Technical communities like developer communities differ from normal communities. Here is a few tips on how to get started.
For many businesses, having a user community is a great way to differentiate from their competitors, add value to products and make users “stick”. They can fuel the gradually flatting signup curve via word of mouth. A community also brings brand loyalty, product evangelism and solidifies growth. As more and more companies are transforming to platform businesses, the technical members of a user community really stand out. Technical communities are communities too, but they deserve a different kind of attention.
This article will discuss how to start a successful and vibrant technical community (or in some contexts a developer community).
How does tech community differ?
If you think user community members are harsh, tech community members are even harsher. They are short on time, don’t like long engagement. They are anti-marketing and anti-sales, yet they are the ones who might bring you most values to your users. They join your community because usually ran into issues and they need help from others or you directly. They can tell in seconds if a community is legit by how much people are contributing. They likes to attend events to better their skills and become super human, not to buy things.
Tech community manager you need to:
- be honest
- be clear with your messages
- provide useful information (quick NOs are useful too!)
- be authentic and create a loud voice
Don’t create a tech community, find one!
If you just got hired as a community manager/developer advocate and your brief was to create a tech community with no money and a very little user base, then you should probably start to look for a new job. Why? Because it is incredibly hard to forge a community without already having one or a huge amount of investment. Even if one manages to build a community from scratch, it is hard to justify the value of it, the return is not going to be enough for the business.
It is not the case of “you build it, they will come:” It needs to evolve from an existing user base.
So do your research first before starting. Observe how users interact with each other currently. Speak to a few hard-core fans of your user base. Find out some insights, such as what programming language they like to use, where they find new technology, product releases and interesting news. What are the common traits of them? Some users might have already started their community without you knowing. Should you start another one or endorse the existing? Then make a decision on investing in the tech community and decide on how to grow it.
Accounting software giant Xero has a vibrant grass root community called XU Hub, they run user events and publish user magazines. This came from their 2.2 million small and medium businesses users. It is an incredibly powerful community. They have a vibrant developer and app partner community.
Start in the right ways
No one wants to set the community up for a failure. You probably think you won’t need any guidance and the community can grow organically. But doing the right things early on can really save you time.
Set a mission & vision of the community
One of the leadership 101 principles is don’t use a number for a company’s vision or mission. Such as “Reaching X billion users by 2030”, or “We want to produce X million.” Why? Because employees shouldn’t work for a number. They should wake up and work for something beyond numbers. Running a tech community needs to respect this rule too. Community members don’t come to just make your numbers look pretty. They should be there for a good reason. The value proposition needs to be clear.
So set a mission and vision for your community, make sure everyone who joins understands where you are going with this community and what they are here for.
A couple of good examples:
“Our mission is to ensure the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all.”
— Firefox developer forum’s mission
“An employee experience platform designed to help people connect, focus, learn, and thrive at work.”
— Microsoft Tech Community purpose
Get a consistent gathering place & rituals
Community is a place where your users gather and share ideas. Setting a gathering place is important. But what should it be? And where should it be? Some communities can exist completely online via tools like slack, discord, website forum. In other communities it is important to have an in-person event like meetups, roadshows and sometimes conferences.
One of the simplest ways of running a community is an regular email newsletter. Setting a good cadence for gathering and some defining rituals brings stability to the community. What could be the defining thing for your community? Is it tips Tuesday, fortnightly catch up or can you ask me anything once a month? Having regular content created like blog, video or webinar published can also achieve the same effects.
Whatever event you host or content you create, encourage people to share on social, design them to go viral.
Put in governance & setting expectations right
Free speech is important, after all community is a place for like minded person to gather. The good behaviors that help the community to grow we need to encourage, but what if someone behaves badly? Do bad actors need to be punished? The answer is yes, governance is important to growing a healthy community.
Before you make your community public and welcome people with open arms. Make sure you have a set of code of conduct, community guidelines or principles published so you can set the tone and value of the community. For example, diversity and inclusion is an important one to include. Make a list of things that you have zero-tolerance on. Like racism and hate speech. When you face a bad actor, referring the code of conduct, principles & guidelines can be a very powerful
Governance exists because we want the community to be engaging, a place to create good content, and a safe place together.
Recognise the community ambassadors and champions
There will always, always be a few members of the community who are ultra-active than others. If you spot one or a few, don’t ignore them or treat them as freaks, do the opposite! They are passionate about your community for a good reason, find out why and embrace it.
I like communities who hold their advocates, ambassadors or champions proud. Have a hall of fame or a list where their names can be found. Give these community leaders some shout outs, kudos from time to time. Sometimes it is useful to have a board or committee for the leaders of the community to really make them heard. Other times, an ambassador program would give the attention and recognition they need. Crediting and recognising the existing members is a good way to give back to the community that created much value for you.
The successful Auth0 ambassador program attracted nearly 100 ambassadors in various regions to evangelise their product to developers in their own languages. If they were to run this program it probably would have cost them 10s of millions of dollars already.
Having said the above, some organisations or businesses are not at the scale to be able to support a ambassador program.
Be prepare to change
When the community is up and running, people might not use the community for how it was designed. This might drive you crazy, but it is okay. Community members might use them as they see fit. Don’t freak out, as long as the use is within your code and guidelines, allow it, don’t fight them. Listen to the community members and make changes as needed.
Communities do evolve just like your product should evolve as users shift their behavior.
What about an open source communities?
There are tech communities, and there are open source tech communities. Open Source communities deserve another level of special care because they are very different.
Set the ways of working
Open source community encourages friction-less entry to attract talents. But it doesn’t mean we don’t need to design the communication channels and contribution processes. Explaining the basic things like how users can communicate with the maintainers, how often pull requests are reviewed and whether there are mentors to reach out to when one gets stuck can help to recruit more contributors.
Decide governance models
Just making the repository public on GitHub.com is the first step, nothing is going to happen if you don’t decide on how decisions can be made within the community. Do you run a company led, benevolent dictator, or governing board model? Having a governance model can avoid many conflicts and frustration you might cause to the smart minds who are eager to work on the project.
It frustrates developers if they are not clear on how decisions are made and why.
Keep your self out of lawsuits
Give a license to the project you are working on. Does your project have a permissive one or a restrictive one? Omitting license choices early on will give you a legal hell to deal with down the lane when your project is successful.
Open source development does not attract more legal issues, closed products have just as much.
It is an long term investment
Open source communities’ return comes slowly, and it will definitely need quite a bit of investment to run. But it is rewarding in the long run. So treat it like a marathon and not a sprint.
Communities in general are all long term investments. community managers has a tough job of making sure the communities have: good growth, multichannel engagements and activities, good health and sentiments.
Open source communities are different because they are for developers who share a common set of values and goals but also build together and collaborate to make free products for everyone. I wrote another article explains in details how to run a successful open source software project.
Tech communities have to emerge from an existing user base, they can’t be created out of thin air. Technical users have different needs and are driven by different things, so they require different kinds of attention. To make it healthy, you will need to start in the right way: set the values right, create rituals, codes and guidelines, embrace the champions and be prepared to go with the flow. If you have an open source community: define ways of working, governance model, license and make it a long term investment. I hope this article can help you start your tech community right from day one.
Many of my ideas about community building came from the wonderful book called The Business Value of Developer Relations by Mary Thengvall. Have a read, there are plenty more gold nuggets in her book.