Forward-thinking organizations know their brand communities help with support, marketing, and retention. These are all worthwhile reasons to start their community efforts. There is a large gap between investment and results, as many have learned through wasted resources and time. The reason for this is many follow conventional wisdom about how to build and maintain communities, and this wisdom leads them astray. To avoid heartbreak, time-sucks, and failure, make sure to avoid six of the most popular pieces of conventional wisdom on how to build communities. You might have heard some of this so-called wisdom from your managers, executives, novice community builders, and other people who think they can do your job just as well as you. I hope this post arms you with a powerful response to these pieces of bad advice.
Here are 6 pieces of conventional wisdom that will not serve online community builders.
1. Your most active and vocal members should be specially nurtured
Contrary to popular wisdom, your most active and vocal community members are often not the members to listen to most closely. In many cases, those that talk the most in your online community have the least wisdom about the needs, desires, and goals of everyone else. Unless this person is doing the work of listening to and engaging with many other members, take their thoughts with a grain of salt. Nurture those who put community purpose above personal ego.
2. Happy hours and other agenda-less gatherings are a great way to bring people together
Bringing people together over alcohol and loud noise is terrible for knitting relationships together. In an online environment, dropping 15 people onto a Zoom call to “build community” also does not work. At best, it will lead to those loud voices taking over as de facto leaders and everyone else feeling frustrated and unimportant. Have empathy for your members and create an agenda and clear purpose for the meeting. Create space for everyone to contribute, whether through turn-taking conversations or breakout sessions.
3. You shouldn’t ask for help—you should only give help and resources
Yes, it is important to give. But if all you do is give help and resources to others, you are creating content; you are not creating community. Your job is to bring people together to help and support one another. If you never ask for anyone’s advice, feedback, help, or care, you end up robbing people of the opportunity to be generous and grow.
4. Self-care and boundaries are your sole responsibility to create and maintain.
Yes and no. It is absolutely your responsibility to understand what boundaries are needed for you to be at your best. But it is not completely on your shoulders to uphold these boundaries. People will often push against them, refuse them, and - in the worst-case scenario - even gaslight you about why you don’t need those boundaries. This happens all the time to online community managers, who are constantly holding the reactions and needs of others, so none of this is a stretch. Instead of doing this work alone, find a few internal helpers or external advisors who can hold your hand through the tough times. We all do better work together.
5. Online communities aren’t as good as face-to-face communities.
This is categorically false, and yet even some of the most expert of community builders will tell you otherwise. It is simply not true to say that online is better than offline, or vice versa. Online communities are great for gathering those who have stigmatized identities, who prefer online communication, who span the globe, and who are willing to do the work required to maintain a long-distance friendship. Face-to-face communities often push people to go deeper faster, which creates the illusion that they are “better” than online communities. But be skeptical about wild generalizations like these.
6. You have to find the solutions to your members' problems.
No, you don’t. You’re not their savior. You’re the architect that makes it possible for them to solve problems for themselves. If you rush in to save members every time they have a problem, they are not growing. No growth, no commitment. No commitment, no community.
Stay strong out there, community-building friends. And always question the conventional wisdom. After all, if this conventional wisdom really worked, would we be living in the loneliest era in human history? I don’t need to answer that question.