30 Steps to build a SaaS community from scratch
Read a curated list of community building techniques with examples for your SaaS from community experts and SaaS Founders.
Table of Contents
- How to build a SaaS community
- 1. Why you should care about community:
- 2. Start small. Start tiny
- 3. Weak community leadership kills communities
- 4. Invite-only works
- 5. Merch supercharges communities
- 6. Get members where they want to go
- 7. Who we are
- 8. Not all founding members are equal
- 9. Find Community/market fit
- 10. Design rituals
- 11. Set up meetings with every executive leader on the team
- 12. Set up meetings with 20 current and/or potential members
- 13. Audit all of your community spaces and channels
- 14. Forums are good for communities
- 15. Audit analytics and reporting systems
- 16. Create a v1 of community goals
- 17. Bring the SFD (shitty first draft) of your proposed goals back to executive leadership
- 18. Create a v1 community strategy
- 19. The Tactical Level of your strategy
- 20. Your community strategy should be time-based
- 21. Get feedback on your strategy
- 22. Report on your progress
- 23. Revisit your community strategy every quarter and set new Community and Tactical level goals.
- 24. Build Word of Mouth
- 25. Fake it till you make it
- 26. Grow your Community with Craigslist
- 27. Do Blogger outreach
- 28. Explore Paid marketing
- 29. Grow your SaaS community with Flywheels
- Strategic community flywheels
- Tactical community flywheels
- Say no to the Community Funnel of Hope
- Your community idea is great, it's probably not much without a flywheel
- Create flywheels for visualization and reference
- Strategic community flywheels are great
- Tactical Community Flywheels are more powerful with meaning
- Community activities > Engagement
- Feedback is everywhere
- 30. The best way to start a community is by building a Minimum Viable Community (MVC)
- What is a Minimum Viable Community
- Why build a Minimum Viable Community?
- Starting small is perhaps the only authentic way of doing it
- Minimum Viable Community is a mindset
- Examples of Minimum Viable Communities
- When to use Minimum Viable Communities?
We curated a list of 30 steps from community experts to build and grow a SaaS community on the internet. We have saved the best approach in the last step!
Note: SaaSwrites is a curated growth marketing hub and resource built to help SaaS founders grow their products. We sincerely thank all our experts for their constant value addition to this world.
To build community: - find your people - study your people - take notes - talk to your people - take notes - repeat quite a few times The how then becomes much easier to answer. ~ Rosie Sherry
Greg Isenberg helped build internet communities that have generated hundreds of millions of members
The most often question he gets asked is:
But Greg - how do I build a community from scratch?!
- It's the best way to build a movement
- It supercharges word-of-mouth
- People want community more now than ever
- Products built on-top of communities scale fast
If you unlock community, it's an unfair advantage
95% of communities can start as a simple group chat. A community only needs a shared purpose and a place to thrive. Don’t overthink it
6 qualities of high-performing community leaders I’ve noticed:
- Obsessed with the mission/people
- Relentlessly helpful
95% of communities should begin as waitlists. B2B or B2C. Doesn’t matter Exclusivity and scarcity drives demand.
Tip: waitlist communities outperform
You’d be surprised what designing incredible merch can do to a community. It gives them a “raison d’etre” Example: @100Thieves
The secret to community design: get members they want to go (i.e : milestones etc). The best communities: move members
I’ve never found a community that thrived that didn’t have a compelling “who we are” story
- Describe the future utopia
- Describe the cause with passion
- Amplify the real reason they exist
Tip: tighten your who we are story and terrific things happen
Example: Clubhouse recruited well-known tech people in April 2020 and gave them a virtual place to hang out.
Tip: your first members set the tone. Choose wisely.
Founders obsess about product/market fit. But don’t obsess enough about community/market fit. How to build a startup in 2021:
- Community/market fit
- Product/market fit
Being in a Zoom call together isn’t community building.
The goal: Create daily/weekly rituals that make people feel alive and grateful to be apart of the community.
- Human beings can’t help it: we need to belong
- The long term win is in building a community
- Building a community is where art meets science. It's perfectly doable.
Community-building can be done in different ways: - Content creation - Sharing your journey in forums - Participating in Slacks/Discords The common denominator; helpful contribution ~ Ben Tossell
David Spinks shares the exact process he would follow if he just got hired to lead community for a new company...
- How do you define community?
- What are your team's top 3 goals?
- How do you think community can help you achieve those goals?
- How would you like to be involved in the community?
Speak to a diverse range of members with diff perspectives. Aim to understand: 1. What is their experience with the community today (pros and cons) 2. What is their hope for the community 3. How you can help them
- Where are members gathering today?
- What channels are being used to communicate with members?
- What tools and technology are we using to build community?
- Who's responsible for managing each channel?
Rosie shares that forums are great for:
- formalising ideas
- seeking help
- collaborative note taking
- get answers
- giving back
- What community data exists today?
- Where does the data live?
- How are we reporting on community health and business impact?
- What tools are we using to organize, analyze, and report community data?
Your conversations with leadership + members and your audits will show you the current state and opportunities for improvement. Choose specific goals (we use OKRs) that define the future state everyone wants to reach.
To build community, do things that don't scale, for quite a long time. ~ Rosie Sherry
Go back to all of the leaders you originally spoke to. Ensure that everyone is aligned on the goals that the community team (you) will work toward. Get their thumbs up to move forward.
Only after you have clearly defined goals that align with leadership and member expectations should you put together a strategy. Your strategy should focus on three areas:
The Business Level of your community strategy will define the revenue-based outcomes community will drive for the business.
It should also lay out the tools, systems, and reporting structure for tracking and communicating the results.
The Community Level of your strategy will define the programs and experiences that you'll create and facilitate for your members that will accomplish business and member goals.
Use the 7Ps of Community to design each program
It will define the specific things you'll do, day-to-day and week-to-week in order to make each program successful.
These should be specific tasks like:
- Send weekly welcome thread
- Send weekly email
- Onboard 50 members
I recommend breaking goals down by:
Note: Community programs will generally take 6-12 months to show measurable ROI.
Go back to leadership again and walk them through your plan. Ask them to poke holes, ask hard questions, and share their ideas for how you can improve it. Rinse and repeat until you get final sign off.
Create a report that you'll send out every: - Month - Quarter - Year The report should focus on:
→Business impact: revenue
→Community health: engagement data + survey/interview results
→Tactical learnings: what worked? what didn't work?
Try not to change it up too much within the quarter. At the least, your top-level Business goals should remain the same unless there's big a big shift for the business.
When they were ready to start building a community, they started with word of mouth. Drafted an email pitching the concept. It went out to everyone they knew, asking them to share it with anyone who would be interested. This got them maybe a few dozen signups.
With only a handful of members, they needed to make the community feel more active. So they faked it till they made it. The team created multiple accounts and posted using different fake names. This created the sense of more activity and encouraged new members to join in.
Later, they learned that the founders of Reddit did the same thing early on. Sometimes the solution to the "chicken and the egg" problem of building community is to create the illusion of more chickens (or eggs.)
After tapping out their networks and WOM, they had to look elsewhere for growth. So the team unbundled the most dominant community platform of the mid-2000's. Yep, Craigslist.
Posted in Craigslist forums for big sports cities promoting B/R as a place for fans to write about their teams.
Posting on Craiglist iss free. Their success rate improved as they iterated on copy, cadence, and communication tactics. Craigslist netted them 100's of first users.
Taking the lessons learned from CL, they decided to bundle up the still-nascent sports blogosphere.
Using Google, blogrolls and Technorati, they manually built a database of every active sports blog they could find.
Then the team emailed bloggers and pitched them on joining B/R. Blogger outreach started with individual emails until they learned what worked best.
Then they automated the process while still making it feel personal. Recruiting bloggers was hit or miss. Some preferred blogging solo. But a few hundred gave it a shot.
They kept growing. In the early days, every new user got white-glove onboarding. One of the co-founders served as head of community and personally introduced each new member to B/R.
We got to know early users incredibly well. Sometimes too well.
So the team took a flier (literally) on a new social network for college students that was still figuring out their business model: Facebook.
They had just introduced "Facebook Flyers", their first ad product. They were all text ads on the sidebar of the home page, targeted first by college and (soon after) interest. And since FB was new, they were super cheap.
The team targeted FB Flyers to big sports schools, using the messaging and onboarding tactics they had refined in our earlier efforts. The results were huge. Thousands of new signups. But like most paid marketing, quality was lower. Still, paid social helped them really scale.
- You are your first user.
- Look where your users already are. Bundle. Unbundle. Test new channels.
- Be shameless about growth. If it works, it works. No judgement.
- Treat your early users like celebrities. They will repay you 1,000x.
If you start a community, be prepared to amplify other people’s voices over yours.
To build community:
- find your people
- study your people
- take notes
- talk to your people
- take notes
- repeat quite a few times
The how then becomes much easier to answer.
These are higher level, designed as an overview. They guide us and help us make decisions. They help us stick to our community principles. Like anything in life, they should evolve over time.
These dive into the daily operations. We have the opportunity to be experimental and reactionary. They drill down deep, often to deep many levels, with guidance from the strategic community flywheels.
Flywheels work better as each piece of the flywheel is connected. If one fails, the whole thing falls apart. It forces you to build upon things that work, rather than throwing things into the community funnel of hope.
Interconnected processes are what helps grows communities. Without this, you probably don't have a community. Refined community flywheels are arguably more important than your community vision. People like to think that communities just magically grow. The reality is that they don't. There are many 'boring processes' happening behind the scenes that most people don't see.
But break each part down into lists and sub-lists of what works and what doesn't work. Of what you do and don't do. Don't randomly build upon new ideas. Build upon what you know works.
But they start from tactical ones. In the early days be tactical. Try things and see what works. Do what works. Do what feels good. Ditch everything else.
Tactics are meaningless without a vision. Make sure everything you do inches you towards the goals you are trying to achieve.
Understand that community journeys are at the heart of everything. It's not about engagement, it's about the community journey. It becomes meaningless if you can't help people get to where they want to be.
Engagement is nothing, or even worse, it can be negative if it doesn't help your community achieve what they need to achieve.
What can you do, create, or co-create that will help people get to where they need to be? This is community design — create experiences that help people get to where they want to be. Experiences = many different community activities.
If you start a community, be prepared to amplify other people’s voices over yours. ~ Rosie Sherry
No response is feedback.
Energy is feedback.
Participation is feedback.
Look for it, improve your flywheels, and co-create.
An MVC is the smallest action you can take to bring people together. An MVC is not necessarily a community, yet. The intentions and vision are probably there, but the community may not be.
An MVC is not about the tech behind the community — it is more about the ability to test whether people are interested, or potentially interested in the vision of your community.
If you can't bring people together in a small-scale environment, how are you going to do it in a larger one?
MVCs are a perfect way to get started with community. Not only to understand if building the community is right for you, but also to understand what it is people actually need from the community.
We must also not forget that part of the validation of building community is whether people want to join in with whoever leads it. Just because you want a community doesn't mean others will want to follow you into it.
MVCs help you avoid the lure of big community, tools and processes. To instead focus on building relationships and understanding between one another. To break down the walls. To do people research.
And authenticity matters if you want people to open up with the truth and to share what it is they are really after. Starting small means you start to build trust. A community without trust is one that will likely not survive.
Starting small means you start to really learn about what people want. This means you can build learnings into building your community. Starting small means you can be mindful of the culture you are creating, through your own behaviour and of those that you invite in.
Starting small is less risky. It gives you the freedom to experiment and trial things out and just being ok with whatever happens. Starting small means you focus on the outcomes and learnings rather than the metrics.
Of course, it's not just about 'starting small'. Minimum Viable Communities is all about the mindset of being open minded and experimental.
Practically, what do we mean by Minimum Viable Community? Here are some ideas to get you going:
Newsletters are easy to start, harder to maintain consistency. However, they're also pretty easy to adapt over time. The magic with newsletters is that they can feed into invites to events.
Social audio is a great way to connect and converse with people. Players at the moment include the likes of Twitter Spaces, Discord Stages, Clubhouse & Racket. The magic is that really you only need to be willing to have a conversation with one other person.
Many platforms support the use of hashtags. These are great for tapping into an existing niche set of people. You can choose to either contribute to one that already exists, or start your own.
- Social Forums
These are public places like Reddit and Facebook groups. They are easy to start, but longer term it is hard to control the outcome as you don't own the data, the eyeball competition is much harder and you are at the mercy of algorithms.
- Take notes together
Think: Google Docs, Google Sheets, Miro, etc. I'm a big fan of note taking! Coming together to take notes is fun, productive and creates a valuable outcome. It also helps to create connections between the contributors and generate new ideas.
- The comments section
A forum is just a post with the ability to add comments. Of course, this is a simplified take on it, however when you do choose to look at it this way you can start to see the value of comments everywhere. Make use of and encourage comments everywhere. In your newsletter, blog, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, forums...anywhere.
- Small events, meetups and 1:1 chats
This was how I got started in the world of community!
Nothing ever replaces IRL stuff even when most of us have become accustomed to virtual events. Both are valid approaches and both can create connections and potential value for life!
Yes memes. We can tap into our shared knowledge, spur on discussions, inspire and educate one another. Memes are a great way to practice understanding who your people are, especially when you can get people to 'feel seen.
- Merch and Swag
We all love a bit of swag, though these days we should become increasingly mindful of the environment. Things like stickers and t-shirts can bring real visibility and connection to people. It's so much easier to start conversations with people when you know you have something in common-swag can show that thing in common that you have.
Often people don't see podcasting as community building, however when you look at the foundations of community as being conversations then it becomes easier to see how podcasting can help create community. Podcasts are great for amplifying voices and ideas of the people you want to connect with in a deeper way. It also has the long tail benefit of bringing people together over a long period of time.
MVCs are more about the mindset of constantly experimenting. You should be doing this all the time, no matter the size of your community.
Rosie Sherry recommends it when starting out, however before actually going ahead she recommends people to do their research. Creating an MVC shouldn't be the first step in building a community, these days but Community Discovery or the art of studying your people should be preferred.
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