Messy and fragmented paid communities

Covid has brought on a new wave of focus on building communities. Alongside this is a strong interest in paid communities and how to make them work.

Communities are cool again and everybody wants to own (a profitable) one. The talk out there is that the tools exist to make them happen. And they do, but they get messy, scattered, and fragmented pretty easily. πŸ™ˆ

Messy and fragmented, oh my!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and I try to think about how it makes me feel. The words fragmented, messy, scattered, overwhelming, and chaotic spring to mind.

There are tools to build paid communities, I’m yet to come across something that manages it all well.

What this ends up meaning is that different tools are used for different purposes. They end up kinda getting duct-taped together. Then before you know it, you have a bunch of things, managing different aspects of a community. This is messy, from a user’s and an owner’s perspective.

Often different platforms are used for different things. For example, someone may have a Substack newsletter and a Slack for discussions. This makes a community fragmented. With different users, data, and discussions to maintain on each side.

The tools are non-stop

Tools are popping up everywhere. I’ve been trying to keep track of them and I find it hard to just try to maintain a list of what is available. (I have a backlog of some to add).

What hope do others have of finding the most relevant tool(s) to help build and manage their community?

But it’s not just the tools, the more we try to combine these things the harder it is to create a good community user experience.

A look at some paid communities…

Someone send me help.

I’ve started joining some (paid) communities to get a feel for how people are managing them and also how I feel as a member of them.

The communities I’ve chosen are ones that align with my personal interests. Though it is a bit of a slippery and potentially expensive slope to be going down in the name of studying communities!

Before I go ahead, this isn’t a criticism of existing communities. Communities are super hard to build, it’s hard to make the decisions about how to build them. Sometimes it is better to make a decision than not to make any progress, however sometimes making rash decisions brings unnecessary pains further down the path.

I hope that writing about these things helps us become more aware and hopefully help us all make better decisions.

Visualize Value

I went all-in with Visualize Value, bought their membership, and two courses.

This is what I discovered:

  • they have 2 instances of Mighty Networks for separate courses, I read a valid reason for this that I can’t quite remember
  • I bought one course via their Shopify shop
  • I bought another via Gumroad
  • Their shop (that links to membership and courses) is not linked to from their main website. (Their reason: they don’t want to currently distract their corporate client visitors)
  • They have a Slack for the β€˜community’

Here’s the thing. I can totally understand why and how they got to where they are, but bl**dy hell. As a customer, my mind is blown away, and not in a great way. It took me far too long to understand where to go, why there were different places, and just what I had signed up to.

Sure, I almost feel stupid saying that it is overcomplicated. The reality is that maybe it is not. The instructions they gave worked, no problem with that. However, I have a busy life and so many other things to be thinking about, the last thing I want to be doing in spending an hour or two of my time just to get acquainted with it all.

This is not a reflection on their content, which I’m still working through.

Some problems I’ve noticed along the way:

  • I feel at a bit of a loss at where to start
  • I have to think hard and be really organized about the details of my membership. It doesn’t feel like an easy task if I want to do something simple like updating my email
  • I didn’t have much idea who was within the community, as a result, I realize I’m (almost) completely surrounded by men. I’m not pleased with this.
  • I feel unable to participate and feel like a bit of an outsider because I feel like I need to consume and practice the stuff they teach before I can participate. My community membership may be expired by the time I get to do all of this.

Lenny’s Newsletter

I recently signed up to Lenny’s newsletter. It’s a paid newsletter just like this Rosieland one. He writes interesting things about tech. And recently he added a private community.

The first thing to note here is that his tech stack is so much simpler, in this context:

  • Substack (content + money via Stripe)
  • Slack (instructions to sign up automatically included within the intro email)

I think, in the current climate, this is as simple as it can get for a paid service.

  • The sign-up process with Substack is super straightforward and people know to go there or their inbox to get the latest content
  • There’s something nice (imho) about a newsletter that encourages ongoing engagement and commitment to understanding your people
  • The welcome email had a link to apply to get onto the Slack, I was in within 24 hours.
  • The Slack brings a fragmented aspect to the community. There are now two sets of data to manage separately. Decisions will need to be made about how to sync paid subscribers with the Slack. As far as I’m aware this needs to be done manually.
  • The Slack is nice and active. I feel like I can dive right in (and I did!) πŸ₯°
  • The Slack is also great for a newsletter, I’m sure it helps generate content for Lenny. This is a nice win-win scenario.

Founder Summit

Founder Summit is a small, roughly 200 members, paid community.

Their tech stack is:

  • Memberspace
  • Slack
  • Circle
  • Main website

I believe they started with Slack, then moved to Circle, but still use both. 😱

This is probably well-intentioned, maybe there are reasons behind it, but from a user perspective I’d much rather have one space to check. Less is definitely more.

They will have two community spaces to manage users as they churn.

On the plus side, Circle has a nice option to embed a community within the website, as a pop-up. This is kind of nice, but it takes time to get acclimatized to it.

Registration was via Memberspace which I believe connects with Circle, but looking at their website I see they have an Airtable form to register interest. I am a member via Indie Hackers budget, so I personally never went through the process of signing up. It feels complicated, perhaps intentionally. πŸ€·πŸ½β€β™€οΈ

The community is nice, but not very active. There is a community manager who helps run it with some events too.

Ness Labs

I think Anne-Laure Le Cunff of Ness Labs has done well to keep this as simple as possible. She has put together one single landing page that gives access to the various things she offers as part of her community.

Her community is also very lightweight and very much on the lower end of pricing. I think this brings an emphasis on not feeling the pressure to be constantly participating. It’s more about connecting with people than consuming content.

Her tech stack:

  • Wordpress website
  • Memberful
  • Circle

The reality of paid communities

I feel there is this current challenge with paid communities where everything needs to be glued together.

When starting out it can feel ok, but as your community grows you start to feel the pains of integrating and maintaining all the things.

As a community founder you’ll feel the pain:

  • onboarding your members
  • getting to know people
  • searching conversations
  • user experience
  • headaches with processing money, taxes, legalities
  • getting tied into tools
  • maintaining and making use of data
  • most community tools β€˜feel the same’

As community members, they will feel the pain with things like:

  • poor user experience
  • feeling lost
  • struggling to keep up
  • updating their personal details
  • multiple and unnecessary communication/emails
  • participating and getting to know people

Most people seem to accept this as being ok. Maybe it is, for now. However, as community builders we can push and strive for more, or better.

No quick solutions

I don’t really offer any great solutions here, sorry!

I write this because I do think it’s important for people to be aware. These problems exist. It is not just you who may struggle with it.

I use Substack now. I also give access to a Notion. I suffer from the same problems. 😬 (Though I have plans! πŸ₯°)

With Ministry of Testing I used Ning for, I think, 8 years. At that point, I had enough traction and money to fund the custom development of many of the things.

There are huge compromises that are made when building communities with these types of β€˜no-code tools’.

This can be entirely fine and acceptable for the things you want to do and achieve.

I don’t think people talk about this enough: you should know that building your own custom community is possible too, but it comes with its own and very different challenges.

I really want to encourage more people to build their own communities, like many people build their own SaaS’s. Or at least open their mind to the possibility. I honestly think the best and most impactful communities are custom built. Examples include Indie Hackers, Dribbble, Ravelry, Flickr, Behance, Nomadlist…and so forth.

You can look at this list and think you can never achieve a custom-built solution, however, Courtland built the barebone of Indie Hackers in 9 days. I read that Pieter Levels did similar for Nomadlist.

Communities can be kept simple in their design and implementation, yet still achieve the things they need to. We don’t always need all those features that tools have to offer. You can invest in it over time. Indie Hackers still doesn’t have DMs, or bookmarks. These have been long requested, but not yet done.

You can start small, with an email list and a website, for example. As it grows and as you build up your network, community, and reputation. Think about the potential and possibilities of your community.

At one point I thought that it would be cool to build a tool to help people build communities. Now I think I’d prefer to custom build a few communities that I care deeply about.

There is room for all the options.

Where do you think you want to go with yours?

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