Small businesses face a unique set of challenges when it comes to building or sustaining a community around their brand. It's not unexpected. After all, consumers can be fickle. But even so, very few business owners actually have a plan for when this happens.
We have budgets, forecasts, strategic plans...but no "break glass in case of emergency" for when there's trouble with your people.
(Side note: Maybe don't break glass when there are people involved!)
It's really hard to parallel path your work on the product and the community side (unless the community is part of the product!). There's precious little time and money to go around in the first place.
When things start to go south, the real fireworks start.
Tools are Super Tempting
What to do when your startup is struggling to attract new customers? Or can't retain existing ones? Traditional marketing takes too long, and advertising costs have an ROI that's really hard to nail down.
Most start-ups choose the path of perceived least resistance when hitting the wall. Quick fixes such as discounts, promotions, or social media advertising are low hanging fruit. These solutions may attract customers in the short term but won't build lasting relationships.
Remember, it's not your fault for opting into the wrong path. Those tempting ad dashboards aren't addictive just because they were designed like the machines in a casino -- it's just easier.
Talk to Your People!
Community is all the rage, but it's often construed as complicated and hard to work with. Stories abound of complicated online dynamics and misconstrued messages.
Not that these are the exception, not the norm. Normal stuff doesn't make good news.
The heart of your community, the basic building block, is just a person. One person, just like you, was the first person to buy in. To refer. To renew.
Yes, people using your product or service are genuinely real. You can email them, call them, and engage them. You can choose to listen to them. You can choose to delight or amaze them.
It's Not the Thing, It's the Vibe
And when you focus on the people, you're creating a sense of belonging and connection that exists around what you provide.
I don't buy your lawn tools because I like equipment. I am the type of person who likes to make my house look good.
I don't eat your vegan protein because I like spending $$$. I am the type of person who prioritizes my health.
There is an ecosystem of people who choose your business for what it helps them to achieve. And that space is full of energy, initiative, and opportunity.
Here's how you can access it.
Introducing the Four Blocks Framework
The Four Blocks Framework is a simple yet powerful visual tool that helps businesses start with people when building a community -- and to reconnect with them when things go wrong.
Each block connects to the next. Move to the next block only when you've completed the current one. If you're stuck, take one step back and try again - you are likely missing some critical information.
Done properly, you can create a flywheel of activity. This atomic unit can be scaled as your community grows and evolves.
Part One: Start with Story
From ancient myths to modern-day media, storytelling has been a fundamental part of the human experience for thousands of years.
Storytelling is a way for humans to connect with each other, understand new perspectives, and feel empathy. In other words, stories help us to build community.
Starting Up Version
Just like a person, your business has a story to tell. Starting with the story creates a sense of authenticity and builds trust with your audience. Your story should be relatable and connect with your audience emotionally.
Here are some prompts to help:
1. What inspired you to start your business? Share the backstory of how you came up with your business idea and what motivated you to pursue it.
2. What are your core values as a business owner? Talk about the beliefs and principles guiding your business and why they are important.
3. Who are the people behind your business? Introduce yourself and your team, and share some personal details about your background and interests.
4. What makes your business unique? Describe what sets your business apart from others in your industry, whether it's your approach to customer service, product offerings, or mission statement.
The Re-Starting Version
If things hit a bump, reach out to your people to find out where they are in their story and why they stopped using / buying / needing your product and services.
1. What are you solving for now?
2. What has changed for you in the last 3- to 6 months that affected your business?
3. How can we help?
Part Two: You Share, We All Share
Stories are meant to be shared.
Simply by telling your own story as an emerging business or brand you are well on your way to this second step.
Telling other people about your story is borderline sufficient. Ideally, your story gets other people talking.
It could be in the comments of your story:
Me too! or I remember that happening.
Or better yet, your story could be the prompt or permission for your people to share.
One time, at band camp...
These stories and experiences create a sense of community. It turns your audience into a tribe (we all have something in common!).
In some cases, the stories act as a filter, bringing the right people to the surface.
Part Three: Building Relationships
As your audience shares their stories, connections begin to form. With more information and context, it's much easier to find people who:
- you can learn from.
- you can help with what you have / know.
- you can connect with others.
- you can celebrate.
Encourage these connections by creating a space where people can interact and engage with each other.
Have you connected with Grant yet? He's doing similar work.
I think Jane is from Florida too. Have you met her?
Bonus Round: If your people are already organized online in a group or forum, then do something more meaningful.
The key here is to keep it simple and one-time. Baby steps are important.
- DM to start a one-on-one connection.
- Schedule a group video call.
- Create a shared challenge.
Part Four: Making Things Together
The connections in the last step create a collision of ideas and experiences. For a moment in time, this intersectionality is full of energy and opportunity. Consider it a fertile ground where new ideas and strategies can emerge.
This is the perfect time to engage your people in the creation process. Ask for their feedback on what you are doing. Encourage them to collaborate on new ideas. Challenge them to co-create new products or services.
Bonus Round: This step helps create a sense of ownership and investment in your brand.
Remember like any good brainstorming session, don't try to control the creativity. Go full improv mode.
When someone says "And then we can add instant notifications synced with those new AR goggle thingys" keep things rolling with "Yes, and why stop with AR when we can [INSERT SOMETHING ELSE RADICALLY NEW]."
The Flywheel Effect
All of the magic and mojo that comes out of creation become part of your community story (see what I did there)? People will talk about what they contributed, used, learned, tried, and more. All of these stories help -- you guessed it -- create a place where sharing is welcome. And the more sharing there is, the greater the opportunity for connection...and you are rolling.
Thoughts on Scaling
While your business exists on a timeline, your customer(s) are on their own. As new people engage with your product, they enter into this same People Space.
Each of these cohorts -- by quarter, year, class or segment -- has its own Four Block. The key here is that you are still telling stories (or encouraging them) for the new relationships to form.
How that happens is up to you.
- Some communities segment users, so the new ones can get comfortable.
- Others are comfortable with long-term customers who play nice with the new folks.
Thanks for Reading!
Want to use the framework with your work? Click here to download a PDF of the Four Block Framework.
If you have feedback or comments, reply here or find me on Twitter...I'm happy to talk more in-depth!