How to Build a Community and Why it Matters

build community

Building and sustaining an open source community is certainly not a bed of roses. This article outlines a few important steps you can follow to do so.

the demand for open source communities is growing. Community development is like an adventure in the deep woods. You need to start with a lot of preparation, especially to face the unknown. Technology and tools continue to evolve, so you cannot rely on them completely. On your journey, you will find fellow travellers who support you, but you should be ready to deal with surprises.

Why build a community?
It’s often thought that a community is needed to address problems or offer support to people. These are valid reasons, but building a thriving community will entirely depend on you as a leader. There are four common challenges that have to be overcome for people to start or join a community.

Why?: This is an important question that people have, as they feel community contribution yields no returns.

Awareness: There are a lot of communities that need a supporting hand, but there is not much awareness about them.

Where to start?: There are many who do not know where to start, despite wanting to do so.

How to start?: People are unsure of what role they can play and where their contributions can be helpful.

These challenges can be addressed if people realise the wide range of valuable skills they will gain by building and participating in an open source community. These range from exposure to new technology and improved communication skills, to development of strategic thinking and influencing large numbers. To build a community, it will be helpful to start discussions with volunteers, note down your purpose, explore opportunities, and connect with fellow teammates.

Five steps to help you build a community
1. Research for a common interest: The very first thing to do is carry out research, which can be done in a day, a week, or a month at the maximum. Do not spend too much time on it. Think of it as a need for a group to be formed, be it technical or non-technical. You can visit two places to figure out whether it would be worth your while to start or not. The first is, where there are many communities worldwide, not limited by location or technology. The second place is Discord. Even though it was started for gamers, it is a vibrant site for non-gamers also.

2. Start small: Do not stop after the analysis. You can start a meet-up with a small group. Be aware, for instance, that the registrations for your first event may fall between 50-100, but the actual turnout may be just 10 people. Don’t be disappointed by this. It is a pattern seen very often. We have seen a ratio of one person attending for every three people registering for an event. Hence, do not give up early. Conduct the sessions at least a couple of times, before you decide on whether the community build-up is working or not. The net takeaway is to put your thoughts in action and not just have an intention to build.

3. Communicate for impact, participate for feedback: It is important to develop the skills of communication and participation. A good communicator will create an impact that leads to action. For instance, let’s say you are writing an email for people to register. A lengthy email on the benefits of the topic and a small link for registration may not help. You should begin with a big popup that contains the link for registration, along with an agenda repeating the process of registration. Also, work on the time of the day and the day of the week that may help you fetch more registrations. Though this will not guarantee people coming in, you will learn to communicate precisely over a period of time.

Participation is important too. For example, I once asked people about the topics they would like to be spoken about in the next three sessions. A lot of ideas poured in, but the same set of people did not attend the next session. People give feedback because you ask for it, and it does not mean they are committed to being a part of the community. As time passes, you will slowly see a group of people participating repeatedly, indicating they are committed to the community.

4. Adapt to evolve: You have to be nimble and adaptive. When the pandemic hit, we were forced to shift from offline sessions to remote interactions. We looked at options like Zoom, Slack, etc, to sail through it. So it is important for you to keep an eye on where your set of community members walk around or spend most of their time. With trials on apps like WhatsApp, Facebook and Telegram for our community, we figured out gained us 9,500 registrations spanning across 15 cities and eight countries approximately. We also found that the WhatsApp group is the most active after Discord. We have around 1,800 members in this group, where the maximum interaction happens.

5. Grow and expand: This is where you start thinking like an entrepreneur. You get an entry as a member of a credible community and run multiple meetups consistently every single month, say for 3-5 years. That’s when people start to take the community seriously. You may even have a good number of fans and a great set of volunteers that may get you sponsorships. Credibility comes with numbers and fetches you a good amount of sponsors too. Hence, build and boost your numbers for others to talk about the community.

If you want to expand your community even further, you can think about spot leaders. As mentioned earlier, a few members will attend your meetups repeatedly and be active in various forums. They can be trained to be leaders, which will help when you cannot devote time as a community leader. These spot leaders can help with events and keep the community thriving. Just remember, the willingness and commitment of the persons is more important than their skill or expertise.

Once you get sponsors, you can think about the purpose of the community to decide on tie-ups. For example, at JavaScript, we are tying up with React India. Such tie-up strategies help you grow at a different scale, as long as your intentions match those of your partners.
So, if you are building a community and have plans to expand, you should also imbibe the skills of entrepreneurship. Understand your market, identify more places where you can attract people, boast your numbers, sell what you are doing, and create win-win scenarios.

What can you expect as a community leader?
Community leaders not only influence the behaviour of the community, but also that of the corporates. Microsoft, Google and Amazon are all seeking leaders for new positions and roles to influence the community. You could either be directly associated with them as an employer or contractor, or simply have a tie-up to get sponsorships for your events. The demand for community leaders will only increase in the next 5 to 10 years, and it can turn into a full-time vocation.

Community leadership has improved my strategic thinking and my ability to adapt to different situations. In spite of the highs and lows, a leader has the backing of a community of around 10,000 people. There is no single route to be followed in the journey to community leadership, and you may make a few wrong turnings on the way. Just remember that when you act, you are taking a step forward.

The article is based on a talk given by Janardan Revuru, community leader, JavaScript Meetup, at Open Source India 2021.


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