First Principles are a foundation of what a community is that stands alone and cannot be deduced from other propositions or assumptions. The subsequent research below is the result of a search for a set of principles that define a successful community in attempts to build a thriving community for Altar Live.
A community is defined as “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” Instinctively we think of a community as a place where people get together to congregate. We think a bar or a coffee shop is a community or a group of buildings in a city a is a community, but it’s not. A community has an especially important aspect of its definition — “having a particular characteristic in common.”
So of course, a bar, a coffee shop and a group of buildings can become a community if their particular characteristics share similarities — but in basic terms the community takes a significant role once the similarity is defined. A bar can become a “sports bar” or a “whiskey bar” allocating its menus to cater towards a specific group of people and a town can include a gym or a sports team to build its community identity.
Interesting enough the importance does not rely on organic creation at all. Communities are not necessarily created from thin air. Leaders form them. Leaders who make decisions about how their community should operate guiding towards either successful growth or vacant seats. I had never considered personally that communities cannot be organic until I realized that each community took someone to take the first step.
Starbucks was led by persistent care of the customer experience that their coffee shops had introduced by providing the baristas with a sense of ownership to excellent service while serving expensive coffee. The community grew because people enjoyed the feeling of being in a Starbucks and eventually gained an individual status points for being noticed in Starbucks. But Starbucks was created from an idea where many, many, many coffee shop chains failed. The community built the empire — planted from an idea and a set of guidelines by Howard Shultz.
This becomes a very clear first principle that then proves there can be no community without a direction and there can be no direction without guidance. Since guidance comes from a leader, the community MUST be built by a person.
A community must be built by a person(s)
Understanding the first principal as a foundation we can then move into the concept of why communities grow. If a community leader defines a series of goals and directions that must be followed, and the members are not interested in following those rules, it is obvious that this leader has not built a community. A community must be interesting enough to attract members that are like minded (remember the definition) to understand the value of said community. They must be willing and interested to spend time, effort, and even money, to be a part of this community. For Starbucks, they are willing to spend $392 more for each cup of coffee to sit in the green booths. What did Starbucks do that others national coffee shops couldn’t to this day?
I believe the second principle is the fact that a community must provide enough guidance to get people into the space without providing too many rules to force them into a dictatorship. It sounds hard to define the balance between rules and guidance for all communities but it’s actually quite simple. Rules are understood behaviors that should be replicated. Guidelines are simply barriers that allow the direction to flow linearly with boundaries to keep the community heading in the same direction.
Lulu Lemon creates athletic clothes like many other companies but their guidelines are around athletes, being fit, and leading a healthy lifestyle. The company lead classes, opened up free gyms, and even created an ambassador program that includes star athletes. Ambassadors get badges for working out and promoting the healthy lifestyle. The rules of the brand are not “wear our clothes” the guidelines are “become healthier and here are pants to look good in when you’re healthy.” More importantly, they have been able to expand their product lines to “leisure” because their guidelines are to be healthy — not buy my pants. Not one word in their manifesto includes the word “pants” or “clothes.”
So with that understood the second principal is that a brand should not provide “answers” to the problems. The brand should provide a sense of direction to an inherent human flaw. Starbucks provides a place to gather which is an inherent human need. Lulu Lemon provides an attitude of being healthy, another basic human need.
Members must learn guidelines concerning a human need they desire.
The tail end of this principle comes from Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. The incredible realization is that healthy communities are inversely proportional to self-awareness. By addressing the top of the pyramid, the self-fulfillment needs, brands like Facebook, Instagram and Coach aim to make the person feel as if they have achieved their full potential of completeness. The images of other humans must be perfect and the lifestyles admirable to capture the advocacy of the members. Lulu Lemon and Starbucks address the psychological needs of relationships, friends, and prestige while towns and cities attempt to capture the basic needs of humans like security, safety, food and water.
Principle B also forces you to create “discussions” and “Classes” in which the members of the community can help each other. Combining principal B with principal A, the leader must create discussions to allow members to address their needs. Do not provide answers or “how to” guides. Provide the framework and let the members navigate.
What struck me is the concept of classes. Starbucks teaches the baristas how to serve customers. Lulu lemon teaches you how to do yoga. The best communities, the ones that have dedicated members, are learning and teaching other members. This cycle is allowing individuals to grow and give. It is exactly how alcohol anonymous works. You get in a circle and provide your story followed by listening. Each week you teach others how you improved while learning how others improved.
There are many communities to join and many brands bidding for your attention. Why must a member join and remain in YOUR community? Be Unique. Be memorable. Starbucks has a unique store when compared to other coffee shops. People that belong to the Harley Davidson community wear the eagle wings on their clothes or even skin. The “Zagat” community puts a sticker on their door window to attract more members into their restaurant.
The members must have a shared desire.
To build a great community a leader must create a set of guidelines that solve basic human needs while clearly articulating the desire members have so that the community can fulfill their quest to achieve internal goals.
If you take a crowd of people that have a shared goal, and you give them a forum to trade tips on how to achieve the goal — you will naturally build the community. All Mom’s that are interested in providing the absolute flawless execution of raising a child, flock to community forums and spend hours reading stories about other moms. The participation of these forums is off the charts. The desire is simple as the member has a series of unanswerable questions while seeking advice from other members on the platform. Naturally, there exists a call and response mechanism where the needy mother pleads for help and the flock attempts to resolve the issue with past experiences. This is no different than any mammal who cares for its sick and young. Humans are social animals and the natural tendencies to resolve the sicks problems provide dopamine incentives to come back to the community to do it again. This natural revolving door provides the stickiness the brand needs to grow horizontally.
An interesting sidenote of the realization that a community is needed for the requests of the mothers is because google is incapable of answering an emotional, non-trivial question. “What baby formula should I feed my 2-month-old who has a soy allergy.” These questions, of course have factual answers, (anything that does not have Soy in it), but only other humans can provide the answer for a mother experimenting the newly purchased formula with their most precious possession.
The shared desire has repeatable results across the internet. YNAB has an incredible community based around Zero Balance and the desire to save money. The list of strong communities in a specific vertical without overlap I found were:
The most brilliant and simplistic example of a thriving community comes from the king himself of tribes, Seth Godin. The backstory is he created a social network on Ning. He called it Triiibe and it was a free network for members to talk about leadership and connection. The rules, rather the guidelines, of being a member — first, you need to purchase his book Tribe (and send him a receipt of purchase) and second, if you try to promote anything you would be removed. That is it. All three principals are meticulously laid out. First, Seth Godin created the community. Second, Guidelines were defined addressing human needs and third the members had a shared desire. But Seth demonstrates the power a principal not yet defined when creating a community. Exclusivity.
Seth even had a formula that increased the number of members when activity drops allowing new members to enter. He also would replace the bad apples when they promoted their products with a waiting list member. The exclusivity and the non-anonymous nature of the platform forced you to feel like you HAD to participate.
A sense of exclusivity must exist.
There you have it, the four principals of building a community. In one sentence. A community is an exclusive gathering where members with shared desires learn about their basic need through a series of teaching and learning — created by [name goes here].
A community is an exclusive gathering where members with shared desires learn about their basic need through a series of teaching and learning — created by [name goes here].
We’ve always wanted to see how far we can push our “Full Transparency” development approach and hoped that one day, we’ll be recognized as an innovator in our field.