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Setting Realistic Online Community Growth Expectations

4 minute read

October 6, 2020

We all want our communities to grow organically, filled with members who actively contribute. Many communities can and do reach this state, but never right out the gate.

Paradoxically, to achieve “organic growth” you must begin with extensive hands-on connecting. Community managers can expect to invest time, effort, and emotional labor into the process. Dreaming of explosive community growth through tips + tricks and quick growth hacks is just that -- an unattainable dream. The reality is that growth happens when you make specific investments in your community. 

Let’s dig into the 7 investments you must make in your community efforts so that your community grows and flourishes: 

1. Prepare to make hundreds of asks.

In the process of building a community, you will personally ask for more than you ever imagined, and it is likely to take longer than you intended to see results. I say this not to discourage, but rather to prepare yourself for when one outreach does not make your community a sudden success. 

Many people aspiring to build community imagine that simply announcing a new community will lead hundreds of eager people and endless resources to arrive magically - and continue arriving with each new announcement. 

Simply put: this will not happen. Prepare now to make many asks, from feedback to event attendance to introductions. And prepare to be ignored or let down, perhaps more often than you are used to. Practicing will only improve your ability and relationships over time, making rejection and disappointment less and less common. 

A Simple 7 Phased Approach To Community Building

2. Make direct, personalized invitations.

Instead of making broad announcements to your community, make many direct invitations, learn every time, and refine. 

Consider the communities you participate in regularly. I am guessing that most of them started from small, humble beginnings and deeply-knit relationships and then grew from there. Scaling a true community is not a numbers game; sending out 1,000 invitations is not better than 10 (it’s worse). Instead, it requires you to personalize and direct your communications to specific people who matter to you and your organization. 

How many of the communities that you participate in regularly did you discover via a mass text message, a templated marketing email, or a single social media post? I’m guessing close to zero. If it didn’t work to engage you, don’t expect this strategy to work for your members either. 

3. You are likely to have few participants - until you suddenly have many. 

There’s a myth that if you include the “right people” (influencers) at the beginning of your efforts, the community will start strong on day one. It may even appear to be true because a community leader has brought along an existing community to fold into a new one. 

The myth may appear true when someone mistakes a mirage community for a real community. Communities take time to build because they are built on connection, which (when sustainable) cannot be fast-tracked. Communities are far more than convenient gatherings. They’re made up of people first finding each other and then caring for one another. If you’re normal, you’ll wonder at least a few times whether you’re wasting your time, because it will seem like no one cares. Stick with it. 

4. You will need to market and promote your efforts extensively.

If people haven’t heard of your organization, don’t know what it’s about, and/or don’t understand the value it brings, they won’t invest their time contributing to its community. Even if you choose to keep your invitations and membership secret, you’ll still need to tell people the purpose and story of your community so they remember why they should keep showing up. It doesn’t have to be perfect at the outset, but you do need a strong purpose for existing. 

5. You do not have to lie about how big, fast, or diverse your community is growing. 

Without benchmarks, we often set arbitrary goals that we cannot meet (like doubling membership every month). When you hear about overnight successes, you can be certain someone is measuring something other than community. Oftentimes they are measuring email subscribers, social media followers, or people who at one point hit the “Join Group” button and turned off notifications long ago.

Participants go to a community to connect with people. There is no good reason to lie about what you don’t have while building the real thing. Keep your team updated and explain what you are accomplishing: vital feedback, insights, collaboration, work towards your mission, or all of the above. 

Community KPIs

6. Put mission first, growth second. Every time.

Of course, everyone wants to grow a community quickly. It never works that way. In strategist adrienne maree brown’s words: "Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass – build the resilience by building the relationships."

When we prioritize growth above mission and connection, it erodes the community’s value for those seeking engagement with others who share their values. A community will deliver value when it serves members. Growth for growth’s sake serves no one.

7. It will take approximately 18 months to see the kind of consistent results your entire organization will care about.

With that said, in the first eighteen months, you will still see valuable outcomes: essential feedback, individual relationships, and advocacy from dedicated members. 

As Charles Vogl says: “Fruit trees take years to yield fruits. That doesn’t mean we put off planting them indefinitely.” 

The best time to start was a year ago. The second best time is now. Let’s get to it. 

Community

Carrie Melissa Jones

Written by Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones is a community leader, entrepreneur, and community management consultant who has been involved with online community leadership since the early 2000s. As the founder of Gather Community Consulting, she consults with brands to build and optimize communities around the world.

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