Hot Take: Don't Build a Community
Everyone and their mother has built or is building an online community. Even my razor subscription company has an online community. All the books by millionaire business coaches (and all those masterclasses) tell you a community is the only way to scale your business.
What’s a community? People who voluntarily join a group created by a business—Facebook Group, Slack, Circle, Disqord, etc—to actively engage with that business.
Hang on, though. Because…is it?
Communities are on marketing plans as part of an overall customer acquisition strategy. We’ve heard them touted as the “new pipeline” and the “warm lead machine.” They’re the “free” lead gen tool. Our clients show us their Slack and Circle channels (cue the crickets) that they plan to invest more time into.
You can tell from my tone that I’m not quite sure a community is the right fit for every business. There are absolutely reasons to do it but make sure you don’t expect it to make you rich. In fact, more often than not, I talk people out of building one.
Normally we think about the customers but right now I want you to think about yourself. Answer these questions:
1. How many communities are you active in? (ACTIVE, not just squatting)
2. What is the value of each community? What do you get out of it? Why do you like it?
3. What is your main goal, as a member of that community? Are you achieving that goal?
We recently ran a bit of research to validate whether a client of ours should invest in community building, and this quote really jarred us:
“Why would I pay to enter your pipeline?”
Straight from the customer’s mouth. Communities as a lead gen strategy are as transparent as an opt-in with an email sequence (which! When done right, we totally condone). People know when they’re being sold to. And usually, they don’t like it when it’s obvious.
“But my community is free.”
Our research showed that, if the goal of the community is ultimately to sell something, it has to be free. Here’s a summary of what we learned:
• Compared to 2 years ago, the expectations a member has of a community has increased exponentially. They need much more value.
• It has to stay free, or be included in the cost of something they’ve already purchased.
So let’s recap those two major points: you have to create even MORE value and give it away, just to get people to move from member to customer. And it’s more than just creating a Circle or Slack Channel and sharing the link.
A good community needs:
• Frequent, regular, high-value events featuring known names & experts
• Constant engagement with support, advice, and new information
• Clearly stated (and upheld) values & a code of conduct
• Moderation & monitoring with a curated members list—numbers are less important than quality
• Good members who contribute and feel valued
• An opportunity for personal or professional growt
• A content strategy; treat it like another marketing channel
Reading that list, it makes sense that most of the successful communities out there have at least 1-2 full time people working only on community engagement.
A good community is an enormous financial and time investment. It’s expensive and difficult. People expect much more from their communities now. To build and maintain a high-quality community that generates consistent leads and grows sales requires a tremendous amount of effort.
However—if done right, the pipeline to purchase from a community has one of the highest conversion rate & long-term commitments of any other customer acquisition strategy. Meaning you have a loyal, devoted customer base who sticks around and feels appreciated, with a higher conversion rate than many other lead strategies.
So what should you do instead?
If you’re not able to fully invest in doing a community right, it’s not worth the time- and energy-draining work as it just won’t yield the results you’re looking for.
My advice is to invest a fraction of that cost & effort into creating high quality lead generating content—whitepapers, diagnostic tools, webinars, templates, checklists, worksheets, etc. Well-executed lead generating content is much cheaper and much more immediately successful. Invest in doing this right and you'll achieve the result you were hoping a community would bring: fresh, recurring leads.