From the Collective: On Community Part 1 – Hitting the Limits of Frameworks

Welcome to the first post in a three-part series about community from the one and only Angie Coleman, Director of Community at OpCo. Angie has led and developed communities for nearly a decade, spanning B2B product spaces and peer social groups at companies like Snowflake, Lesbians Who Tech, Zendesk, and Dropbox. In short, she knows how to build communities that matter. 

Outside of work you can find her supporting her local QPOC, LGBTQ+, and techie communities, or educating non-technical folks on the inner workings of Web 3 with her not-to-be-missed YouTube Series, Web3Weirdos. She’s also an avid nature fan and can often be found hiking, kayaking, or overlanding off the grid with her adorable pup Enzo. 

Angie is one of the most referred and sought-after community leaders in tech, and in this series she will take us on a deep dive into her world of community and offer practical advice on what it takes to bring people together in a brilliant way.

Hint: it’s definitely not a “build it, and they will come” thing. 

***

The most boring phrase I continuously find myself saying is, “I’m Angie, and I build communities.” I’ve been saying this for years. It’s usually a reply to someone asking me what “building community” means. Now, because of the growth of the community industry and my own career, I have this exchange 3-8x/week (depending on how social I’m being!). The job is big, so when asked, I half-honestly respond with, ‘I create programming and events that bring people together.” 

It’s a reductive response. It doesn’t allow for any of the vastness, or the nuance, that is community. Community has turned into a buzzword, arguably one of the more popular tech ones in the last couple of years. 

Here’s a look at how I arrived at this blah definition – and importantly where I’m taking it next. It starts, as many things do, with the frameworks. 

How the Frameworks Work

If you were to ask me even just last year how to build a successful community, I probably would have rattled off something about The 5 E’s of Community, my personal framework, or pointed you to SPACES, or the 7 P’s, or maybe the Community Canvas. There are a lot of frameworks out there that claim to help you build a brilliant community. 

And they will, to a degree. All of those frameworks will help you create events and programming that bring people together. They will all take you from inception to proposal to execution and scale. They’ll help you map what’s important to your community, shape the type of community container you build, and explore KPIs and success metrics. They’ll outline touchpoints and events, along with user contributions, NPS scores, and active users in the space so you know where to focus your efforts. In short, the frameworks will help you build your community exactly as the industry has defined it.

But what if I told you that community can be, and should be, more than a series of operationalized events and programming? 

The Gaps in the Frameworks

I mentioned above that a framework can help you build a community ‘exactly as the industry has defined it.’ Some of these frameworks have been in rotation since before I got into the industry and a few have changed to adapt to the new ways people want to, and actually do, come together.

These frameworks were created with one specific goal in mind: measure the value. When asked about the health of a community, any community expert will be quick to tell you that it’s all about the metrics, the touchpoints, and big rocks we’re producing. Some may rely on NPS scores or benchmark surveys to help quantify the qualitative while others dig into customer testimonials and quotes to capture those warm and fuzzy moments. Beyond community health, the value of the community is often defined by how impactful the community is on business goals ranging from user acquisition to quarterly revenue. It’s actually not uncommon to hear community professionals lead with the metrics-driven business value to ensure the org has a chance to exist.

But I would argue the metrics are only one piece of the success puzzle. A community could measure 40 touchpoints in 1 year, 20 events, a 10% reduction in support tickets due to forum support, and a successful NPS score to boot, but never once ask the members how those touchpoints felt or why they responded the way they did. In short, so what? The focus on metrics as the one source of hard truth negatively impacts community growth and success in multiple ways: 

1. A framework reliant on metrics and numbers will influence community builders and managers to believe numbers = success and higher numbers = more success. For example, if you report that the community reached 2K monthly active users last month, what’s stopping an ask to push for 3K within the next quarter? While growth is usually a goal of communities, growing for the sake of growing vs intentionally nurturing existing members and allowing for a mix of organic and inorganic growth will cause tension for the members and stress for the staff. Bigger is not always better. 

2. What usually follows an aggressive push for metric-based growth is community attrition. While a community may already have a great group of active, excited members eager to contribute, when leaders shift their focus to hypergrowth, those existing members get a little neglected. It’s not intentional, just the outcome of focusing on acquiring new members vs nurturing the current ones. As those existing members take note of the new focus and actions supporting growth vs., say, focusing on improving the existing support forum functionality, they get fed up, and they leave. This member attrition then has a directly negative impact on the health and value of the community. With members no longer using the community features to support themselves and one another, they’ll move to external sources of support, which does two things: 1. It drives up customer support tickets as people seek help elsewhere, which in turn drives up the in-house cost for support and 2. Members gather in externally managed community platforms like Reddit or Twitter to seek additional support and create their own, niche, community. Neither outcomes support a healthy business community.

3. A community based on metrics prioritizes the transaction over the member experience. Now, I’m a big fan of measurable data, and I by no means think community needs to look like all of us holding hands and sharing feelings, but leaning on metrics falls so far to the other side, a non-human side, that it makes it impossible to successfully support and add value to your members’ lives (something every community wants to do in some capacity). Community-led Growth is gaining popularity as a new growth model for companies, but behind community-led is experience-led growth, and without a positive member experience, communities will never unlock organic advocates to share the value of their product/business/service within external circles of influence.

Okay, so we know we need metrics, but we also need something else…but what? I’d say it’s about time for a community mindshift. 

Expanding Community

Community is more than just the numbers. It’s how people feel and why they come back. It’s who they show up as and how they contribute. It’s beyond a transaction, an ask, and even a brand.

More specifically, community is how people come together (whether that’s 1:1 vs. in a group, for events and conferences, in public vs. private, virtual or IRL, etc.). How people come together stems from why they come together (what need or want is the action/program/event filling?). The why and how together create a culture, intentionally or not, and that culture is what creates a lasting community. When done right, it’s community first AND last.

I like to say community creators are building worlds for their members, because for many members, their communities become their worlds. It’s where they go when they need help, want to share news, or are looking for a resource. It’s who they share doctors and therapists with, where they highlight their favorite tools and gear, how they trade recipes or give backdoor referrals and recommendations for hire…the list could go on. 

Everyone, regardless of official affiliation, moves around and within a community (or multiple). Those communities create their own private, safe worlds for their members. It’s within those spaces that people are supported and empowered to do more, be more, give more. Some will even go beyond themselves. That is the power of community. 

As part of this 3-blog series, my next post will explore how we can build and sustain communities that go beyond the numbers to unlock a member’s full potential. Stay tuned for more or drop me your questions at angelica@operatorcollective.com.