalization.


As you continue to build your community, you must make sure goals continue to change and evolve with the company. You don’t want your community shut down!

When Fiskars launched their scrapbooking and crafting community, known as the Friskateers, they began with a purpose beyond getting excited about scissors. They also had three goals:

  • Increase online mentions of Fiskars by name 10%.
  • Increase sales in specific geographic areas 10%.
  • Create a relationship between Fiskars and its customers that goes beyond tools.

The Friskateers community program worked so well that Fiskars’ team blew by these goals. They connected with their community like never before. People became brand ambassadors, hosted workshops, gave Fiskars direct product feedback, and even got to have crafting weekends at Fiskars’ headquarters. Fiskars saw a 57% increase in web traffic over six months and stores, which hosted Friskateer ambassadors, saw three times the sales growth.

This all sounds great, right? Well, today, the Friskateers don’t exist because their goals were a checkbox for the brand. Fiskars said, “We did community. Done.” And they shut down the Friskateer website, forum, and blog. Their community goals didn’t evolve with the brand, and the community had served its purpose. Even though Fiskars had built a community to last and one that people gathered to long after Fiskars killed it.

Setting community ground rules

Just like someone asking you to take your shoes off when you enter their home, community ground rules set the tone for your brand. They also help you prepare for controversial issues, which may arise, and these rules help protect against brand reputation equity. Early stage communities often seem so tranquil and kind; we tend to be extra polite to each other before we get to really know one another. There are three major rule areas you need to focus on: branding guidelines, codes of conduct, and team structure.

Branding guidelines

Now that your community has a purpose, you need to figure out the boundaries of that purpose. Some sites expect community members to stay on-topic, while others let community members largely do whatever they want. For SEO software brand Moz, their Q&A forum rules only allow on-topic online marketing questions. Their brand promise for this community is to provide expertise, limited marketing consulting, and knowledge sharing. If you were to say, post about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, your content would be removed.

Code of conduct

These are the rules. While admittedly, most of your community members will not read them, they serve to further outline your community’s purpose and provide expected etiquette. They also come in handy as reference if members violate your rules. If you don’t know where to start, Geek Feminism has a creative commons licensed code of conduct template, which you can change and edit for your community’s needs. You always want to tailor this for your brand’s voice or certain community-specific requirements.

Team structure

Before you launch, you want to figure out who’s doing what. Too many times, one community manager is assigned all things community. However, in order to be successful, more than just one person needs to be involved and needs to care about your community efforts. Outdoor retailer REI got their entire company to shut down for Black Friday. Instead of having a sale, the company and their community have pledged to #OptOutside instead. Their brand’s value centers around getting as many people to experience nature as possible, and they’ve taken this to the next level with their community.


No doubt, #OptOutside took an entire company. But even in a community’s beginnings, you’ll need to bring in non-community managers. For example, you probably want a graphic designer to create launch promotional materials. You might need a web developer to help you set up a community forum. If your community is pay-to-play, you want to work with finance on payment processing. And these jobs, they aren’t even the daily work of running and maintaining a community. There’s no right way to structure a community team, or even a correct place to put it in the organization. Do what’s right for your situation and company, and be open to change.

Where should your build your community?

This question plagues many community managers who are starting from scratch. The truth is that you always want to be where your community will be and build around what works for them. You also must take into account your company’s resources and needs. Today’s communities have found three major homes: onsite, offsite, and in-person events.


The great thing about building an onsite community is your company has the greatest control. You own the website. You own the forum, the blog and its comments, and the review sections. This means you can install whatever technology you choose; set it up in a way that works best for your community and administrative needs; and have the ultimate flexibility in maintaining it. You also own all the user-generated content and data around your members.


Cruiser Forums serves those captaining their own ships, whether they’re lifestyle cruising around the world or just sailing on a nearby lake. This active forum drives answers to members’ questions, and a community where people truly help each other. Moderators have full control to make sure people are giving each other safe and honest advice. Not to mention, they’ve also been able to add sponsor links and ads for monetization.

The downside, onsite communities can be harder to drive traffic to. You must convince people to come back again and again to your community. Members must elect to sign up, remember you, and return for more community fun. You must give them a value-proposition to return.


These days offsite community is typically built on social media. The best part of social media is that people are already using the service. You don’t have to teach your members how to tweet or use Facebook; those networks have already done that work for you. Members also have other reasons to check these networks throughout the day, beyond your brand.


Chain diner Denny’s has built their community on social media, particularly on Twitter. They’ve developed a unique brand voice, and they appeal to a certain crowd. Denny’s makes jokes about breakfast foods or random observations. Their community loves it with each tweet gathering hundreds, if not thousands, of likes and retweets.

Of course, the downside is that you don’t control social media. This means these networks can change the rules whenever they want. For example, Twitter recently shut down Vine, and other networks, such as Friendster and MySpace where people built thriving communities, have disappeared over the years.

In-person events

As much as online interactions are fun, there’s nothing like getting your community together face-to-face. In-person events are an incredible branding opportunity and way to deepen relationships. Your brand can truly get to know someone this way. Not to mention, community members can strengthen relationships with each other.


GeekGirlCon is a nonprofit that celebrates geeky women of all types through events. At their annual conference of over 11,000 attendees, they have a unique challenge that over 1,000 of those attendees are under the age of 10. This means a significant part of their audience may not sit still for panel or lecture-style programming, or may be distracted by parenting said children. GeekGirlCon hosts a DIY Science Zone every year where kids get to interact with real scientists doing hands-on projects. This effort builds the community’s connection with the brand by serving a real need. Not to mention, attendees just have a lot of fun.

The downside, in-person events can be tough for an all-digital brand to pull off. They take a lot of planning, and depending on the scale of the event, can be cost prohibitive. Not to mention, your community members may not all live in the same geographical area and may need extra incentive to travel.

Think before you launch

When you start off a community, your goals and results will likely be small. But those returns will grow over the years. When secure email service provider ProtonMail saw their ranking removed from Google and their search engine traffic die, ProtonMail’s community kept the business alive. They cared about ProtonMail’s mission behind offering another option for secure email. Members upgraded their accounts, and in general, spread goodwill via word-of-mouth and recommendations. This kept ProtonMail’s business alive until their search rankings were restored. Build your community in a powerful, purposeful way, and you’ll see the greatest returns possible.

Header image photo credit: Danny Ngan


About the Author Erica McGillivray

Erica McGillivray is senior-level community manager and consultant with a focus in diversity and inclusion. As a community manager at Moz, she wrangled an online marketing and SEO-focused community of 600,000. She's also a founder of GeekGirlCon, an all-volunteer nonprofit. Erica's a published author and has a comic book collection that's an earthquake hazard. Follow her at @emcgillivray.