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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

How to build a community that sticks

Whether you’re seeking brand loyalty, product feedback, new connections, or bold solutions, there are four ways you can ensure your community will stick. 

How to build a community that sticks
[Photo Source: “fizkes”/Adobe Stock]

The pandemic has prompted many professionals to reflect on relationships, and they’re reassessing where they spend time.

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As a community-builder for the past 10 years in the finance and impact space, I’ve met plenty of peers who are looking to kick-start a space that can bring their stakeholders together in innovative ways.

Communities can be extraordinarily powerful spaces with the right execution: they expose us to new ideas, challenge our ways of thinking, bridge cross-sector leadership, mobilize collective action, and often serve as a quality source of opportunity.

At the same time, it’s easy for communities to fail when they lack authenticity, intention, or thoughtfulness.

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Whether you’re seeking brand loyalty, product feedback, new connections, or bold solutions, here are four ways you can ensure your community will stick.

ENGAGE YOUR STAKEHOLDERS IN COMMUNITY DESIGN 

I find that community-builders are often eager to dive headfirst into programming with a “field of dreams” mindset: if you build it, they will come. Before you tee up a roster of events, take a step back to incorporate your community’s input in the design of the community itself. Communities work best when they are built by and for the members they serve. This approach ensures your programming aligns with the needs of the group and positions your company as a trusted partner instead of a glorified events planner.

Identify six to 10 key stakeholders who represent a tapestry of experiences, and surface what they envision the community doing, being, or feeling like; use a blended mix of interviews, surveys, and informal conversations to guide your decisions. The answers might surprise you and catalyze greater buy-in and relevance.

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MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE

The best communities have a shared mission and diverse perspectives working toward it. Based on what I’ve seen, homogenous groups rarely tackle challenges because unconscious (or conscious) biases yield blind spots. Inclusive groups, however, help members see a holistic picture and the bigger systems at play.

Develop community ground rules that foster mutual respect for others’ ideas and experiences; if you value the unique perspectives others bring, you’re more likely to seek to understand where everyone is coming from. Meet your members where they are and play a critical role in leading them to a new destination.

TIME AND TRUST LEAD TO MAGIC

If relationships aren’t built overnight, you can’t expect a community to be either. It’s unlikely you have ever truly been in partnership with someone you didn’t know. Pragmatically, your members need time to answer questions like: “Who’s in the room?” “What do they care about?” “How can we support one another?” “Where does our work overlap?”

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Emotionally, your members need trust to feel psychologically safe about sharing their thoughts, challenges, or opportunities. Be patient, encourage bold questions, and set the expectation that your community will not always have all of the answers. It’s about creating moments of connection that build trust—that’s where the magic happens.

RINSE AND REPEAT

Chances are, your members are leaders with limited time. Their engagement will fluctuate depending on their needs and interest in the topics or peers you’ve curated.

Consider your intention every time you bring people together, and experiment with different formats to see what sticks. Invest in talent that uncovers connections between members who share similar goals, are working on synergistic opportunities, or can stand to benefit from knowing one another. Experiment with formats often; large open formats are great for moments with star power speakers, while more curated and intimate formats incentivize members to actively engage with one another.

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After every event, remember to ask both your team and attendees, “What should we continue, stop, or start?” Take your learnings, rinse, and repeat.

The future or current members in your community have a vested stake in your work and can be your best champions. Boost your credibility and authenticity by staying grounded in their motivations and goals. Keep it real, and keep it growing!


Melissa Barash is a curious community-builder who loves empowering leaders solving big challenges. Venture Partner / Board Member / Advisor.

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