6 min read

5 Key Community Strategy Principles

Insights from Community Strategy Expert: Jono Bacon

This piece was authored by Jono Bacon who is both a Core Community member and community strategy expert.


A few months ago, I had the pleasure of flying out to the Underscore VC Core Summit in Boston. As an advisor (Core Partner) to some companies in the Underscore portfolio, and as an active member of the Underscore Core Community, I was thrilled to spend some time with the team and the many entrepreneurs who were there.

That morning I delivered one of the mainstage lightning talks:

In the lightning talk, I touched on the overall opportunity for building a community that is tightly integrated with a business. I also touched on five important elements to consider while doing so and wanted to follow up with more details about how you can harness these elements in your businesses.

As a consultant, a consistent pattern I see with clients with successful communities is how they integrate their community initiative into the core of their business. They don’t silo it in a team. They don’t use a community manager as merely an ambassador to the community. They expect their broader teams to play an active role in the success of the community.

Community members generally want to build a relationship with the organizations that produce the products they care about. They don’t just want to talk to support@your-company.com. They want to understand how your product is built, get to know the team that builds it, and find ways in which they can support the broader success of the community.

This can be a tough cultural adjustment for historically command and control environments, or companies unfamiliar with communities. It is worth the investment though, not just to increase the chances of building a successful community, but to also build in critical skills for engaging authentically and pragmatically with your customers.

You can’t build a great piece of software unless you understand the machines it is running on. You can’t produce a great dish unless you understand the role of each ingredient. Similarly, you can’t build a great community unless you understand who your audience is and what they want.

I recommend you break down your audience into a series of personas determined by methods of participation such as providing support, creating software, advocacy, translations, or something else. Now pick two of these target personas as your priorities. Nope, you can’t have three: we need to stay focused.

For each, define the value you want to generate in the community (e.g. “Producing open source software contributions”) as well as the value you want the community member to experience (e.g. “Skills development”, “Solving problems”, “Have fun”, etc). Continue to expand your personas and determine their motivations and fears. Think about where they consume information and how they like to be incentivized and rewarded. Interview prospective community members, get feedback from them, and expand and refine your personas.

Now shape your strategy around these personas. Build that target value for both your business and for them. This will build a community that intrinsically has more potential.

Communities are a fundamentally cross-functional. They need the involvement of MarketingProductEngineering, and Support. They need your C-Suite, departmental heads, and key ground troops involved.

With so many cooks in the kitchen, you need to have a clear recipe for what specifically you are going to focus your efforts on in a way that doesn’t drown people in detail. This is where I recommend you produce your ‘Big Rocks’.

The idea is simple. Big Rocks are your major community strategy objectives for the next year. They are deliberately high level, outlining the key initiatives, primary deliverables, key performance metrics, and who owns them. There should be no more than 4–7 Big Rocks across a document that is 10 pages max.

This provides a high-level strategy that you can collaborate on with other departments. Ensure these departments are involved in the process: it will significantly improve the chances it will be effectively delivered. Ensure everyone is in agreement on these Big Rocks, their involvement in them, and a commitment to delivery. With this in place, you can produce a quarterly plan with the tactics to deliver those agreed Big Rocks.

Baking new skills into a business is complicated. What often happens is that you provide training and directives, but then the cultural norms revert back to how it’s always been.

The antidote to this is to develop a “cycle” where you repeat the same milestones each time. At the beginning of the cycle, this should include (1) reviewing your performance and (2) generating your tactics (based on your Big Rocks, then (3) having weekly syncs, and (4) having an overall review at the end of the cycle. This cycle could be 3 months, 6 months, or 1 year, depending on your organization.

The regular milestones will be refined each time you execute your cycle, it will set expectations in your teams, and it will trigger focused conversations for how to evolve and improve not just the strategy, but also how the different departments work together.

Communities take time to build. There is no silver bullet and no single blueprint. The way in which you will build rigor and stability in your community is to execute work, carefully review it, and always find opportunities to optimize.

Evaluate your data. Evaluate how your team worked together. Evaluate if your Big Rocks are delivering the results you would like to see. What are ways you can improve? What are your theories for causes or issues that may be holding back better performance?

When you have hypotheses for these issues, test them. Put together short experiments and see if they move the needle in the right direction. This is how we evolve and grow.

As part of this, focus on failure as an opportunity to fuel success. Treat every cycle and strategic review as a teachable moment. What can you learn? This will not just build the right kind of skills in your organization, but it will build a culture of constant growth and optimization.

All the best in your community programs and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions! Also, I regularly produce articles, videos, podcasts and more about building community growth, organization development, and other areas. Be sure to keep up to date(and also get access to exclusive content!)


Meanwhile, enjoy the Underscore VC Core Community and let Underscore know how we can improve it together via the new Community Manager, Jenni Goodman (jenni@underscore.vc)! Stay in touch by subscribing to the monthly Core Community newsletter.