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Community Discovery: 6 Steps to Membership Community Success

Drew Dillon
Dec 9, 2022
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Over the past year, I’ve connected with 839 membership and course community builders. Folks at all different stages: pre-launch, launched, scaling, thriving, winding down, or long gone.

The single biggest determinant of success that I’ve seen is Community Discovery.

What is Community Discovery?

Community Discovery is a method of deeply understanding your members to develop programs and foster relationships that fit their needs.

Discovery, at its heart, is invalidation.

We are all susceptible to falling in love with our ideas. You may love the idea of a membership community for Pokemon-card-trading French entrepreneurs. Community Discovery is thus a hypothesis driven process for understanding whether that’s going to work.

It’s critical to remove emotion from the equation. “How do I prove that this is a bad idea before I spend a bunch of time on it?”

The Community Discovery Process

We'll focus on invalidation in six steps:

  1. Form a Hypothesis
  2. Conduct Interviews
  3. Launch a Small Offer
  4. Test Your Community
  5. MOAR Interviews
  6. Grow

This process is designed to save you time, as each step takes more work than the one before it. If the conditions aren't met, back up a step and try again.

Step 1: Form a Hypothesis

You begin Community Discovery with a hypothesis around the following characteristics:

  • Who are the people I want to bring together?
  • What needs do they have that can be fulfilled by a community?
  • How are they currently behaving?
  • What kind of programming would they pay for? What will keep them coming back?

Who are the people I want to bring together?

Before I even reach out to a community, I can sense whether there are issues with who. Sometimes these are loosely defined groups, “entrepreneurs,” in other cases, overly specific.

In startup-land, we talk a lot about Total Addressable Market (TAM), “the overall revenue opportunity that is available to a product or service if 100% market share was achieved. (source)”

If we think about the TAM of Pokemon card trading French entrepreneurs, we have to think about the intersection of those attributes.

a venn diagram of french entrepreneur pokemon card fans

Probably not very large, huh?

How many of these folks do you think you can connect with? This is your Serviceable Obtainable Market (SOM). Do you already have an audience that fit your TAM? Do you have coaching clients?

You don’t need to have a big audience to start a membership community, but it certainly helps.

What needs do they have that can be fulfilled by a community?

It’s easy for us community builders to think that bringing people together is a net positive. But people are distracted, they’re busy, they have obligations to lots of other communities.

If someone is going to give you money, to show up and contribute, there must be some need that that community fulfills for them.

Examples:

How are they currently behaving?

It’s important to understand how else your prospective community members might fulfill this need. Do they belong to other communities? Do they connect with folks 1:1? Are there other educational resources available?

How will your community fit? Will it replace or complement these activities?

What kind of programming would they pay for?

The greatest value of communities is that they’re not about the community leader. You don’t always have to be the one on stage and pushing folks to contribute.

That said, the community does need some sort of programming and rituals that community members will come back to. That can be educational content, video calls, guest speakers, a regular discussion thread.

Great programming and rituals are easily communicated to prospective members.

Note: Over time, the people in your community will become a draw for prospective members, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is the case on day 1.

Step 2: Conduct Interviews

Armed with a hypothesis of the people you want to bring together, the needs your community can fulfill for them, an understanding of their behaviors today, and what kind of programming they’d pay for, it’s time to talk to some folks.

I won’t get deep into tactics and specific question flows (for this, buy my friend Cindy’s book), but most important here is asking the right questions.

drawing of a woman performing a user interview

Remember that we’re trying to invalidate our hypotheses. This means that we have to be careful:

  • Not to lead the witness - you want them to tell you about their needs, not agree with what you think their needs are.
  • To avoid social nicety - there’s an inherent social pressure in these interviews. People won’t want to disappoint you by saying they don’t like your idea or wouldn’t pay for it.

So you need to be somewhat circumspect in asking questions about what prospective members are looking for.

Step 3: Launch a Small Offer

If you’ve refined your pitch, failed to invalidate your hypothesis, then you should have some idea of programming that your prospective customers would pay for. Test that by creating a small paid offer.

A workshop or meeting series is a great way of testing into community. Even if it’s a presentation from an expert, you can always create time in a breakout room for attendees to connect with each other.

Make sure you send a follow-up survey after the event. This is a best practice, of course, but also a good opportunity to ask whether attendees are interested in connecting with each other.

Step 4: Test Your Community

If everything above lines up, you’re ready to open the doors to some early birds.

You don’t need a complicated setup. You should’ve identified a good number of prospective members through your research. Send them details of what you’re thinking, a survey to express interest, and a way to pay you.

It’s okay to offer early bird pricing, but important that you charge. You want to get as close to a real test as possible to what future members will experience.

It’s important to be intentional about onboarding these members, welcoming them and explaining how to use the space.

Examples:

  • Learning community - help them understand where to find content, where to ask questions, etc.
  • Event-first community - explain the schedule, let them know what to expect in the space vs. live.

Step 5: MOAR Interview

Keep talking to your early birds. Are they getting the value they expected? What do they like? What are they less interested in?

Iterate, based on their feedback. Prune content and rituals that don’t work. Double down on the programming that connects to their needs.

Connect with the folks who fall off, try to understand why. Thank the folks who are most engaged, ask what else they’d like to see. Though Burb can make this incredibly easy, you don’t need to automate it yet.

Step 6: Grow

Assuming you’ve gone through all of these steps, continue to sharpen your message and your “why” with what members are valuing.

Now is the time to expand through “community marketing.” Share, of course ask and attribute appropriately, great content that’s coming from your community.

Ask your early birds for testimonials, publicize the heck out of them. Pump these folks up, your community grows in stature as they do. Jay Clouse does an amazing job at this.

And now is the time to get serious about technology. Landing pages, improved payment flows, automation and data with Burb.

Community Discovery Saves Time

If this seems like a lot of work, it can be. But an hour spent in Community Discovery will save exponential hours attempting to get your community to work.

If you want your community to succeed, Community Discovery is most often the difference between success and failure.

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