Social media has made online communities popular and accessible. Nowadays, it seems easier than ever to start one for fun and profit.
But it’s not. Yes, launching an online community is easy, but building a long-lasting one takes a lot of effort. To increase your chance of success, you have to be aware of several pitfalls. Here are the most common mistakes that I see:
Mistake one: Failing to monetize
Many struggling community builders can’t afford to keep their enterprise afloat because they didn’t think about monetization from the start. How often have you heard “we’re focusing on building the community, and we’ll worry about monetizing later”?
I’ve made that mistake myself. My first venture, Brazen Careerist (now called Brazen Technologies) was a social network that helped young professionals connect. It ultimately floundered, because we didn’t monetize the membership. Eventually, we pivoted to an enterprise SaaS model and became financially successful, but I often wonder if the community aspect of the business would have survived if we’d been willing to charge for membership.
Through my work with The Community Company, I’ve learned how incredibly valuable a highly curated community can be. The thing is, if you can deliver the right resources and connections at the right time, people will pay a premium price. So don’t be afraid to put a price tag on it, and ask your members to pay early on.
Mistake two: Neglecting operational excellence
In a profession where human touch is everything, we often forget about the importance of building a strong operational backbone. I find that many community builders don’t think about systems and processes until they’re overwhelmed with growth. By that time, it’s often already too late. How can a community business expect to train a team and grow up if it doesn’t have a step-by-step playbook to onboard, engage, and retain its members?
I get it, in a fast-paced business world, doing things like documenting your systems can feel like it’s taking you away from growth. You just want to keep hustling and worry about the details later.
But that only leads to regret. At The Community Company, we have an internal team wiki that manages all of our systems and processes and is accessible to everyone on our team. That allows my partner and I to step away and let team members run daily operations so that we can focus on business development.
Mistake three: Thinking about “scale” too early
The flip side of not thinking at all about operational excellence is thinking about “scale” way too early. Your goal should be for a “network effect” to take hold in your community. The value of your product should increase exponentially with each user, and this usually requires a manual process that you can’t scale immediately.
“‘Build it and they will come does not work’,” says Scott Belsky, cofounder of Behance, a highly successful community for creative professionals that Adobe acquired in 2012. “Network effects are hard to achieve and always need to be kicked off in a surprisingly manual fashion. For Behance, we manually built the portfolios for our first 100 members back in 2007. The content needed to look good and be plentiful for others to want to participate, so we needed to do it ourselves.” In other words, you need to focus on building relationships with your constituents to achieve a network effect.
Mistake four: Not growing along with your members
As a community builder, it’s a great feeling to see network effect start to take hold and watch sub-communities form. But it can also be a death sentence for your community if members no longer rely on your platform to make valuable exchanges with one another.
Community members may take the relationships you helped cultivate to, say, a private Facebook group or a competing event. It’s a compliment, but it can be frustrating and threatening if you don’t continue to be the glue that keeps your community together.
The best way to stay “sticky” is to listen closely to the subcultures forming within your community and be a support system for them by bringing them closer together and recruiting additional like-minded people to join their ranks. In the early days of Brazen, we formed subgroups around specific industries, geographic locations, and even non-business activities such as cooking. Giving busy, young professionals a platform to share recipe ideas was an unexpected way to allow our members to connect and keep conversing on our platform.
It takes a lot of time and effort to build a sustainable, strong online community. But when you do it right, you’ll have the enormous satisfaction of knowing that you’re creating something of lasting value for yourself and your members.
Ryan Paugh is the COO of The Community Company, an organization that builds community-driven programs for media companies and global brands. He is also the coauthor of Superconnector: Stop Networking and Start Building Business Relationships That Matter.