Thinking of Community as Marketing When You're Not Marketing Anything

Just had a few conversations with startups around how early to hire for marketing.  For most founders, it seems silly to hire for marketing when you don't have a product in market to sell.

So, when are you supposed to start marketing?  The day it launches?  Seems a little late for that.  You'd like to have developed an audience to be able to launch your product to--because as any PR person will tell you, relying 100% on other people's audiences can be a tough sell.

So now imagine developing an audience before you launch.  Would you do this with an incessant stream of marketing and company e-mails for a year?

That would be like the worst Kickstarter pre-sale ever.

"Hey, we're still working on it."

"Yup, still working."

"Oh, sorry... We're kind of delayed."

"Look, here's a picture of Bob in the warehouse with some parts that don't look like the thing you ordered yet."

"Delayed again."

"Want to buy another one before you even have the first one you ordered?"

No, you wouldn't build up much of an audience this way.  So how do you build up audience?  You do it by gathering people around something they care about--by providing a network value, connection, and engagement around the thing they care about.

Sounds a lot like "community," doesn't it?

Communities should be built around values, not around products, so you don't need to wait until you have a product to launch a community.

Let's imagine you're building a de-stressing wearable.  You put this band around your wrist, and you automatically feel completely zen.  The only issue is that the product isn't going to be ready for a year.

That's actually an exciting opportunity because you have a year to develop a really thriving community around reducing stress.

How about...

  • Writing a book on the topic, perhaps a curated set of essays on de-stressing from the world's most zen executives, celebs and processionals.
  • Setting up a series of local meetups across the top 25 MSAs dedicated to reducing stress.
  • Creating a great de-stressing tips e-mail newsletter.
  • Starting a de-stressing podcast.
  • Launching the StressTech conference.
  • Creating a "Humans of NY" style Instagram featuring tips from regular people about how they deal with stress.
  • Offering online and offline courses related to fighting stress--maybe even a certification around stress coaching.  

If you did all of these things, is there any doubt that you'd have somewhere on the order of 25,000-50,000 e-mail addresses of people who care about fighting stress in their lives or workplaces or whatever?  How amazing would your wearable launch go if you could market it to this cultivated community?  

Not only would it be amazing, but how much would it be worth to you in actual dollars?  Could you double your launch targets with a community like this?  How much more would you sell in a pre-sale?  

The point is, before you wonder who is going to do all of the above, if you do the math on how much better your launch outcome would be, is it even a question whether or not a hire to do this would make for a great investment?  The dollars in salary of a person on staff to build this community *well* ahead of a launch could easily be made back based on your new increased launch trajectory.  In fact, I'd argue that the earlier you hire this person, which means more dollars spend, the increase in the chance of your success.  

The key to hiring this person would be making sure they are extremely organized and process oriented.  It would be easy to think of them as "creative" and while they would definitely need to be a clear communicator, they're not really creating any *new* ideas.  The themes and values they'd be working around should be carefully fostered by the founders--and ideas of what's possible are already out there.  The key to a good content and community person is the crispness of the execution, making sure you've got lots of moving pieces working in order and on time, and organizing things like examples of voice, tone, and things to keep in mind about stakeholders into editorial and community processes and rules.  

Plus, this community strategy wouldn't just end at launch--it's something you'd probably want to do anyway, and the earlier you start it will just compound your returns more and more over time.