How to grow a community from 0 to 2,000+ active alumni

Digital communities... Everyone seems to be talking about them.

At the altMBA, I had the privilege of building our community from scratch to 2,000+ alumni. You might have read that a community can increase engagement, build a moat around your product, and lower your cost of customer acquisition over time. All of that can be true.

You might be thinking, I'm sold. Can I skip the strategy and go straight to building my community? I want to start sending out Slack invites!

But wait:

First, having a Slack room does not equal a community. (That’s a topic for another post...) Second, you can skip straight to execution, but you might end up building the wrong thing. You could invest several months and thousands of dollars into a digital community that no one wants to be part of.

Setting up a Slack room or community is easy. Getting anyone to want to participate is HARD. Making sure you don't lose money over time running a digital community—that's even harder.

That's why you should spend more time developing your strategy and mapping out what success looks like. As someone who's been on the ground floor—building the go-to-market strategy for a digital community, launching it, managing teams of community managers, and being held responsible for the growth of communities—I'm here to say from personal experience: you need a strategy.

I know, I know. You wanted to start engaging. But trust me, any hard work you do now will pay dividends later. (As I often say, do things your Future Self will thank you for.)

So let's get into it: One of the biggest reasons digital communities fail is because you falsely expect a community to grow organically.

Let's unpack this...

No community grows organically.

The ones that are bustling were intentionally designed and curated to offer irreplaceable value to community members. To grow a community, you need to keep a close watch on what is so helpful that your existing members feel an insatiable urge to tell their friends about you. In other words, you need to proactively design reasons for your existing members to share.

“If you build it, they will come.”

Sounds reasonable, right? Wrong. This is the biggest myth in digital communities and anything involving customer traction. The product-centric trend in today’s discourse means you’ve probably heard the axiom that “good ideas sell themselves.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Like ducks paddling underwater

Communities that seem to grow organically are like ducks floating along the surface of water. They look as if they’re just gliding effortlessly.... But under the surface, the ducks are paddling feverishly. When you look at other successful communities, you only see their traction, not the work behind the scenes—in this case, the effort spent on securing and retaining new community members, encouraging word-of-mouth referrals and investing in programs that fuel community engagement.

Communities are built one person at a time

You might want to get to 10,000 members, but first you need to find 20 people, 50 people, 100 people. Focus on initially adding value to a small group, and one day, you’ll have a lively community outsiders are eager to join.

Now that you're all fired up to do digital communities the right way, here's an action you can take.

Here’s an exercise:

What's one micro-experiment you can launch that would (a) maximize learnings about what your community wants from you, (b) cost little to nothing to set up this week, and (c) allow you to test an assumption with as little overhead as possible?

Your community might value connecting with like-minded fellow leaders, feeling heard and recognized, access to new tools and tips, or the pride from being affiliated with a well-respected group. You need to know what you can provide to your community and why they’ll want to share it with their peers.

Then you can focus your energy on building that.