In his book The Art of Community, author Charles Vogl identifies seven essential principles that have been used to create community and belonging for over a thousand years. The very first entry on the list, defined as “the recognized demarcation from insiders (members) to outsiders,” is a word with which we’re all becoming increasingly familiar: boundaries.
In the context of online community building, we speak of boundaries when we ask something like, “Should our community be open to all or only to a special group of people?” This defined group might be customers (vs. non-customers), partners (vs. the general public), staff-only, moderator-only, etc.
No matter how we define our boundaries, it is important that we do eventually—and thoughtfully—define them. Boundaries are critical for keeping members safe, maintaining organizational integrity, and fostering a sense of ownership, commitment, and value. The sooner you define them, the better.
When deciding between an open or closed community, teams often make their decision based on gut instinct. But making this decision and implementing it in a sustainable way (vs. needing a major overhaul a few years down the road) requires a clear understanding of your goals and technical constraints.
So should your community be open or closed? Let’s tackle that question together. We’ll explore the building blocks of its answer and review some examples of different types of communities.
The Most Critical Question
When making this decision, the most important question to answer is Why is our organization building this community?
If you can answer that question, the decision becomes much clearer. As with everything community-related, the important thing is to center your decision-making around your purpose. So what is your purpose? And how will boundaries serve or hinder that purpose?
So return to the most critical question: Why is our organization building this community? Said differently, what outcomes are we seeking to achieve as a result of creating this community?
If you struggle to answer this question, here are some starting points for identifying your organizational whys and the most common ones I see in my work:
- Marketing: improve SEO/discoverability, strengthen brand recognition, generate leads, grow sales pipeline
- Marketing: identify advocates and encourage advocacy
- Product feedback: create better-informed products with actual user feedback
- Product ideation: allow product ideas from community members
- Support and Success: improve self-service for customers and reduce internal support resources
- Non-Profit Funding: create a space where funders can stay continually engaged
If Your Why is About Marketing
If your community is expected to drive awareness, sales pipeline, leads, or growth in any way, the default decision should be to keep the community open. Specific areas of the community may be closed off to the public or accessed only by special groups, but the overall orientation should be directed toward discoverability. For example, legal tech company Ironclad has a public community that is open to anyone regardless of customer status; this community is becoming a water-cooler for legal operations professionals and driving success as well as sales pipeline.
On the other hand, if you are building your community to recognize advocates, provide exclusive access, and/or deepen trust among a specific group of people, it’s best to default to closed spaces. For instance, Lululemon creates private communication paths for their brand ambassadors; there is no public community as it is an exclusive group not meant to be accessible to all. Closed spaces for advocates and VIPs may exist within a larger open community.
If Your Why is About Product Ideation and Feedback
If your community is intended to serve product-related goals first and foremost, you’ll want to identify whose voices you want to center; then make your decision accordingly. In other words, do you prioritize ideas only from certain VIP customers? If so, keep the community closed. Do you want members of the general public to discover your community after a Google search and be able to log in with a free account and share new ideas? Then go for it, and make it open.
There is typically a happy medium here. The Salesforce IdeaExchange community is completely searchable by outsiders, for example, but you must log in with your Salesforce account to vote or add ideas. This means that you must at least have accounts with these companies in order to have a voice in the process.
Many of my clients build customer advisory board (CAB) communities, in which only customers of a specific tier may participate and see others’ activity. This method builds trust and camaraderie while ensuring that the product roadmap is steered by a company’s ideal clients.
If Your Why is for Support and Success
If your primary community goal is to make self-service easier for customers (especially for a fairly affordable B2C product), default to an open community. Customers and prospects can then discover answers to their questions with a simple Google search if your community is open and indexable by search engines. If your product or service is bespoke or B2B-focused with a high price point, you will likely want to default to putting your content behind a login at the very least.
For example, the GoDaddy Pro community is open and searchable for all, but you must log in to participate. By contrast, most portions of the Khoros B2B community are open only to paying customers.
If Your Why is for Non-Profit Funders
Is the primary goal of your community-building efforts to bring together the donors and funders of your non-profit in a way that continually engages them? If so, you might want to consider a partially open community. In this scenario, newcomers can take a look at what being in the community is like and even participate in public areas but can show their commitment by signing up to be a member and getting access to private content as well. This ensures that your community continues to engage newcomers while protecting the experience of those who are more deeply involved.
Deal With Constraints
Before you make a final decision about whether to open your community to all or only to specific people, you’ll want to identify and deal with any constraints in front of you.
There are two critical questions to ask.
- How reversible is the decision to be open or closed, technically speaking?
Some platforms allow you to toggle between open and closed with relative ease. For others, it is not possible to switch from private to public. (This is the case for Facebook Groups of a certain size, for instance.) Consider how reversible the decision might be. If it can be easily reversed without relational consequences (see question #2), it might not be worth spending much time on this decision. If, however, the decision is binding and irreversible, you will want to be crystal clear and upfront about why you are creating your community. Be patient with this process; it can take time to get it right.
- What will be the relational consequences of reversing or changing this decision?
Though it may be technically feasible to shift from closed to open or vice versa, the decision can erode trust in your organization. In general, it is easier to go from public to private than from private to public. When people believe they are in a private space, you will need to be extremely careful about how/if you roll out portions of the community to the public. In some cases, it is better not to do so at all.
No matter your decision, be ready to revisit it at regular intervals and consider if you should add or subtract closed or open spaces. As Charles Vogl explains, “Values, boundary, and enforcement all must remain dynamic. This is how a community matures. If maturation stops, the community will gradually become irrelevant.” A big part of maintaining relevance is to understand how safe and productive your community’s boundaries are and to pivot if necessary.
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