You probably already know the value of building a community behind your brand: more powerful word of mouth, stronger customer retention, better organic growth. And yet, I find many small business owners aren’t quite sure how to foster real communities or don’t believe they can if they don’t have the money to really do it successfully.
I’ve built two thriving communities on startup budgets, first as employee #1 and Director of Marketing and Community at theSkimm and now as the founder and CEO of puzzle company JIGGY. Here’s my advice for doing it right.
1. Find Ways to Support & Celebrate Your Organic Ambassadors
You probably already have a community of champions—people who love what you’re doing and want to tell the world about it—even if it’s just a small one. If the cheapest customer is always your existing one, the easiest community to build is the one you already have. So, look for ways to help your current advocates help you, and thank them when they do.
At JIGGY, we make it clear on our product packaging and website how puzzlers can share their progress on social, tagging us and the artist who designed the puzzle artwork. We also always react or share their posts on our stories to show how much we appreciate them (and encourage them to continue sharing!).
JIGGY’s customers love sharing their puzzling journey—and we’ve made it easy for them to help spread the word about our brand in the process.
At theSkimm, a simple prompt in our daily newsletter to share it with a friend evolved into an entire ambassador program (called Skimm’bassadors), with detailed guidance on how to best spread the word and tiered perks based on the number of referrals. For a long time, we even chose incentives that cost us almost nothing and further drove community engagement: access to a private Facebook group, invites to Skimm events, and the chance to meet the team.
Whatever you do, taking a little time now to support and appreciate your biggest fans will save you a lot of money in the long run when it comes to your community growth.
2. Bring Your Followers Into the Business-Building Process
Traditional marketing is a one-way conversation, but to build a strong community, you should create opportunities for your customers to feel like they have a voice, too.
Again, this doesn’t have to be complex. Our JIGGY team makes sure to respond to every customer email we get so our users know they are being heard. We keep an ear to the ground and make product decisions based on what our customers want, letting them know when we’ve addressed their feedback. We ask our followers for their thoughts on ideas we’re considering, rather than just trying to read their minds. Even a simple Instagram poll can be engaging and insightful.
When we released our first kids puzzle, we emphasized that this decision came from customer requests.
By treating your customer community as a very large board of advisors, you may also start to feel confident trying half-baked ideas to see what kind of reaction you get. For instance, when we were figuring out how to monetize our newsletter at theSkimm, we simply told our readers, “We’re going to start putting some ads in, let us know what you think!” By staying transparent and opening up this line of communication, our users felt more invested in what we were doing—and more forgiving as we figured it out.
3. Encourage Connections Within Your Community
The real magic of a brand community starts happening when you help users build connections with each other.
About a year after we started doing events for our Skimm’bassadors, we did a user survey, and found that a huge indicator of satisfaction was the people our users were meeting through the group: new friendships, professional connections, even some romantic relationships.
Early on with JIGGY, we saw a ton of organic engagement on social between our customers and the artists who create the work for our puzzles, and we found that it made both communities feel more dedicated to what our brand is doing. More recently, we noticed users having puzzle parties over Zoom—so decided to launch the Puzzle Club to help further encourage this kind of engagement.
Puzzle Club members get the same exclusive puzzle every month so they can all share their progress, as well as opportunities to interact with JIGGY artists—both great drivers of deeper community.
Think of ways to bring your community together, and then step back and watch the real connections start to happen.
4. Stay Guided by Your Why
Ultimately, none of this works if you don’t have a deeper why behind your brand. At theSkimm, that was about being informed and connected with current events in the world around you. At JIGGY, it's about reconnecting with downtime and practicing mindful self care while also supporting independent artists. People want to be part of these communities because they want to be around like-minded people.
It’s not just about stating your values—it’s about living them out in your branding, your copy, and even your business decisions. In the early months of Covid-19, we ran out of product and couldn't restock because of supply chain issues. All we had access to was blank puzzles so, after hearing about the financial struggles our artists were having, we had them draw one-of-a-kind puzzles on these blanks and auctioned them off for charity and artist relief. This didn’t benefit our bottom line, but helped puzzlers stay engaged with our company even when we couldn’t sell them anything, supported our artist community, and reinforced what we’re all about as a company.
During the early months of Covid, our Jiggy Originals campaign supported our artist community and drove a deeper connection with our puzzlers.
Communities don’t rally behind a product—they rally behind values that matter to them or a lifestyle they identify with. Figure yours out, live it out in the brand, and make sure you really care about your customers along the way, and you’ll be amazing at the dedicated following you can build.