Seven ways to build a community as your startup grows

Building a strong community can be one of the most important things you do as a startup. It can help stretch your marketing budget, strengthen your market research and provide more value to your customers.

Any astute business owner knows that having a loyal community is one of their biggest business assets. It undoubtedly takes commitment to nurture a community, but if you take time to find the right people and understand what they value, it will be worth the investment.

As with many aspects of starting a business, it helps to hear from other entrepreneurs about what they’ve learned along the way. 

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With that in mind, we reached out to a range of businesses to ask them how they have approached the idea of community as their companies have grown. Here’s what they told us…

1. Align your strengths with your social channels 

Social media is one of the most obvious routes to finding and building a community – but it can also be a minefield. With so many channels and different approaches, startups need to think carefully before diving in.

You won’t have time to nurture a community on every single social media channel, so think about your strengths and how these can play out on different channels.

“We set up a Facebook page and used this to communicate our products and values and worked at getting lots of page likes and follows. After a while we had enough money to create a website and linked this to Facebook where we have a shop,” explains Sarah Valovin, co-founder of Yorkshire Pet Portraits, a company that creates themed bespoke portraits of pets.

Giles Harrison, co-founder of Sculpd, which sells home pottery kits, says they let the community shape what they wanted on social media.

“From the very first few weeks we saw community-like interaction between our customers who wanted to find out more about each other’s pottery creations and enjoyed sharing ideas with each other.”

Harrison says that Instagram has become their biggest community with 109k followers, all with a love for creating different crafts – and out of that they have also created other groups. 

2. Use it power your market research

Having a community that’s dedicated to your mission and products gives you a better insight into your target market. You’ll be able to understand their pain points and notice as their needs and wants change over time.

“Our Sculpd Creators Club is a much smaller, highly engaged group of customers who we talk to regularly about upcoming products and ask for feedback on existing ones,” says Harrison.

“It’s been hugely valuable to have a group of customers who are willing to share their ideas and feedback with us. It’s shaped the way we’ve developed the brand and also the products we create. Who better to speak to than the people who love and use your products?”

3. Stretch your marketing budget

Starting out on a shoestring? It’s a common scenario for startups, and it means you have to be creative with the assets you have.

Marketing is one area where a loyal community will help. It’s especially effective if your business is product-based as you can set up ambassador schemes with very little budget. 

Assign a small group of people who genuinely enjoy your products and set them tasks in return for samples to help promote your products.

Tasks could include:

  • Posting online reviews of your products
  • Providing testimonials for your website
  • Positive posts on social media – pictures and videos of them using your products, for example
  • Recommending your products to friends – such as giving them special offers and discounts or running events where they can try the products

This is an approach that premium boxed wine company Laylo took in the early days. 

“When we launched Laylo as a side hustle we didn’t have a marketing budget, so we were reliant on customers recommending our wine to their friends,” explains co-founder Laura Riches.

4. Focus on what your customers value from a community

The best communities are the ones that provide value to the people within it. 

“I’d focus on what your customers value from a community, rather than forcing a generic community proposition to your customers,” says Harrison. 

Speak to them to find out what they would value and don’t be afraid to test different ideas or ways of engaging your customers as you go. 

“For our customers, this is regular pottery competitions centred around different themes. From the very first one we ran, we were blown away by the engagement and competitive nature of our customers. The diversity and quality of the entrants mean that all our followers eagerly wait for the winners to be announced each time we run them.” 

Valovin says that her approach has changed over time. Her team has realised their community values the fun element of the pet portraits the business creates.

“Our main focus has shifted from promotion on our page to engagement, shares and basically providing a giggle, rather than just showing our products all the time – I think making people smile is an incredible feeling.” 

5. Give them what they want and need

Take a step back and question what your community wants and needs. Think of ways to make their lives easier instead of only focusing on making a sale, advises Ronke Jane Adelakun, co-founder of African fashion brand Cultureville.

“Super-serve your customers by giving them information they’ll find useful or content they’ll find entertaining. They’ll associate those feelings with your business, and that will keep them coming back.”

Cultureville maintains frequent communication with their community via weekly emails and a dedicated platform on their website called the Culture Hub

“We curate content to directly address the needs of our community and answer questions they may be facing in their everyday lives, like 5 things to know when meeting African parents,” says Adelakun. 

6. Tie your community and your mission together

The strongest company mission is one that resonates with its customers, so be clear about how the two interact.

“Community is an ethos that is woven into the foundations of our business,” says Adelakun. 

“Our brand is inspired by African culture and we work with talented artisans in local communities celebrating and sharing our designs with people who love bold prints and patterns.” 

7. Get the community’s opinions on business decisions

As your community grows and strengthens, don’t be afraid to give them more power in decision making. This is a route that Riches has taken at Laylo.

“We have a WhatsApp group with some of our most engaged customers, and we continue to try and get our (now much bigger) tribe of Laylo customers involved in business decisions,” she says. 

“We have asked our newsletter subscribers to vote on the designs of our wine boxes, tell us which wines to buy next and have been truthful when things have gone a little bit wrong!” 

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Author
Holly Sawyer
Holly is the Marketing Manager at Inkwell, the company behind The Pitch.

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