Sometimes I feel like professional community builders are in a weird sort of race — a member-chasing marathon that ends with a podium. The race, in this case, is running the gauntlet of scaling your community at all costs. If you're not on the podium, managing a community of thousands or more, your efforts were in vain. But in reality, community is far more complex than a race and a podium finish.
It's time to change the narrative and look at our work through a more nuanced lens. By doing so, we open up the dialogue and welcome builders in every stage of this journey into the conversation.
Maybe one community is growing ten members per week, while another is adding 100 new members to their ranks every day. Comparing the two is like pitting two different gardens against each other, and questioning why one has fewer plants than the other — which is no way to enjoy nature in all its glory.
Perhaps one gardener chose a species of flower that needs more time and care to flourish. That does not make the gardener lazy, incompetent, or not good or creative enough. Nor is it that they got a bad batch of flowers. It's simply the best way for them to cultivate an oasis of oxygen and enjoyment.
In fact, I’d argue that the gardener who has taken the time to tend to the individual needs of every flower before planting more, has a better chance of creating a flourishing garden that grows sustainably in the very long run.
Let’s unpack that idea.
Community growth isn’t a bad thing – far from it – but I don’t believe it should always be the end goal or the North Star. As with anything worthwhile, we need to dig into the why.
At its core, community-building is about serving others. If we do that well through our groundwork, sooner or later, scale happens (more on that below).
Most of the time, the thorough plans we design in our offices need fine-tuning and plenty of adjustment as we implement them out in the community wild. If we do that rigorously, our chances of building something authentic and viable are higher. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we lose trust and damage the collective sense of belonging by using cheap growth hacks that aren't anything else than frivolous shortcuts. As with anything worthwhile in life, we need a balance. Often, this balance is in motion, so finding it does not mean our job is done. The magic lies in preserving the rhythm.
Here are some questions you can ask to see if your plans for scaling are in alignment with your values:
- Why is it vital for you to scale, and what speed would be sustainable?
- What are the costs you imagine you will incur both in the short and long-term?
- How does a bigger community help you accomplish specific business objectives?
- Which are the channels best-suited to help you to grow your community without compromising the promise you made to your members?
- What do you imagine will happen once you get closer to the scale you aim for today?
By taking time and really digging into these questions, you’ll gain the clarity you need. And you might find that your business objectives are better met with a smaller, well-nourished community, than one growing without restraint, choked by weeds, with plants wilting in the corner. (Yes, I know, some gardens look outstanding in their wilderness, but trust me that only nature has this fascinating power.)
When the community conversation is not centered on driving up membership numbers, there are other metrics many fixate on. Most often, it's obsessively focused on engagement, despite the very different ways that each of us defines the concept: the time spent on a specific platform, how many questions members submitted to an AMA event, how much they were contributing through content...
But what if we could leave this thinking aside for a second and reshape our approach?
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with managing a huge community, and it’s perfectly fine to facilitate all kinds of rituals across your members. However, please don't put the = sign between success and size. Vanity metrics are okay, but ask yourself first: is everything about numbers?
Let’s go back to our garden metaphor. If you manage a ‘small’ community, you have time to water every plant — and that’s something you can capitalize on.
In this case, watering is building stronger bonds with your people. Something like setting up one-to-one video calls to build a real relationship, and hearing about their needs first-hand. This builds trust, and trust creates emotional safety. When you connect authentically with your members, you’ll notice a special kind of ‘openess’ in your community — when your members feel safe, they’ll be more willing to engage.
When you're on the front lines of managing a community of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or more, actions like these will be diluted – their effect won’t be quite as powerful. You need to find other anchors to keep being relevant and valuable. It's far harder to create a feeling of intimacy and exclusivity.
Here are a few tactics you can use to organically push the nurturing pedal:
When the community is smaller, asking for a helping hand echoes because people feel like they can really make a difference. It helps them feel as though they’re really making an impact.
How? If you want to move your community to a dedicated platform, first ask your members for input. Create a space where they can share questions or concerns about this change, and what you can do to make the change as smooth for them as possible.
We regularly ask our communities to fill out surveys, to get involved in calls to get insights from our members — but how often do we share our findings with them?
How? After running dozens of video calls with the members of Upstairs Community by Pixelgrade, we put together an in-depth article about what we discovered, and shared it with them.
Show your members you’re genuinely considering their feedback. Put their suggestions into action and don't be afraid of the results.
How? Create a dedicated space where members can constantly provide feedback, either by filling a form every month or so, or getting in touch with you or one of your teammates.
There's power in nurturing your existing community and investing your best resources in this particular stage. And there's magic in living in the present and focusing on what you have today. While dreaming big is satisfying, don't forget to explore the resources you have at hand right now and make the most out of the privilege of running a smaller community.
These tactics will help you achieve community and business goals and not use cookie-cutter strategies and gimmicks to simply hit a number. In the end, we’re in this arena because we aim to create meaningful work that has a positive impact, right?