The ultimate guide to making your customers feel appreciated, making your product feel loved, and building a vibrant community.
Are you as excited for this as I am?
If the answer is yes, then I did my job — I got your attention and I got you pumped.
In this case, I did it through sales (or maybe copywriting), but being able to grab people’s attention and draw them into your conversation is one of a community manager’s (not-so)-secret talents.
What good community management is all about: making people feel engaged and excited, supporting their needs (by answering their questions and providing guidance), and making them want — no, crave — your community experience.
I’ve been doing community management for Praxis for almost 2.5 years, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. Back when I was starting from scratch, this is the guide I wished existed.
In this post, I’m going to break down the most important elements of building an awesome community around your service, product, or ideas.
Your #1 Job is to Build Engagement
This is pretty much the subtitle of your job description … but it can also be far harder than it sounds.
Unless your product or network has a built-in incentive for people to use your community (and count your blessings if it does!), getting engagement is tough. To a user, signing up and setting up feels like work (not to mention taking the time to check notifications to stay engaged). Regardless of the logical rationale, on an emotional level, the payoff doesn’t seem high enough to justify the upfront cost.
To get people engaged, you have to do two things:
- a) build in an up-front payoff (so people are excited to engage right away) and
- b) sell people on how awesome the experience is going to be once they’re in (so instead of this whole “join the community” thing feeling like work, it feels like something they want to rush through so they can get to the good stuff).
Once you’ve gotten your users into the habit of engaging, maintaining that engagement is far easier (the law of inertia is on your side). But how to ramp up that initial momentum?
Step 1: build a system that makes community engagement part of the process. The more integrated, the better. If you have a product, how can you integrate community into product onboarding? If you offer a service, how can you make your community a part of it?
If your community already is a feature, how can you make it more prominent? People do the things they assume they should. If you make your community a part of the assumptions about product/service usage, you’re going to get more traffic.
For example: at Praxis, engaging with the community is part of our product experience. It wasn’t always — there were phases in Praxis’s development when you could do the program but not engage with the community. But we realized the community was valuable, so we made it an inseparable part of the product experience).
CM Exercise: make a list of 10 reasons why your community is valuable in your customer’s onboarding process (think of these as your arguments for why it’s worth paying attention to), and then make a list of 10 ways you can integrate it into that onboarding experience.
Step 2: invite people personally to engage. People love feeling special. It’s easy to underestimate how much of an impact a small personal outreach can have.
As soon as someone joins your community/buys your product/enters your program, reach out to them immediately and get them pumped about getting plugged in and engaged.
Pro Tip: specific is ALWAYS better than vague. Use specific dates and times whenever you can. “Check it out when you get a chance” can mean either “two hours” or “two weeks.” “Can you do this before you log out?” or “Can you do this before tomorrow AM?” is much more specific (and gives you a concrete metric point for the conversation).
Step 3: set the tone right from the start. First impressions really matter — and so do the habits that are built through repetition. If you want your community to be engaged, you’ve got to get in there and engage first, and engage early.
When a community first launches, hit the ground running and with the energy you want to see your community have (no slow ramping-up phase. Are you in this or not?).
When a new member joins, get them integrated right away. If you’re in, you’re all in. Prompt them to take the plunge!
Step 4: provide a roadmap/offer entrance points. It’s hard to engage if you don’t know where to start. Make some curated suggestions for what people should take a look at when they’re getting started, or where they should jump in and interact.
“Post this in X channel!” “Share this with Y group!” “Check out these three posts with tips to get started!”
Step 4: follow up with people that don’t take the first bite. If someone doesn’t engage right away, give them another prompt. Assume they’re just wondering if you really mean it, and give them the extra nudge they need to be convinced.
Step 5: make it clear the community is the best place to be engaging. Don’t be shy about asking people to share questions or comments from 1-on-1 conversations in the group setting. If you want people to engage in the group, always be redirecting there.
Think of Yourself as a Content Curator
There are as many ways to be a community manager as there are communities, but as a generalization, content curation is a huge part of your role. You’re the knowledge bank for your community, the keeper of information, and the go-to when people have questions.
The “questions” part is key — it’s easy to limit your content curation to a reactionary activity (where you share things in response to peoples’ questions). Don’t limit yourself like that. Being proactive and starting conversations around content is important too.
There are two ways I curate content:
- Scheduled (making sure I have a fairly regular cadence for content, and a backlog of ideas to reference if I need them)
- Based on community needs (in response to things people are talking about or thinking about).
In general, I’d recommend using a mix of both. They balance each other out and keep your content pipeline strong.
Scheduled content— I try to follow a loose schedule for my posting — enough to make sure activity is consistent. Having standards throughout the week (such as #TipTuesday or #FeatureFriday) can be great, but if you do this, consistency is key. This rule applies to community management as much as it does to marketing — your customers need to know where and when to find you. I always keep a running document (Evernote is great for this, but Google Docs works too) where I keep ideas for content, so I always have a store to draw from.
Needs-based content — this is the fun part. As the person with your finger on the pulse of your community, you’ll notice trends — issues using the product, questions about the service, a slew of similar questions.
If your community is interested in something, it indicates that the iron for that topic is hot, and should be struck. Don’t just answer the question — turn it into the topic for a post. Write it out, curate relevant links, add additional points and notes.
Relevance is everything when building community engagement. The more relevant your content is to your community, the more direct value your users are getting. The more direct value they get, the higher the incentive for them to come back.
Pro tip: starting conversations only works if people actually engage and converse, and sometimes getting the initial bite is hard. The more specific you can be, the better. I love tagging people directly to get them involved in the conversation, or making a very direct ask (“I want to hear from each of you” or “don’t just read this post — take 30 seconds and respond to it before you leave this tab”). I see a huge difference in engagement when I phrase my CTAs with a direct ask or challenge. People love it.
Keeping Track of Your Members Makes You a Superhero
Good community managers make you feel seen and heard in the present. Great community managers make you feel known and remembered — by always being able to reference information about you.
It seems like a superhuman ability — being able to remember facts and details about all of your community members. Really, though, it just boils down to having great systems.
This is the fun part (if you’re not a numbers person, then yes, that sarcasm was for you). Operations and logistics and (shudder) spreadsheets.
Don’t worry. It’s not actually as bad as it sounds. Don’t think about this as admin work — think about it as outsourcing your brain and freeing up space to do the fun stuff (like having great conversations and engaging with cool people). The stronger your systems, the freer your mind.
Which means being organized is really, really important.
Depending on your organization, you may already have systems in place to track members/users. If you’re really lucky, you’ll have a CRM (and count your blessings if you do. A whole world of possibilities lies at your fingertips).
Spreadsheets are also your best friend. I’ve known community builders who kept a spreadsheet tracking every single member of their community, with cheat sheets and notes for each person. They logged location, occupation, skills, interests, conversation notes — everything they might want to remember. These same people built an incredible reputation as connection-makers — because they always knew what people were working on and what types of people it would be valuable for them to meet.
Start a spreadsheet and notes on each person in your community. If it’s easier, use a digital notes system, or a CRM — whatever works best. But log important notes on each person as you engage with them. It will make a huge difference in the quality of your interactions.
Systems for Outreach are Important Too
You want to make sure people in your community are getting regular (individual) touches, and those touches should be entirely systematized (so you don’t have to actively think about them). Trust me — I tried it the non-systematized way first. Your brain will be much freer if you outsource this to systems.
The frequency of touches will depend entirely on the nature of your community (and the things it’s built around), but touches are important — if you don’t have them, it’s easy for people to slip through the cracks.
If you have a product/service that operates on a standard timeline, you can organize your outreach around specific benchmarks in the customer journey. If your community is more loosely defined, you can schedule outreach by increments of time.
However you structure, build a digital system. I’d recommend:
- Digital reminders (for example, Google Calendar or a CRM task function)
- Context included in those reminders (or even pre-written messages you can customize and paste)
- A spreadsheet system to track everything (so you can log your outreach each time you make it, and reference at a glance every touch each individual has already gotten).
The same rule that applied to the first point (engagement) also applies to this: people want to feel seen and heard. Nothing will keep them coming back more than the sense of a personal connection, and the sense that they matter.
You aren’t just building community. You’re also doing internal marketing.
What’s new? What’s exciting? What should people be thinking about?
As the old adage says, “everything is sales” — and this is no exception. As a community manager, you’re constantly selling and marketing the benefits of being in this community to your members.
It’s less blatant than it sounds, but it’s really important to remember — especially if the community you’re managing is centered around a product. What cool features are you rolling out? What benefits do people get from being involved?
Obviously, you don’t want to sound like you’re marketing. But you also don’t want to be quiet about the cool new benefits, and run the risk of keeping your community members in the dark.
A few rules to keep in mind:
- If you don’t talk about it, assume they don’t know about it. Somebody’s got to share — otherwise people aren’t going to know the things you’re rolling out even exist.
- You’re guiding community conversation and internal brand narrative. What do you want people to know about/think about/be talking about? This doesn’t just have to apply to news — old content and features added into the conversation cycle count as internal marketing too.
- Think of yourself, in part, as crafting experience. My friend James Walpole (who works in marketing at a cool ATL-based startup called BitPay) was the one who first turned me onto the idea of “experience crafting.” The concept sent me down a mental spiral of exploration — what makes a good experience or a good narrative? How are the experiences I have with other people’s brands and communities influenced by the way they’re framed? How can I be intentional about crafting the experience of people in my community? Think about these questions constantly as a Community Manager — because the better your members’ experience, the more excited they’re going to be to keep coming back.
The Master Community-Building Playbook
Want to put this in action? This is where I’d start:
- Build a weekly engagement cadence. Map out a rough posting schedule, so you have a system for keeping engagement up.
- Design workflows for a) new community members, b) unengaged community members, and c) standing community members that need extra touches.
- For each type of touch, draft a basic standard outreach (that you can customize for each individual situation). You don’t have to use it, but it will save time to have it.
- Start a spreadsheet, and slowly add to it each time you learn something new about a community member. Treat it as your outsourced memory, and your personal community CRM.
At the end of the day, good community is built by constant upkeep, consistent engagement, and great energy — which starts with you, but is built up around you through the excitement of your community members.
When I landed my first startup job, I felt like I knew nothing. Actually, some days I felt like I knew less than nothing.
I was nineteen years old, and my previous working experience consisted of tutoring homeschooled kids and picking apples for a living. I had no idea what a quarter was, let alone a KPI. I was excited and I was hungry and I had no clue what I was doing.
I realized (much later) that it wasn’t just me. One of the most frustrating things when you’re starting your career is all the stuff you don’t know. You’re young, and you’re excited, and you have all the time in the world — all advantages — but there are some pretty big disadvantages that come with the territory. The biggest two are a lack of experience and a lack of knowledge. The latter, in part, is a symptom of the former.
When you don’t have a lot of knowledge yet, one of the best ways you can compensate for it is by reading.
Here’s the thing — to be an effective player in the startup world, there’s a lot you have to be good at. Some of the most important:
- understanding how startups work in the first place (pretty obvious, but as I quickly discovered, it’s a whole different world)
- knowing how to articulate and sell ideas really, really well
- being super adaptable, on the turn of a dime
- understanding how to test ideas, learn from the results, and redirect course accordingly
- being resilient, even when it seems like everything’s going wrong
- thinking creatively about solving problems
- thinking innovatively, and being able to come up with ideas no one’s ever tried before
Relying on experience as a source of knowledge limits you to a chronological progression of growth — one that’s constrained by how quickly you can accumulate experiences. It might take years to encounter enough problems and come up with enough solutions to really learn how to think innovatively and start to pitch ideas that have an impact.
When you don’t have experience, borrow someone else’s. The fastest way to level up is to read — a lot.
When you read, you get to immerse yourself in the thoughts and ideas of people far smarter than you. It’s the equivalent of landing a dinner with one of your professional heroes, and getting to ask them questions all night, and then getting lucky enough to have them accept your invite to go get drinks once dinner is over, at which point they’re answering questions you didn’t even know you had.
And even once you have leveled up, keep reading. If you rely solely on your own experiences and perspectives, your growth trajectory is limited by the linear and chronological pace of your own development. If you use books as a window into other people’s experiences, you blow your knowledge-acquisition potential wide open.
The following is a collection of some of the books that have been most impactful to me on my own journey as a professional, and the ones I’d most highly recommend to others trying to level up their startup game.
The Essential Classics:
Zero to One by Peter Thiel
This is the classic playbook of the startup world. The subtitle says it all: “notes on startups, or how to build the future.” Thiel boils down the lessons he learned through starting PayPal and Palantir into 12 chapters of pure wisdom. I reread it on the regular.
This book will help you understand how startups work, and it will give you a window into what it means to think innovatively — one of the most important skills to have if you want to really crush it in the startup space.
Thiel talks about:
- What it means to go from zero to one. Zero to One means going from nothing to something (inventing something that has never existed before, like the Wright brothers building the first airplane). One to N means innovating on something that already exists (like Boeing releasing the 737 MAX). The best companies always want to start from zero, and create something entirely new.
- How the paradigm around innovation and growth has changed over time, and what that means for business.
- How all the most successful people know secrets, and build their companies around the secrets they’ve discovered about how the world works. There are lots of secrets left to be discovered in the world, and our job is to find them.
- His philosophy around hiring and building great teams
- The importance of coming up with ideas no one has ever thought of before (and what this looks like in practice)
- The importance of thinking about the best businesses as monopolies. “
Niche Down by Christopher Lochhead
This book starts with the idea of thinking innovatively/finding your monopoly and takes it one step further.
Niching Down means finding your niche — the smaller, the better — and then completely dominating it. That’s how all great companies are built. Lochhead explores great companies that have found their niches, and breaks down what makes each one so impressive.
It’s a phenomenal book that will help you understand markets, categories, customers, and the power of being really specific.
I’d recommend Niche Down as a starting point, but Lochhead has a lot of other content that’s valuable to explore. He’s the co-author of another book, Play Bigger, which talks about category creation (not competing against other products, but rather inventing an entirely new category of products), and he’s the host of two phenomenal podcasts.
He’s also a fun author and speaker. He calls himself a pirate of the startup world, and it’s an apt descriptor. He’s as colorful as he is smart (The Economist once called him “offputting to some,” and he was so proud of the title he put it on his website’s About page).
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
This is a book for CEOs, not employees, but it’s an invaluable read no matter who you are. As an early employee, one of the most confusing things is the way executives think. It feels like there are lots of curtains and secrets, and a lot going on that you sense is there but never get to see.
This book is the distillation of everything Horowitz learned in his 8 years as CEO of Opsware — one of the fastest-growing companies in the country during the dot-com boom, which had its IPO after the bubble burst, had to lay off large numbers of its employees four times, and eventually sold to HP for $1.6b.
This book breaks down what’s going on in the head of a CEO, and what happens behind the scenes. It offers a window into the things you don’t usually get to see a an entry-level employee, but that are critical to understand in order to grow.
It’s also a great book to read if you’re ambitious and know you want to rise up quickly in a company. It gives you some toeholds as you start to understand what you need to be thinking about in order to grow.
It’s also a great book to remind you how gritty startups are, and how much grit you’re going to need if you’re going to make it big.
The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey
This is a tennis book, not a business book, so it may seem odd to see it on the list. But Inner Game of Tennis is one of the most important books to read to level up your game.
The author of this book is a professional tennis coach. Over the course of his career, he started to see patterns in the way people learned — and realized that the biggest differentiator between people’s success was what was going on in their heads. He started experimenting with the way he gave people directions, the way he coached, and the way he helped people understand the game — and over time, he pivoted his coaching from teaching tennis to teaching the mindsets that are pivotal for success.
Just like in sports, your level of success in your career is going to hinge on what goes on between your ears. The sharper your mental game, the sharper your game in the real world is going to be.
The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz
I’m a big fan of books written in the first half of the 20th century, and while 1959 doesn’t quite hit that mark, this book still has that old-school feel. Take a look at this quote from the opening chapter:
“The most essential element — in fact, the essential element — in our space explorations today is belief that space can be mastered. Without firm, unwavering belief that man can travel in space, our scientists would not have the courage, interest, and enthusiasm to proceed.”
In a similar vein to The Inner Game of Tennis, this book is all about what’s going on in your head. Your inner game is just as important is your outer game in the startup world. You’re creating something out of nothing, and running up against hard challenges, and pushing yourself farther than you thought you could go.
How you think makes the biggest difference in how you perform. Your level of success hinges on what you believe. The first step to succeeding is believing you’re able to succeed.
This book is all about getting your head in the right space, and establishing elite thinking. It also talks extensively about learning how to observe the people around you, and how they think, and how to adopt the mindsets you see in other people’s thinking.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
To be successful, you’re going to have to create stuff — the more the better — and you’re going to have to ship that stuff out into the world. Creating stuff is hard. Shipping it is even harder.
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield talks about why shipping is so difficult — because of a force called Resistance, which is always present and always equal in measure to the importance of the thing you’re trying to accomplish. When you sit down to watch Netflix, you don’t feel Resistance, because what you’re trying to do isn’t worth much. But if you try to get up and clean your room, you’re going to feel a little bit of Resistance, because that activity has value. And if you decide to scrap all of the above and go write an article, let along a blog post, the force of Resistance is going to recognize that as something that’s both valuable and hard, you’re going to feel a lot of adversity in getting started.
Pressfield also talks about how to combat and overcome resistance, to be a consistent creator — and why it’s so important to do so. This is a phenomenal book to re-read on the regular. It will reset your creative process every time you pick it up.
The Best Articles and Essays
How to Get Work Done: A Primer — this one was a post on the Praxis blog written by my friend and colleague Chuck Grimmett. It’s a masterful overview of how to think about working and efficiency.
How to be Successful by Paul Graham — a phenomenal essay on thinking about your success and career growth.
Breaking Smart by Venkatesh Rao — a brilliant essay “miniseries” built off of Marc Andreessen’s quote “software is eating the world.” It explores how technology is changing everything in the world around us and gives you an edge in thinking about the future of the tech/startup world.
The Ultimate Gide to Writing Online by David Perell — the best professionals are writers too, and the fastest way to accelerate your career is through writing. David breaks down writing as a tool not only for communication, but for learning. This essay is a great resource as you’re building your career.
7 Essays That Will Help You Succeed in Internet Business by Taylor Pearson — this collection of essays is a great set of resources on thinking about your career. While it’s written for “internet business,” it’s highly applicable to all things startup, and should be studied thoroughly.
Patrick Collison on doing things that don’t scale — this is a talk, not an essay, but it still deserves a space on the list. It’s a great piece on thinking about getting in the weeds as a strategic move, to help you a) make your customers happy, and b) obtain the information you need to build systems that do scale.
Six Principles for Making New Things by Paul Graham — the title really says it all. A great essay on thinking about innovation.
The Most Important Points:
Make up for your lack of experience with the work of those who are smarter than you. They were generous enough to give you a window into their thought processes. Take advantage of them.
Pursue resources that help you gain knowledge not only about how startups work, but how innovators think. The history of innovation is one of the most important things to understand. It tells the story of all the people who saw things that didn’t yet exist, which are now part of your day-to-day world.
Here’s the bad news: you’ll always be replaceable.
People at companies are replaced all the time. Sometimes they’re fired. Sometimes they take new opportunities and move on, and the company’s left scrambling to find someone to take their place. People who appear to be the backbone of a company schism and go elsewhere, and the company still carries on. Even Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, was fired from his own company and replaced. If that can happen, then it can happen to anyone.
Here’s the good news: you can create job security.
Your question is a good one. There’s even an answer. But it deserves slight reframing (and the answer to the question will start to become apparent as I lay out the mindset shift).
Instead of asking “can I be replaced?” (because the answer will always be yes), ask instead “how much does it cost to replace me?”
How expensive/time consuming is it for my company to find someone to replace me/train someone to replace me?
The higher that replacement cost, the harder it is to make the transition, the less the company will be inclined to incur that cost, and the more job security you’ll have.
In business, we talk a lot about being indispensable (the book Lynchpin talks about this in detail). That’s the goal — to be so valuable people want/need to keep you.
The progression of professional development:
- To become so impressive people want to hire you
- To become so valuable people want to keep you
- To develop so much potential people want to promote you
Becoming indispensable is what drives those second two measures of success — maintaining your job and leveraging it into a better job.
So how do you do that?
- The more knowledge you have of how the company works, the more valuable you are. A random hire who can produce the same numbers as you has the same monetary value as you (and the cost of your replacement is directly equal to their salary + hiring/onboarding costs), but knowledge of the company is harder to replace, because it takes time and energy to acquire, and a random hire won’t have it.
- The more knowledge you have of your department, the better.
- The more cross-department knowledge you have, the more valuable you become. Now you’re more valuable than an employee who has singular knowledge of either one of those two departments.
- The more skills you have, the better — hard and soft both. A variety of skills exponentially increases your value, because the combination becomes harder to find/replace.
- The greater your ability to do creative work, the more valuable you become. Fulfilling your job description is valuable; creating things that have a lasting impact at your company carries far more weight, because those things change the value of the company itself.
And the practical step-by-step process to get you there:
- First, focus on doing your job really, really well. Master your job description. Become the best at your company at fulfilling it. This is base-level competence/value, which is required for your company to keep you in the first place.
- Go above and beyond. Take on additional side projects, create solutions to solve problems you see within the company. This increases your value, because now replacing you requires not only fulfilling your job description, but other things too.
- Start to learn how to chip in within other departments. Once you’re going above and beyond in your own department, look elsewhere. Are there things you can provide the marketing team that help them create better content? Information you can help the operations department collect? A shift you can pick up manning the live chat for customer success? The greater your contextual knowledge of the company, the more valuable you are in your own department and to the company as a whole.
- Learn, learn, learn. This one’s underrated, but seriously valuable. The smarter you are, the more information you have to work with, the more problems you can solve, and the more value you have the capacity to create. Study. Research. Relentlessly pursue making yourself smarter. The raw information you carry becomes part of what you bring to the table at a job, and becomes something a potential replacement likely won’t have.
So, to sum it up …
Instead of becoming 100% irreplaceable (a losing battle, because you’ll never make it), you want to focus on making the cost of replacing you so high that it isn’t worth the bother. Becoming indispensable means that you’re so good that it will cost a company a ridiculous amount of time, money, and other resources to replace you. They won’t ever want to.
When you hit that point, you’ve become functionally irreplaceable.
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