The Why and What of Community

Before you build a community ask yourself these questions

The textbook definition of community is “a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.”[1] Another useful explanation for defining a community that I often relied upon is:

A group of people with a common interest and shared values.

Given these definitions, what makes your community distinct? What is that common thread that brings people together? Once you bring people together, how do you ensure the community remains healthy and grows? To figure out your community, you need to answer four simple questions: what, who, why, and how?

Normally, you would think to start with “why.” After all, that is what well-known speakers like Simon Sinek talk about.[2] In general, this is true, which I will share the importance of why later on. In my experience though, most communities start with a mini-”why” seeking a “what.”

Community organizers often begin their journey thinking, “I wish there was a group that did ‘this thing’ I am interested in.” There is always some reason, or spark, that gets the idea going. It may not eventually be the big “why” that helps launch the community, but it is enough of a question or pain in the neck that it nudges the process along to finding the “what.”

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My start with building what eventually became the Enterprise Sales Forum was figuring out a way to get salespeople and founders together. The spark that got me started though was way too many coffee meetings explaining the basics of sales to startup founders and mentoring salespeople on enterprise selling. Beside the caffeine headaches I got from too many coffees, I became frustrated with the lack of reliable information about B2B sales that I could point people. There was not enough hours in the day to help everyone.

Once the spark ignites, the mini-”why” turns into a “what.” Would-be community organizers search around online for something, ask friends doing ‘this thing’ if they know of any groups, and then explore various groups, meetups, and forums to see if any of these meet their expectations.

When I started the Enterprise Sales Forum, the “what” was pretty clear. I was searching for a community of people interested in B2B complex sales so people could learn from each other. Before I decided to start my own community, I searched and asked about groups, but nothing really hit the mark. The events seemed more networking-oriented rather than built about quality content. There were also many non-salespeople in attendance. The experiences from these events helped forge what the Enterprise Sales Forum would become, a community distinct from what already existed.

Your community can be centered around a similar interest, a profession, a company or school, or a lifestyle. It can be anything you want. The point is your community focuses on that one thing and “owns the niche.” Once you deviate, you begin to lose what it is that makes your community special, exclusive, and worthwhile to join.

The next important element is “who” is in your community. You can make your community wide open or very exclusive. You can let anyone sign up or implement an application process to evaluate potential members. The core of any community is the people in it, so having the right chemistry is critical. People joining your group should expect they are going to meet and engage with their peers around “what” your community represents.

The Enterprise Sales Forum has an open enrollment in which the community accepts anyone involved in B2B sales or seeking to learn more about B2B sales. The group is still a well-defined niche; selling to businesses tends to be more complex and distinctive enough to catch the attention of the core audience. They feel the community is about them and not the broader profession of sales, which members confirmed in surveys to be an important consideration in joining the community. I talk more about this concept in the “Curating Membership” chapter of my book Community-in-a-Box.

When you start talking about your community idea with others, you quickly find yourself answering the “why” question. Mostly, people will want to know “why” others should join. Just responding with, “There is no community for ‘this thing’ and people will love it,” is not a strong basis to begin, so it is worth taking the time to describe the “why” of the community.

There are two key questions to ask yourself:

Why do you think your community is needed?

What impact will your community make?

As I started to talk about this B2B sales community I wanted to form, I took the experiences from attending other groups and events to refine what was unique and valuable about the community I wanted to create.

There were four things that stood out to me that I wanted to do differently:

● The community should be independent, non-vendor aligned, and about members first;

● The content should be practical, insightful, relevant, and high-quality;

● The people in the group should be open to collaborating and sharing; and

● The community should be open to innovative approaches in selling.

I took these thoughts and molded them into the “why” for the Enterprise Sales Forum. The community now describes itself as a community for B2B salespeople by B2B salespeople to network with peers, to learn from experienced sales professionals, and to collaborate with each other.

The other side of why can almost be thought of as a “so what” question, as in “So what is the impact?” By itself, the Enterprise Sales Forum’s “why” makes sense. But why does this community really matter and what impact will it have on others?

This is where vision comes in. What is vision? Vision is a simple statement that inspires change brought about by the work of an organization. It explains the impact you seek to make in the world. This is the end state and the audacious goal that inspires your community to instigate meaningful change.

The vision for the Enterprise Sales Forum grew from the perception that sales was not a well-respected profession. Training was often rudimentary and outdated. Strategy was little more than “ground and pound” tactics. I felt there were enough like-minded sales professionals that also aspired to something better and wanted to create a community to change the current state of sales. I saw that a community could elevate sales as a noble profession and help sales professionals to grow professionally in their career.

Getting your “why” clearly defined will take a few iterations. Share your “why” with others who will be part of your community and be open to suggestions and changes. You know you have hit upon your “why” when they enthusiastically respond with, “That makes sense,” and hopefully ask to sign up!

What is your community then? It starts with that spark leading to a “what” that defines your unique niche in the world. By defining “who” the community is for, it draws in people who will gain the most value from your community. Once you know “who,” you have to give them a “why” that both explains the purpose of the community and inspires people to want to participate in your community!

What types of communities have you joined and participated in? Did you have a clear sense of the vision of the community and why it was unique?

[1] Merriam Webster, “Community”; https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/community

[2] Simon Sinek, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action

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Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, enterprise agility, community building & software engineering culture. Author 👉 https://twitter.com/marksbirch

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