Starting with Community-Driven Research

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This the first article in a multi-part, living-and-breathing series on community strategy. This post originally appeared on Loyal’s blog on June 11th, 2014 and was most recently updated here on Community.is.

In the day-to-day of community management, competing priorities, too many hats and always being “on” make it easy to lose sight of the larger business and community goals you’ve set out to accomplish. This is true for any community professional, regardless of experience. Fortunately, as an outside party, Loyal is in the position to start projects from scratch and ask big picture strategy questions upfront. And, it’s easy enough for community professionals at any stage of community, whether starting from scratch or scaling, to take a step back and reset community strategy, too.

At Loyal, we’ve set community strategies for all kinds of companies from international brands and Fortune 500s to growing businesses and early stage startups. For us, we approach community as a design process, a methodological approach to problem solving for people engaging with each other in a specific context of the world, whether online or off. In this multi-part series, we’re sharing our best practices and processes for creating and communicating the value of an execution-oriented community strategy for your entire team.

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Have you ever launched a new community initiative only to realize that it didn’t meet your users needs? Or found that your business goals and community goals didn’t align for sales? What about anticipating a success based on competitors’ prior mistakes? All of this starts with thorough fact-finding.

The first step in any successful community strategy is doing your research. In agency world, this phase of strategy setting is called “discovery.” At Loyal, as we’re specifically interested in getting to the heartstrings of a product and community during this phase, we often call the deliverable for initial research a “product story.”

Regardless of whether a client project is strategy or execution oriented, every single of one our projects starts with a product story session and research. Why? Doing research up front helps to set clear goals and KPIs, align interests between the community and company and/or between internal stakeholders, define and prioritize initiatives, and set budgets and allocate resources. Most importantly, research help to anticipate hurdles and avoid mistakes. If well documented, the output of this research phase can serve as a long-term asset for your entire team and act as a compass for future decision making. Not bad, eh?

At Loyal, we always start our research by asking three big questions:

1. Why does this company exist?

Every community needs a purpose. Understanding a company’s big picture goal (democratize education, reinvent payments, teach everyone to code, etc.) is critical to defining the role that community plays and the strategies that you’ll undertake.

2. What does success look like?

By success, we’re asking a bigger question beyond revenue and KPIs. We’re asking: how is the world different if this company changes it? Success is the ultimate outcome of a company’s existence on the macro level. The answer to this question, too, defines the role that community plays and the means that you’ll need to there.

3. What does an exit look like and why?

This is the question that gives our clients most pause because it makes them feel vulnerable. They think we’re asking for their exit strategy, but really, we’re asking them to identify their priorities and values. A company that would be satisfied with a sale to Amazon has a different trajectory than one that would consider a sale to Salesforce or would only consider an IPO. This question helps us to prioritize community strategies and tactics and identify overarching values.

Asking these three questions usually gives significant insight into both a company’s strategy and its history. Using the aggregate answers to these three questions, we’ll write a one sentence summary that makes up the product story itself. One thing to note, however, is that this is an internal message for your company, not a message for marketing purposes. So, leave your ego behind and be honest.

Definitions and Goals

From here, we define the following parts of the company:

  • Business – How does the company make money?
  • Product – What does it do?
  • Brand – What’s the message and promise? What’s the personality and voice? Inspiration?
  • Community - Why does it exist? Who is a member? This may be different or more specific than the product story. This may be different or more specific than the reason why the company itself exists. Also, would this community exist whether or not the company does? Does the community pre-date the company?
  • Content (if relevant) – What platforms? Is there a current strategy?

When doing this as a group exercise, we like to have each team member write down their answers to the above on their own and then compare — you’d be surprised by variations of answers and perspectives within a single team! When team members have different answers, this usually an opportunity to align interests or find common, greater themes.

For each of the above, we’ll also define goals and roadmaps for immediate, 6-month, 1-year and 5-year terms. While the roadmap might not immediately clear, this is a good opportunity to prioritize. It’s also worth noting that it’s totally ok to not know all the answers or goals for a specific section — this is a chance to dig further.

With the above exercises complete, you should have a good understanding of all of the background necessary to create a community strategy that aligns with goals from across the organization. Of course, there is plenty more to dig into as relevant, most of which should come to light through the above questions:

  • Budget
  • Competition
  • Market opportunities
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Unaddressed needs in the community
  • Ways that community can support revenue streams
  • Product features to support community
  • Partnerships
  • So much more!

As a community professional, and for Loyal as well, most of this information will come directly from company leadership.

Insights

Of course, however, this research period is also a great time to loop in other relevant parties and to conduct stakeholder interviews and customer/community development. #Protip: We’ve sometimes found, especially within larger companies, that the leadership isn’t as connected to their end-users and community as they might believe, and nothing beats hearing community needs first hand. There are many directions in which to take stakeholder interviews.

Because of this, for any initiative that is a significant undertaking of company resources, such as a platform build, a corporate program, or a large media spend, we don’t move forward from discovery without conducting at least ten customer development interviews directly with current or would-be community members. Seriously. It’s a rule. For one client, customer development helped us to pre-emptively eliminate moving forward with a new community program in favor of revamping an existing business development program. For another, it uncovered community needs unknown to the company leadership and lead the platform strategy in a slightly different direction.

Our two main questions are always:

  1. What is the purpose of the community?
  2. How does the community, or how might it, benefit you? What do you value about it?

But that’s just two questions. Generally, each of these conversations last 30-45 minutes each, plenty of time to ask questions related to pain points, tech specifications and, of course, the community itself. If you have a prototype, this could (though not necessarily) be a good time to introduce it to the community for testing and get some immediate product feedback. This customer development process will bring to light some significant community insights that you can bring back to your team for not only community purposes, but also product, marketing, and operations.

Often times, this research period will leave you with more questions than answers for your community strategy — this is a good thing as you move forward! Now, you know exactly what points you’ll need to address and/or pay close attention to in the community strategy itself. That’s for next week. ;)

What are your tips for community research? How else do you set the stage for community strategy?