A 5-Part Framework for Building Your Brand Community
- Community building offers people an authentic sense of connection with your brand, creating a moat against competitors. But it’s hard to know where to start.
- The 5M Pyramid of Priority breaks community building down into 5 key areas — mission, members, medium, metrics, and messaging — arranged from least to most flexible.
- You don’t need to completely solve one before moving on to the next. Progress is iterative, and your approach to building your brand community will evolve over time.
- Mission is the big “why” — the major change your company is trying to make in the world. Your mission acts as a beacon, signaling to your ideal community members and showing them the path home.
- Members: It’s crucial to have a clear idea of whom you’re building for and what they need. Talk live with members — or better yet, listen — and their stories will forever impact the way you work.
- Medium consists of the platform(s) you use to communicate with and grow your group. An ideal medium connects you to your members, and your members to each other.
- Metrics: Measuring success in community building is difficult but not impossible, so long as you’re willing to accept that not everything that counts can be counted.
- Messaging: The way you talk about your community is never neutral, so choose your messaging wisely, and experiment until you find a method that gives you the results you want.
Competitors can copy your product. They can even copy your processes. But no one can ever clone the bonds that exist between you and your people, meaning that a strong community is one of the only remaining moats between your company and would-be copycats, especially if those copycats try to win on price.
To use a sports analogy — no fan has ever switched teams just because their rival’s jerseys were on sale.
When people feel a deep sense of authentic connection to your brand, they’ll stay with you even when they have options that cost them less, pay them more, or offer more prestige.
The art of creating this authentic connection is known as community building — something I spent years learning hands-on in the trenches, and have since had the pleasure of teaching to founders in New York, London, and Tel Aviv. Done well, it will elevate your mission, spark new insights inside your organization, and build loyalty for your brand.
Many companies see the need to build a brand community, but aren’t sure where to start. Luckily, there’s a path. It’s called the 5M Pyramid of Priority and it consists of 5 parts: mission, members, medium, metrics, and messaging.
This framework can be used to plan your community building efforts, and to diagnose and address challenges as your tribe grows. Beginning at the bottom, you progress through a series of thought exercises and questions. The closer you get to the top, the more room there is to experiment and test new ideas. You can return to this process again and again as you continue to build your community.
Let’s look at each layer in turn.
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Simon Sinek is famous for saying that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. They buy your mission (with a capital M).
Your mission acts like a signal beacon, so that when prospective members find you, they don’t just think “that’s neat” or “ah, interesting” but rather, “This is what I’ve been looking for. I’m home.”
While a company and its community will have many goals, there is only ever one mission, and it is the guiding light (the true north) that helps steer all decision making.
Case Study — Patagonia
Patagonia has an extremely clear mission. On the surface, they appear to be a clothing company. Their job is to sell clothes. That’s what they do.
But their why — their mission — goes much deeper.
Patagonia is driven by a singular idea — to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. They’re extremely clear about this, and it permeates every level of their organization:
- Supply Lines: They’re ending the use of virgin polyester in products, switching to 100% recycled or renewable fabrics by 2025.
- Product: They’ve launched innovative lines like Patagonia Provisions — food harvested using sustainable growing/fishing practices.
- Content: Movies like Artifishal and DamNation educate people on environmental topics.
- Philanthropy: Patagonia donates 1% of sales to grassroots organizations in order to support environmental renewal projects.
- Employee Benefits: Patagonia has a policy of paying bail for any employee arrested during peaceful protests.
At the time of writing (just before the 2020 presidential election), their mission even played a role in the design of their website, as they urged people to get out and vote:
None of these aspects of their business are overtly about selling clothes, but you can be damn sure they sell more because of them. People rally around Patagonia’s mission so that every new initiative makes members of the community feel a little more connected to the company.
How to Identify Your Mission:
On some level you already know what your mission is, even if you haven’t stated it as clearly as Patagonia has. You therefore don’t decide on a mission so much as you uncover it.
In their book Find Your Why, co-authors Simon Sinek, David Mead, and Peter Docker offer a good framework for bringing your existing mission more clearly to the surface, whether you work solo or with a team:
- Gather and share stories: “At its core, the WHY is an origin story,” they write. “To uncover our WHY we must bring together our standout memories — our defining moments — and examine them to find the connections.”
- Identify themes: As you revisit stories of your company’s genesis, pay attention to the ones that feel weightier and more important. Look for themes that tie them together — themes that get to the heart of why you do what you do.
- Try writing it out: Keep it simple and forget the jargon; one sentence will do (recall Patagonia’s: “We’re in business to save our home planet”). You don’t need to describe every aspect of your business here — just the thing that gets you up in the morning.
How Do You Know You’ve Found Your Mission?
You know you’ve identified your mission clearly when what you sell becomes almost secondary in the minds of your customers. They buy from you more because of what it says about them than because of any particular product feature you offer.
As they say in Find Your Why, “If your customers’ personal beliefs and values align with those expressed in your [mission]… they are much more likely to want to do business with you, not just one time but over, and over, and over again… It says something about them when they do business with a company that reflects their beliefs.”
The Hustle, for example, started off as an events company. It was only after several successful installments of Hustle Con that Sam decided to step into newsletters. Much of the tribe has continued with us down several new product paths because the mission has always remained the same — connect great people with cool ideas.
Likewise, Patagonia could convert every one of their retail stores into coffee shops tomorrow, and it likely wouldn’t matter. Their fans would just have a new favorite coffee spot. Their mission is what attracts their community. In fact, according to their 2017 annual report, in their eyes, their mission trumps the need for business, and they will pursue the former over the latter.
So long as that dedication to the mission remained unchanged, much of their tribe would stay.
Which brings us to the 2nd level of the pyramid — a closer look at exactly who makes up your tribe.
At its core, a community is a group of people. More specifically, it’s a group of people with something in common. When you understand whom your community’s really for, what they need, and how they view the world, it’s easier to make decisions that attract, retain, and serve them.
This is the part where people often tell you to sit down and dream up user personas (fictional characters that represent ideal users based on their traits or goals).
Instead, go out and talk with people who are either part of your brand community, or whom you think of as ideal members. Let them teach you why your product is important, and how it can be improved.
When I write, I don’t write for “Entrepreneur Eric”, or “Brenda Business Owner”. I write for Stetson Blake, Natasha Miller, Matthew Harward, Sarah Charrouf, and others — real Trends members whom I really know, and have spoken to.
It doesn’t matter if you record the conversations. It doesn’t matter if you write a single word about who your community members are. If you just go out and have a few 15-minute chats with real people in your tribe, their stories will be forever etched in your mind, peering over your shoulder as you work, guiding your decisions. That’s a lot better than memorizing flat personas.
You can do this on the phone or in person.
As a bonus, when you speak with members of your community, you show them that they matter. This can be a powerful way to deepen connections with VIPs, and also to win back people who may have drifted away from the pack.
Some Favorite Questions:
Below are some favorite questions that can be adapted and posed to the members of any community.
Tell me the story of the day you decided to pay for Trends:
Forget asking people why they joined your brand community. Instead, get them to tell you a story. Their mind will travel back to the day they joined, and they’ll surface details they otherwise may have never mentioned.
Since joining, what has surprised you most (good, and not so good)?
Surprises are great because they reveal a difference between expectations and reality. If someone tells you about a pleasant surprise (e.g., “The quality of the community”), then you’ve found something you should be advertising, but likely aren’t. On the other hand, if they share a negative surprise, you now have something your team can work on fixing.
Be sure to encourage both — tell them you need constructive criticism in order to get better. Then, when they tell you about your weaknesses, just listen and try to understand. Don’t try to defend yourself, or convince them they’re wrong.
What kinds of challenges do other founders in your industry face?
It can be tricky to get people to talk about challenges they’re facing, especially if it’s the first time you’re talking. If you come straight out and ask, you’re likely to get answers that are predictable, incomplete, or inaccurate as they try to answer your question without appearing weak or flawed.
A better lead-in to that conversation is to get them to think about other people who are like them. It’s easier to think of challenges others are struggling with, and structuring the question in this way offers some room for interviewees to project their own experiences onto some unnamed “other.”
Keep the following in mind in order to ramp up the value of your community chats:
- Get them to tell you a story — Any time you can get them to tell you a story, they will offer details that are much deeper than when they’re simply answering a yes or no question.
- Get them to show you how they interact with the product — We often schedule video calls with readers and get them to screen-share as they go through a recent copy of the newsletter. You will be blown away by the things you learn when someone uses your product in front of you.
- “Tell me more… ” — Never underestimate the power of a pregnant pause. When someone touches on something interesting, don’t worry about constructing a perfect follow-up question. Just ask them for more, then shut up.
You will always be updating and evolving your understanding of members’ needs and how they use your product. Begin today. It’s an investment that always pays dividends.
The medium is the platform — the tool(s) you use to engage with and foster your community. It’s what facilitates the connections between you and your members, and your members and each other. It could be a Facebook page, a Slack community, a custom platform that you build yourself, or something else entirely.
The way to decide on one is to think about the needs of your community. Are they highly technical, or not so much? Are they geographically close, or more spread out? Are there certain tools (like Slack) that they’re probably already using? Or will those be a burden?
There’s no single right answer, and your community can switch mediums as it continues to evolve; however, the medium needs to answer 3 key questions:
How will we keep track of everyone?
You’re investing time, effort, and resources into attracting people into your community. Protect that investment by making sure new members don’t fall through the cracks. Your medium should make it easy for you to see an overview of all your members, and, ideally, give you some sense about who is active and who may need some attention in order to be more active.
How will we communicate with everyone?
A crucial piece of the equation, especially if you’re building a community related to a company or brand. How will you share important information? Do you need to be able to contact people individually? Decide how you want to interact with your community, and let that inform the medium you choose to build around.
How will they communicate with each other?
One key difference between an audience and a community is that an audience is primarily a one-to-many communication stream. Brands talk to audiences, and members of that audience talk to the brand. Communities, on the other hand, are all about connection. The goal is not just to talk to your tribe, but to get them talking to each other. Therefore, when considering your medium, be sure to pick a platform that will make it possible for these exchanges to take place.
Think about your best friend. How much does that person like you? Could you assign a number to it? What about your mailman? Your dog?
Difficult to measure, right? But somehow you know that your dog is a bigger fan of you than almost anyone else.
Measuring success is one of the key challenges facing community builders. When you’re doing the work, it’s easy to sense the effects (we are, after all, social creatures, deeply attuned to the attitude of the group). You can feel whether you’re building momentum. But it’s not strictly measurable the same way marketing or sales campaigns are.
Of course, the finance department doesn’t trade in feelings, so one focus of community teams is to find ways to observe, record, and report on the value of their work.
This often requires ongoing experimentation and refinement, and the reason metrics are higher on the Pyramid of Priority is that the KPIs you report on will likely continue to change as you refine your strategy.
Some of the most popular metrics are Net Promoter Score (NPS), Community Growth, Referrals, Churn Rate, and Lifetime Value of Members (LTV) — but there are many, many more options, all determined by what your goal is.
While the “right” metric will vary from community to community, here are some approaches that you can use to find yours.
A Single Proxy Metric:
One thing that’s common on Growth Teams is to identify a single metric that represents true north, then focus all efforts on growing that number. This can be done with community strategy too.
For example, if you were growing a local meetup related to your brand, you might choose one of the following:
- The overall size of the group
- The number of RSVPs your events get
- The number of people who actually show up
By focusing on a single metric, you simplify everything, and make it easy to develop ideas for growth. This works so long as everyone involved realizes that this is a proxy, not a concrete indication of success or failure. No single measurement can give a perfect picture of success, and sometimes your KPI may go down even when you’re on the right long-term path. That needs to be OK.
A Mix of Metrics:
Another option, especially as your brand community grows, is to use a mix of weighted metrics in order to come up with an overall community health index. To use the meetup example again, perhaps you’re tracking and reporting on each of the following:
- The number of new members each month
- The number of members who RSVP
- The number of RSVPs who actually show up the night of the event
Used together, these offer a more nuanced look at the overall performance of your community building efforts:
- # new members → helps measure awareness of your group
- # members who RSVP → indicates whether your ideas resonate with your community
- # RSVPs who show up → helps measure engagement
By tracking and reporting on all 3, you create a more nuanced image of how your community efforts are performing.
Qualitative and Quantitative:
Hard data is helpful in spotting trends, but it’s an incomplete picture unless you’re introducing qualitative feedback into the equation. As your community strategy matures, you’ll want to find ways to solicit and track feedback from members of your community, and work it into your understanding of how your efforts are performing. Methods range from surveys, to interviews, to social media listening, and much more. Perhaps the sociologist William Bruce Cameron put it best in the ’60s when he wrote…
“It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” -William Bruce Cameron
Messaging is the collection of assets you use to talk to and about your brand community. It’s at the very top of the pyramid because it’s something you will experiment heavily with.
Each member who enters your group is taking a journey, and that journey is made up of several communication points. At each stage, members see some kind of messaging from you. Experiment with those messages in order to maximize their impact and ensure they’re providing the right kind of experience to the right kinds of people.
While there are many messaging points, here are 3 you want to pay careful attention to…
1. Public Message:
The way you choose to talk about your community publicly has a lot to do with whom it attracts. What kind of messaging do you use to showcase your community to the outside world?
Evernote, for example, refers to their employee community as “The Herd.” This is clever, if you realize that their logo is an elephant, and elephants travel in herds. However, “herd” has another connotation — those who don’t think for themselves — so messaging like this may turn people off and keep them from joining, depending on how they perceive it. The point is simple: The way you talk about your brand community is never neutral, so choose carefully.
2. Welcome Message:
When people first join your community, you have an important opportunity to set the tone by welcoming them to the group, helping them find their bearings, and getting them to interact.
The key at this stage is simplicity. Identify 1-3 key pieces of info they need in order to integrate into your community, and share it with them. Bonus points if you can make it personable, and include a good way for them to communicate with you. The email from The Writing Cooperative below is a good example:
3. Opportunity Messaging:
How do you talk about the opportunities you offer your community? What sort of language do you use to get people interested? This is something you’ll experiment heavily with as you work to get people enrolled, but with a solid understanding of the lower levels of the pyramid, it becomes easier.
Tying It All Together:
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right — it is. It can’t be gamed, and it can’t be hacked. But take heart; the fact that it can’t be hacked is the reason community building is and always will be so effective.
You don’t need to figure out everything at one level of the pyramid in order to move to the next. Progress is often somewhat chaotic, and you’ll find it’s usually necessary to work on several levels at once. But placing the segments in an order of priority offers a way to think about improvement, as well as a method for diagnosing problems and analyzing solutions.
If you’re starting from scratch, you can use this pyramid to quickly hash out some of the more important early decisions, like whom you’re really trying to reach and what platform you’ll use to connect with them.
As you continue deeper into your community building journey, the pyramid can help you vet new initiatives and experiment with change:
Is this change aligned with the mission? Are we targeting the right people? Do they have a need we haven’t served? Are we measuring the right things? How are we positioning all of this?
Community can’t be outsourced to a faraway country. There’s no way to buy it. But the Pyramid of Priority offers a guide for those willing to do the work.