Building A Community Presence


Your company has decided it needs to “do community”, whatever that means, you’re community manager 1 number one, what now? From my time as a developer advocate/evangelist under both marketing and engineering teams, I have come to some conclusions about how to build community presence. Though my experience is mostly with technical communities, this should apply pretty well to any community building.

Identify Your Products Potential Audience(s)

You’ve probably already done this to some degree, after all, to build a successful product you need to know — and understand — who you are building it for. But, if your target audience is “developers” that’s marginally better than saying your audience is “humans”.

Chances are your product is going to fall into one of two categories: a tool built for use with a specific language (e.g. the excellent for keeping your node.js npm dependencies up-to-date), or one built for most every language (e.g. Travis CI for continuous integration).

If you fall into the former category then you’ll have a much easier time narrowing down the identity of your audience, your product itself defines it. For the latter, you need to recognize that you have multiple (albeit similar) audiences, and working with, say, the PHP community will be different to the Ruby and Java communities for example.

There are, in my mind, three approaches to building your community team:

Breadth First Evangelism

If you have multiple communities you wish to target, you may decide that the most important thing to do is to get your name and your product out there in front of as many appropriate eyeballs as possible.

In this case, you do not have the bandwidth to forge deep, meaningful relationships with every community in which you want a presence. You cannot physically be everywhere at once!

These kind of superficial touches will be things like conference sponsorships that involve little more than plunking down some cash and getting your logo/booth at an event, maybe you sponsor an open bar, or an unconference track. You give away the pens and the t-shirts, and the other branded swag, and you leave.

You write a bunch of high level blog posts, you make sure you have docs that have examples in a multitude languages, and you go home, job done.

This is a great way to start, but mostly superficial. You will not identify your community advisors, you will not create long lasting relationships, and you will get less valuable/actionable feedback.

What you should be doing is trying to identify communities in which you want to foster deeper relationships. Which communities you either want to pay special care too because they need more of your time to understand your product, or better yet, the ones that are getting traction and starting to provide interesting insights, use cases, and feedback. This leads to the next stage:

Depth First Evangelism

If you have the second type of product (i.e. specific to one community), or, you’re ready to start deepening the relationships you have started to cultivate through your breadth first evangelism efforts, it’s now time to start concentrating your efforts – and expanding your team.

This is when you will want targeted evangelists: a PHP Evangelist, a Ruby Evangelist, a Python Evangelist. These people bring their knowledge of a particular community to bear in determining what your messaging should be and how your interactions are orchestrated to achieve the community relationships your product needs.

Now you will start to do things like working with a conference organizer to create a sponsorship that provides much more value to the attendees, and can actually shape the feel of an event. You will start to sponsor open source work that is relevant to your company, and you will sponsor initiatives like diversity groups, and scholarships. You will make meaningful contributions to the community.

In return, you will get the insights in to your product that help your improve it, you will find your most hardcore users, your beta testers, and your contributors.

You will continue the blog posts, but they will be much more in-depth and targeted, based on feedback from the community about what they need to know, rather than what you think you want to tell them. Your documentation too will follow suit – perhaps you put together a book around using your product as members of that specific community.

There is an alternative to depth first and breadth first, which is to localize your efforts:

Localized Evangelism

By constraining your geographic area, you are reducing your audience in the same way as in depth first evangelism, but you can still hit many different communities within that geographic area. To be clear here, I’m talking about an area which can be traversed within a day.

This allows the kind of deep relationships that add real value, but across a broader section of your audience.

This hybrid is potentially easier to scale, it certainly cuts down on travel costs, but, you are less able to take advantage of your existing community presence (which is likely limited to one or sometimes two communities) or your breadth will be biased in those directions.

It’s Just The Megaphone

This is what I call the megaphone part of the role, the evangelistic, outward pushing part. But it’s just one part of the role. While it’s the most visible, I’d argue it’s not the most important. In the next post, I will cover the other aspects of the role that make community engagement invaluable.

Thanks to Margaret Staples and Jonas Rosland for their feedback on this post.

Image courtesy of The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company, used under a CC-BY 2.0 License.

  1. there are many job titles, community engineer, developer advocate, developer evangelist, etc., but they all involve some level of community presence