The 3 Stages of Community Forum Development: Where is Yours?

5 minute read

September 21, 2021

The 3 Stages of Community Forum Development: Where is Yours?

Whether it’s day 1 for your community, or you’re a long standing and engaged community, you’re always looking to improve. The steps and direction you take to improve, however, are entirely dependent on what developmental stage that your community falls into; communities at different stages have different goals and require different tactics to reach these goals.

As a result, you need to take a step back to evaluate where your community is today and where you’d like it to go in the future, so that you can adequately determine what your next move should be. Let’s take a closer look at what these community developmental stages are to determine where you might fit in.

There are three stages of community development—understanding these stages will help you identify the right resources and tactics that you can use to develop your community. These stages are:

  • Stage 1: The brand new community – building relationships early.

  • Stage 2: The developing community – learning to manage growth.

  • Stage 3: The established community – sharing responsibility to manage scale.

Let’s discuss.

Stage 1: The Brand New Community Forum

Early communities are fun!

Groundwork for developing a new community involves a ton of research, which might include honing in on a target demographic, assessing the type of person that’s likely to participate and even exploring which platforms and products to use to generate discussion and engagement among members.

When structuring your new community, do your best to keep the vibe casual and upbeat. Not only will this give you valuable insight into how members feel early on by helping them feel comfortable, but it also will promote organic growth as members begin to find value in being a part of the group.

Community Manager Survival Guide

Key Goal: Build Relationships Early

Communicate early, and communicate often,

Use this early time as a prime opportunity to talk to the people in your community and learn as much as you can while establishing guidelines as the tone evolves. In fact, a great way to communicate early with your community and set the tone is through the welcome email.

Keep in mind that at this early stage, you’re serving as a representative for your company at this time and acting as a liaison between business and community. It’s likely that your company is still trying to define the roles and responsibilities of a Community Manager and build your community KPIs so at this point, you might feel a little bit in limbo.

Do your best to facilitate and encourage fluid and transparent communication between your company and the community. While you’re woking on setting your community KPIs, you can use the volume of feedback from members as an early and quick way to gauge success—after all, the amount of feedback you receive is a good indicator of the level of community engagement. 

CloudPeeps, a platform for freelancers, is a great example of a company that has done exceptionally well at fostering conversation from day 1. Their Peeps-only community kicked off on Facebook with a community strategist who fostered regular discussion and company/Peep interactions.

By keeping an eye on the discussions and chiming in early on, the team at CloudPeeps was able to establish the right kind of tone and a loose sense of structure that helped the group grow into the strong and supportive community of freelancers that it is today.

Stage 2: The Developing Community Forum

As your community begins to grow, you should start thinking about ways to recognize and reward members who are helping to lead the charge. This is a great opportunity to start thinking about implementing new initiatives, which can include:

  • Implementing community gamification to help encourage brand loyalty, foster participation and increase engagement.

  • Implementing community ideation to help get a better sense of community demands and how you can improve.

  • Implementing a Super Fan Program to help recognize and reward the most active members of your community.

Communities in this stage require tools to help increase engagement, since without community engagement, you won’t be able to establish a vibrant and thriving community and reach the next stage. If you don’t already have tools to measure community data and analytics yet, this is something that you’ll want to look into. 

Some great analytical tools include:

  • Omniture

  • Webtrends

  • Matomo

  • Mixpanel
  • Hotjar

  • Clicktale

  • Google Analytics

  • Marketing Automation
  • Your Community Platform 

Key Goal: Learn to effectively manage community growth

Since the size of your community has likely grown, this is a good time to begin setting up a bit more formalized structure too. Think about sharing community guidelines that will inspire collaboration and increase community engagement. 

Getting members to talk to one another is important at this point in development and will help create a sense of true belonging. Making the community feel like ‘home’ will take you far and is rewarding to watch. That’s why elements like community gamification are really something that you should think about at this stage, since it increases collaboration and engagement.

Speaking of making your community feel like ‘home,’ you should think about customizing your gamification features to include elements of your brand personality; after all, the people in your community are customers and likely have positive vibes for your brand, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Bring out the brand personality that they love in your community, and you’re likely to see additional growth.

King Candy Crush Community Forum

The image above is a great example of what “bringing out the brand personality” looks like in practice. This is the community homepage for Kings’ Candy Crush Community. As you can see, the look and feel is on-point with the brand, which makes the community much more appealing.

Great job King!

Stage 3: The Established Community Forum

More mature and established communities shine at scale, so take learnings from previous stages to replicate and grow your group. You’ll know your community is ready for growth when you notice it’s able to function without too much control on your end. 

An established community will be able to function effectively as a peer-to-peer community, and those who do ‘run the show’ are likely to also be members of the community rather than members of your team. These people could be Super Fans, Mods, Ambassadors, etc.  At this point, your hands on presence is required far less—if really at all.

Key Goal: Share community forum responsibilities at scale

When managing an established community, those within the community whom you’ve granted role responsibilities should help to not only maintain, but encourage more community growth by engaging with prospective users or customers. Their role as facilitators will be the key to achieving scale and accomplishing your goals, as well as meeting any other community health metrics you’ve solidified during the development process.

A great example of an established community is Reddit, where you can see that the initial strategy has been successfully replicated across countless sub-categories. Even more, people with proven credibility help streamline and organize the on site content and community commentary.

Redditor to Redditor interactions make up nearly all participation on site, and members directly share Reddit with prospective newbies. At this point, a company can track and measure key metrics that define continued community success without being on the ground—their community leaders do that for them!

Driving Engagement and Increasing Adoption


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Sarah Robinson-Yu

Written by Sarah Robinson-Yu

Sarah is the Content Marketing Specialist at Vanilla Forums. Prior to Vanilla, Sarah worked in the public sector where she led and coordinated the strategic framework and operational policy development of business processes.

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