Five things community builders can do to battle the myth of self-sustaining communities

A few months back, I posed a question that had been troubling me for some time.

Is community the only part of the business that has the expectations of becoming self-sustaining?

Imagine expecting that of marketing, or sales, or product.

It ain't right.

A self-sustaining community does not mean a near zero budget

Time and time again when business leaders talk about community and their excitement to invest in it, what always seems to be top of mind, and therefore a focus, is how effective and efficient community can be.

That it is magically self-sustaining. That people will naturally talk and spend all their energy talking about it. That they can save money on marketing. And, of course, how it will barely cost the business anything. πŸ€¦πŸ½β€β™€οΈ

As a founder myself, I get this. Anything to make business building easier is a huge win. Growth is the holy grail, and a well-crafted community can bring incredible traction. Our problem is that all of this becomes an excuse not to invest in community.

This is how we end up with "community teams of one" that do everything from growth, to content, to running events, to marketing, community operations...and so much more!

It's unsustainable and doesn't bring the results longer term.

Just because community has a more natural and effective growth engine potential, it does not mean it doesn't need investment. In fact, to show you mean business to the community, truly investing into the community is perhaps the most powerful act you can show.

Of course, this doesn't just mean throwing money at a community. It means being able to act on the things the community needs to thrive.

What can we do about it?

That's a very good question. And here are some thoughts.

Community can have self-sustainability aspects, but there needs to be a foundation of care. Without care, I'm not sure a real community can exist. And what this care looks like for each community will, of course, vary.

1. Create a detailed plan

And be honest with yourself and the business about what can be achieved.

A huge part of community is content and communication. How much of it can we really handle AND do well? And how much of it is the business really aware that we put out?

For example, running an event is not a five minute job (though other people in the business might think it is), it involves:

  • finding and coordinating speakers
  • scheduling
  • writing copy, often multiple times
  • emailing invites, often multiple times
  • sharing on social
  • setting up and testing the tech (or venues for in real life events)
  • building up interest and excitement
  • experimenting with community growth and how to pull more people in
  • hosting the event
  • post event admin
  • post event content production
  • post event analysis and review

This is just for one event. Now remember that community is often so much more than events. For each community activity we take on, there is a pretty long list of actions that need to be done.

How much of this can we realistically do well? We must show that things don't just magically happen. They take effort, planning and also lots of trial and error.

2. Take responsibility and the credit

Sometimes we're just too humble about the work we do. We can create impact yet often fail to seek to take credit for it.

  • That customer that first found out about the business through community word of mouth?
  • That sales conversion that happened where conversations first happened within the community?
  • The event speaker who then went on to recommend your business?

Take the credit!

This also means you need to know if these things are happening. Thankfully analytics and tooling is getting better, but still, much of this is down to keeping your eyes peeled on how the community and business are growing.

Taking credit also means taking responsibility for when things don't go so well. We must be willing to put our hands up and share what is or isn't working so that we can all learn and move on as quickly as possible.

3. Look for opportunities

One of the best things about building community is the abundance of opportunities. This can show up in so many ways. We can build a strong reputation for bringing value back to the business. We must choose to look for these.

Perhaps it's the conversations we have. The insights we learn. The trust we build. The undocumented conversations. Or the connections between all those things.

The opportunities we seek are not just for the benefit of community, but the business as a whole. The better we get at identifying them, keeping track of what they are and communicating them back to the right people in the business, then the more the business will see the value we bring and start to understand that we need investment into the work we do.

I often refer back to this diagram from Holly Firestone that communicates how community brings ROI across the business. I'd encourage you to build your own list of what you feel you can bring back to your own business.

The more we can feed back information, the more the business will start to understand the work we need to do to create a valuable community (and that it isn't magically self-sustaining).

4. Articulate the value, what stops if you switch it off?

Very much aligned with 'looking for opportunities' is also the understanding of articulating value, Josh Grose said:

I think it's just harder to articulate what happens when you turn it off. If you stop Sales, you stop generating new revenue. If you stop marketing, pipeline dries up. If you stop building product, competitors pass you by.

Community needs a similar succinct statement.

Otherwise, it falls further and further down into a niche within a category, like SEO, field events, etc. And if it's defined in that way, then there is an level of acceptable trade-off, unfortunately.

What would happen if your community was switched off? What would be lost? Who would care?

These are really important questions to be asked.

What if the opportunities we kept finding stopped filtering through? How would that impact the business pipeline?

Also top of mind for me is the need for businesses to stay relevant and on top of trends. Community can be great for this. In fact, community people are often those who are in touch with customers every single day. Not many people in the business have the opportunity to serve customers that show up because they care, not just because they need customer support.

This depth of understanding is a real competitive advantage, especially as the world changes quickly. Having ears on the ground is essential to help us make better decisions.

5. Seek help and be ethical

Social capital is a big part of how communities survive. It is part of every living economy, yet it often goes unseen and without fair credit. However, just because people are willing to help with their time, that doesn't mean that we should rely on it as a strategy to not hire people to do important work.

Unfortunately, the community world is rampant with the expectation of doing work for free. I have hope this will change in the coming years, though admittedly it's still pretty depressing to think about.

The simple act of not requesting a budget for help only enforces the incorrect understanding that communities are self-sustaining. The magical thing about paying people is they become 100x more reliable and committed to a valuable outcome. This is a game changer for community builders.

It's when you don't pay or support people enough that they show up without real commitment, are often flaky and the outputs lack quality.

Relying on free labour creates a whole variety of issues around lack of diversity. It is our responsibility to see ways to compensate people fairly and understand that people have life priorities that often exist around financial needs. The longer we refuse to understand that, the longer our communities will lack the ability to grow sustainably.

This kind of lack of investment usually leads to a community failing. The death can be slow and painful for all. πŸ’€

Self-sustaining communities are a myth

I am yet to find a truly self-sustaining community, but even if there are some examples, the truth is that we operate in a business and transactional driven world. A typical community will require ongoing investment and never quite achieve a mythical unicorn self-sustaining community effort.

It is unfair to expect people to use their social capital to benefit a business. Of course, it can be part of the picture, but not the whole one. People will smell the lack of investment from a mile away.

Communities exist as part of an ecosystem and we have to be willing to invest in them. People are part of this ecosystem. Investing in the people that contribute to them is a big part of this effort. And it is this investment that makes communities self-sustaining.


How can we build better communities?

We are on a quest to learn and explore what makes great communities.


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