In the past year, I’ve worked with over one hundred business leaders.

And in all of those interactions, there was one topic that arose the most frequently.

Every business owner wants to know how to build community.

It’s not enough these days to just have a solid product or service. People want more from the companies they give their hard-earned dollars to.

Customers want a sense of connection.

Customers want a sense of belonging.

They want community.

We’re seeing this more and more across all industries. Companies that sell baby gear are investing extraordinary resources into developing an online community of moms and dads. Companies that sell fitness and wellness services or food and nutrition products are doubling down on their community building efforts to connect their customers to a tribe of like-minded humans.

And it makes sense. At a time when our lives have been overtaken by mobile devices, countless streaming services, and jobs that permanently affix our eyes to screens, we’re all starving for human connection.

While some might think business is a strange place to look for that connection, it’s actually very logical. Almost all consumer-facing businesses exist to solve a specific problem for their customers.

So if you’re attracted to a particular business, it stands to reason that you’ll have many things in common with the other customers. By design, patronizing a particular business puts you in a specific tribe.

We know this to be true. How would you describe someone who shops at Lululemon?

What is your immediate impression when you learn that someone belongs to a CrossFit?

How do you feel when you’re walking down the street holding a Starbucks cup?

Business has a powerful ability to create tribes and communities. And when that power is harnessed for the powers of good, it can lead to a strong brand and incredible customer loyalty.

The most successful businesses create an extension of our identities and give us a sense of belonging.

Here are 10 quick tips for building community:

 

#1  Play Name Games 

Face-to-face human connection is more valuable than ever. When you are fortunate enough to have true face time with your clients, start by working on your friendships.

A simple activity like “Before we start, let’s go around the room have everyone share your name and one thing about yourself you are most proud of.” can have a big impact on your relationship with clients.

Connection requires vulnerability, so the more your community shares, the closer they will be.

 

#2  Host Parties

Parties and social events tell your clients that you value them as a person instead of a transaction. Taking time to mingle and connect personally with your clients is one of the best ways build trust -- trust with you and trust among other clients.

And this kind of investment pays huge dividends when things go wrong - and things will go wrong. The trust you build in these social moments gives you a stronger foundation on which to resolve future conflicts.

 

#3  Send Handwritten Cards

Good old-fashioned, handwritten cards that get sent via snail mail are going the way of the dinosaurs. That means when you take the time to send one to a client it will mean so much more. 

A small gesture like a card when you know that a customer just got a new job or recently had a death in the family can create the emotional resonance that makes someone a lifelong devotee. 

 

#4  Celebrate Milestones

Through every customer journey there are going to be ups and downs. A big part of building community is identifying the ways everyone can “win” and rallying the community to celebrate those moments enthusiastically.

In a fitness business there are countless examples of this, from celebrating performance goals like a client's first pull-up to celebrating process achievements such as attending your 100th training session.

The celebration can be big or small. A quick verbal recognition like, “Congrats on your first pull-up!” can be just as powerful as a trophy, prize or gift certificate. The size of the gesture matters much less than the consistency with which we deliver it.

Every business has an obligation to make the milestones that lead to success clear and celebrate progress every step of the way. 

 

#5  Ask for Feedback and Listen

We have written many articles about the importance of getting regular feedback from your tribe - like this one, this one, and this one. It’s a topic that I think is hugely important to the success of any business.

I’d go so far as to say that feedback is the lifeblood of any community for leaders. Your ability to cultivate and sustain a community is only as good as your ability to engage that community in regular conversations about what is going well and what is not going well.

Communities grow and evolve over time and if you’re not listening to who they are and what they want, you’re not really leading a community.

 

#6  Cultivate a Distinct Language

Ask any anthropologist. Language is crucial to the culture of a tribe. Ask yourself, what language do you use in your business that helps to reinforce your connection? Is there a way everyone in your community talks about your services? Are your community values understood in words that are used across your tribe?

Words have power and when your community uses the same words, they share the same power.

 

#7  Use Online Forums

This is super tactical but incredibly valuable. Your primary job as a community leader is to cultivate a platform (or network of platforms) on which your tribe can connect, share, debate, support one another, and grow. With tools like Facebook Groups, we have the ultimate free (“free” can be debated) tools to achieve just that.

There is also a tremendous secondary value that comes from using something like Facebook Groups. When your community has a place to ask each other questions, you will quickly start to see leaders emerge. You will see more experienced community members begin to mentor the new members.

When the student becomes the teacher in your tribe, you’ve created a powerful sense of purpose and belonging for that individual that can last a lifetime.

 

#8  Support Unexpected Connections

Not all manifestations of your community will be planned. In tribes there are often sub-tribes. I’m not talking about cliques or factions that create tension, but genuine sub-groups that arise out of shared interests.

For example, if your company sells unicorns (just go with me on this one) you might learn that many of your clients also like narwhals (they’re like a cross between a whale and a unicorn). In my experience, it’s best to fan the flames of those interests. 

If it’s relevant to your clients it should be relevant to you and it may even be fuel for your next product or service.

 

#9  Develop Ground Rules

So far, all my suggestions have a very kumbaya feel to them, but having clear boundaries is also important. Just as your tribe should know what it looks like to succeed, they must also know what behavior is unacceptable.

The best communities set expectations for behavior early and often and put resources toward making sure those standards are enforced. It’s not the most fun part of community building but it’s vital.

The right rules can create freedom. The absence of rules can create chaos.

 

#10  Embrace Inclusivity and Diversity

For the grand finale here, I’ll keep it simple. Communities that embrace and encourage diversity learn faster by benefitting from more diverse ideas, and last longer because they don’t rely on a narrow vision of the world.

It’s always better to let people self-select out of your community than to not let them in the gates in the first place.  

------

Looking at this list, what are the tips that seem relevant to your community?

What are some other strategies for building a community that I didn’t include here?

I’d love to hear from you!