January 18, 2023

Unintuitive things I've learnt about building an online community

Whether you are setting up your community, growing engagement or measuring the return on your efforts, here are 11 mistakes to avoid as a first time community builder

3 years ago, I wrote an article that had 10,000+ views in the first 2 days. A true overnight success.

Knowing that another 1000s of visitors will be visiting the page in the next few weeks, my entrepreneurial mind decided to capitalise on this success by starting a new Slack community. My brilliant idea was to include a link to join the Slack at the bottom of the article.

And it worked! I got 100+ people to join my Slack community over the next few weeks. I was so proud of myself. All of these people had a place to meet likeminded peers, talk to each other and all I had to do was sit back and reap the benefits.

That community is long dead now.

Created using Playground AI

Simply bringing like-minded people under the same roof does not create a community - that was my first lesson in community building. I needed a strategy to nurture them from strangers to an active community members.

The problem is that building communities is very counterintuitive. If you relied on the traditional startup wisdom, you are very likely to fail.

Since then, I have helped 5 different startups avoid making the same mistake as their first community consultant. Inevitably, I stumbled upon many more mistakes.

If you're a first time community builder, here is an exhaustive list of counterintuitive things about communities that I have discovered, so you can avoid making the same mistakes I did.

When setting up a community for the first time:

1. Don't sell a "free" community

“Free” is your enemy.

The Freemium model has a great success rate for SaaS products but not with communities. That's because this one word:

  1. attract the wrong type of people
  2. who dilute the quality of your community
  3. and leave you struggling with an everlasting engagement problem

"Free" attracts people who are coming in to sample a free product. You don't need them in your community. So avoid using it on your community website or when talking up your community.

You need people who need your community just as much if not more. You need people who are interested enough to join without the lure of a "free" product. Because those are the people who will add energy to your community!

But what if you don't want/aren't ready to charge for your community?

That's okay. In that case, make it exclusive. Say that people need to "apply to join" and vet those applications. Or personally invite only a specific set of people.

You'll have a smaller community, sure. But remember:

SMALL + BUZZING community >> LARGE + DULL community

Created using Playground AI (Polymode style)

2. Know that nobody actually asks for more channels

A good community design can be the difference between members feeling comfortable in posting versus members feeling too overwhelmed to post.

Here are 3 principles to keep in mind when you're designing your community spaces –

  • Less is more. Having a few active channels makes the community feel alive. So, start with spaces with broad scopes that cover a lot of things. It’s also easier to grasp as a new user.
  • Non-overlapping but complete scopes - the only way users can make sense of the different spaces is if each of them covers an area that does not intersect with another's area but together, all of them cover everything your community wants to talk about.

    Remember this when creating new spaces. For example, if you have a "pets" space and you observe that half the posts are only about dogs, don't simply spin up a new "dogs" space. It'll confuse someone who wants to share their pet dog's picture. Be sure to rename "pets" to "other-pets" or don't start a new "dogs" space at all.
  • Every new space you create is a responsibility to keep a new community engaged. If you aren’t ready to take it on, don’t create the channel. If you see that a channel is not engaged enough, close it up - tell people that they can post in another bigger channel.

3. Meet members where they are

If your members are trying to remove Facebook from their lives, don't host your community on Facebook. But if you have to, then make it clear on the sales page that members will need a Facebook account to participate in the community. This is the mistake the Trends community did.

If your members use Slack to communicate in their work life, consider using Slack as your community platform instead of Discord.

If you see your new members missing out on the important conversations because they haven't developed the habit of visiting your community yet, help them by meeting them in their inbox by sending a weekly recap email. It will improve your engagement numbers too.

When growing engagement as a first time community builder:

4. Know that everyone wants to help strangers

If you're struggling with increasing user engagement in your community, you don't need fancy strategies or elaborate programs. The easiest way to spark engagement is to just ask your members.

I tried it recently when I launched a community of international university students for a client. People were joining the community, some of them were saying Hi but none of them were talking to other users. Classic community engagement problem.

So, I DM'ed people who had recently introduced themselves to join me in my mission to improve engagement in this community by joining a Superuser Program where they would help in welcoming new users to the community and share links to the resources they read online every week. Result?

  • I invited 13 people
  • 8/13 responded
  • 4/8 accepted the invitation

This is the counterintuitive thing I've learnt from building communities - everyone wants to help strangers.

They just need the request to be authentic, feel personal and have a clear ask that they can fulfil immediately.

Authentic - Everyone wants to do good in the world. So, if you can connect how their actions can help the community, there's a high chance that your request is answered. Plus, they'll be happy that you thought of them to fulfill this request.

Personal - People are hesitant in responding to a request that feels like an automation sent to hundreds of others. I introduced a personal touch to my request by giving them a 'why'. Something like, "I'm asking you because I saw that you recently introduced yourself."

Clear - Even the most helpful people don't want to waste their time. That's why it wouldn't work if you just asked something vague like, "Can you help me increase engagement in the community?". Rule of thumb - always end the request with 1-3 things that the person can do within the next 1 day in 1 hour max to help.

Created using Playground AI

5. Superuser Program > Community Manager

The best investment you can make in your community in the early days isn’t hiring a community manager - it is investing in your superusers.

Your superusers are people who are already invested in the well-being of your community. They visit your community regularly, react to posts and jump on opportunities to engage other users. These are your model community members.

Creating programs that allow them to take their participation to a new level is a great way to promote the right behaviour. Investing money into these programs is like getting them on steroids.

Here are some ideas of some programs you can invest in to activate your superusers:

  • Running a competition with a grand prize - nothing works better than a good old competition to create excitement in the community and align members to a common cause.
  • Swag for superusers - surprising your best members with some exclusive swag makes them feel seen and acts as a gentle way to incentivize their actions.
  • Conducting amazing workshops with great speakers - who’s the thought leader that your community follows? Inviting them to conduct a private workshop for the community not only creates value for the member but can also be a great way to add “celebrities” to your community.
  • Compensating members for creating in-depth content in the community - create an exclusive writer’s club where you work with the top members to create articles and compensate them fairly for each published piece.
  • Compensating moderators - finally, there’s the time-tested moderation program where you incentivize members to do housekeeping activities like welcoming new members, reporting spammers, and helping people by answering questions as well as creating activities in the community.

6. Understand the "Jeff Bezos opportunity"

Jeff Bezos famously got the inspiration to quit his job at DE Shaw and start Amazon when he saw that Internet adoption was growing at 2300% per year. He saw an incredible trend and capitalised on it. He create the store with infinite shelf space.

I believe that COVID-19 pandemic has created similar trend in online community building. The cost of conducting "in-person" events has reduced >100x in the last 2 years.

Yes, that's because of the absolute adoption of video conferencing solutions.

  • Almost overnight, everyone learnt how to use Zoom/Google Meet
  • It became socially acceptable to host serious virtual conferences/meetups/gatherings online
  • People have opened up to the idea of paying money for virtual attendance

You no longer need to spend money renting a physical space or commute. Add to it the time and money you save for each attendee.

So, now you have the opportunity to create a community that helps members form real connections with no barriers of location and with marginal cost of enabling each connection being ~0.

Most people haven't realised this Jeff Bezos opportunity in enabling in-person connections yet.

Created using Playground AI

7. Don't be a creator - be a matchmaker

  • Writing engaging posts
  • Hosting events
  • Community platform
  • Automations
  • Analytics

None of it matters if your members aren't meeting each other. They can help you build community but they aren’t community themselves.

Because community exists in the relationships between people.

So, at its essence, the community builder's job is that of a matchmaker. Instead of thinking about brilliant new content ideas, think about how you can help your members feel comfortable in sharing their ideas.

Instead of thinking about how you can increase the number of attendees to your events, think about how you can increase the participation of the people who attend the event.

Instead of thinking about how you can grow your community, think about how you can grow the collisions between members.

8. Best personal development investment you can make as a community builder

As a community builder, the best thing you can do to improve your community-building skills is to join an engaged community and become active there.

Sometimes they cost money but I promise you - if it is an active community, it will be the best professional development investment you can make.

Why? Because it gives you a gym for developing your community-building muscle.

  • It is an opportunity to observe. You can see what other members respond to and what they don’t. As a member, you can take notes on what part of the community experience worked for you and what didn’t.
  • Being active improves your ability to empathize. You start to understand the motivations of an active member. Being in their shoes will give you ideas on how you can incentivize more members to become activated.
  • Become a superuser. Don’t just stop at being an active member but help members of the community help each other. This skill will directly transfer when you’re building your own community.

When measuring returns of your efforts as a first time community builder :

9. Don't measure community like you measure an audience

One key difference between an audience and a community is that a community is organic, living whereas an audience is inert. And organic and living things, love randomness.

By not treating all your audience members as equal numbers on a dashboard, you expose yourself to the possibility that someone might bring a disproportionate value to the community. Randomness.

So why measure your community efforts like you measure your audience building efforts?

Ditch the engagement numbers.

The real value of community is counted in stories of asymmetric wins from your community. Random high-impact incidents like a founder making a critical hire or a member leading a new club or forming a deep connection that changes their lives for the better. This is value that only community can bring.

10. Don't expect users to give more than they take

This is the most common community guideline.

I hate it.

It is trying to be smart by programming a rule that ensures an abundance of value in the community. But it's not sensible because it looks at the value of the community in a finite, zero-sum way that makes no sense.

A community does not have a fixed pool of value that can be depleted by the people who only keeping asking for help without helping others in return. If anything, by asking for help in a thoughtful way, they are helping you engage your community. Because the generous community members wouldn't be so if they didn't have a place to show their generosity.

And yet, so many communities share this as a general guideline with every new member. I would argue that this actually harm them by making good members feel like moochers when they ask for help.

Instead, you should bring the right members into the community and encourage them to take as much value as they can. Basic human instincts of reciprocation will ensure that they will give back to the community some day in the future in whatever way suits them best.

Created using Playground AI

11. Count the creators

The unique value that community brings to your business is that it creates creators.

You take in a passive audience, give them a voice and empower them to use it.

Consumer -> Creator

So, the ultimate measure of success for a community should be the number of people it persuades to share something. Question, comment, thought, resource, win, article - anything!

So, it's not the views that you get on your posts. But the comments that you get on your posts. Or the number of posts that members create.

I will keep this post updated as I make more mistakes in my community building career.

Until then, you can keep up with my work on LinkedIn or Twitter. If you need help building your own community, check out My First Community Manager or drop me an email on [email protected].