Building a thriving online community is no small feat.
The challenge lies in attracting individuals to your platform and ensuring that they stay engaged and derive lasting value from their participation.
In a world where screens dominate our interactions, the notion of community-building often exists in two dimensions, making it an uphill task to foster genuine connections and meaningful engagement.
This screen with my profile and username looks a lot like all the other screens where I have a profile.
One common pitfall in the realm of online communities is the pursuit of short-term value. Community managers and builders find themselves caught in a cycle of delivering immediate gratification to their members, tirelessly churning out content and activities to retain their attention.
While quick wins are undeniably important, this approach can be both time-intensive and unsustainable.
After all, how many fleeting, surface-level interactions have led to enduring relationships in your actual life? I'll wait...
So, how can we transition from the hamster wheel of instant gratification to something more substantial and enduring?
Enter the concept of the three-dimensional view of your community. Imagine a world where your online community is not confined to the flat screen of your device but is a multifaceted, pyramid-like structure that extends far beyond the boundaries of immediate engagement.
This three-dimensional perspective allows us to shift our focus towards long-term planning, creating a community that attracts members and keeps them invested for the long haul.
In this essay, I will explore how to transform this concept into actionable steps you can take to unlock the potential of a thriving, sustainable online community.
The Foundation: Your Audience
At the very base of your three-dimensional community pyramid lies the audience, a diverse gathering of individuals who share a common interest, passion, or topic.
This foundational level is a reflection of the people who are deeply focused on your chosen subject matter. It encompasses the place where they reside digitally, their online activities, and the rituals they engage in regularly.
In order to build a thriving online community, you must first establish a connection with this audience (and vice versa). Think of this stage as akin to setting up camp at the crossroads of a bustling digital town square.
Imagine, for instance, a community centered around music. The audience here would encompass music enthusiasts from around the world, spanning genres, tastes, and backgrounds. It includes everything from avid concertgoers and vinyl collectors to aspiring musicians and music history buffs.
The audience congregates on various online platforms, from social networks like Twitter to specialized websites and forums, where their collective love for music forms a virtual tapestry of interactions.
This bustling place is where your journey begins, where these music aficionados discover your presence, and where initial interactions take root.
More Focus, More Value
Your community is above the audience level, effectively using it as a sturdy foundation.
Your community represents a focused subset of the broader audience, a niche group that shares a unique connection within the larger ecosystem. It is the distillation of a particular aspect or interest that resonates deeply with this select group.
Continuing with our music example, if the audience is all about music in general, your community could be a dedicated space for artists hailing from a specific region, like New England.
Yes, your community is a smaller percentage of the overall audience, but it maintains the essence and many of the aspects of the broader musical community. It's where artists from Vermont, fans of their work, and enthusiasts of the local music scene come together to create a tightly-knit sub-community.
The challenge at this stage is transitioning from the traditional one-directional flow, such as artists sharing their work with fans or experts imparting knowledge to students, to the multi-directional dynamics of a community.
It's no longer just about broadcasting information; it's about fostering connections among members. This transition can be daunting, as it involves managing interactions between you and your members and encouraging relationships to blossom within the community.
Finding success here is a critical step in elevating your online presence from "just another" audience hub to a thriving, interactive community where meaningful connections and collaborations can take root.
This is where most community builders stop. But not you, because you know THE WAY.
Building the Community
As we ascend the levels of our three-dimensional community pyramid, we arrive at the second layer—the community itself. Here is where the real magic happens, where members of your audience transform into an interconnected group bound by shared interests, values, and a collective purpose.
Building and managing this community is not without its unique set of challenges. Several key components must be in place to facilitate genuine connections and meaningful community engagement. These components serve as the building blocks for individuals from the original audience to start connecting with one another.
Weekly Rituals and Shared Language: Building a sense of belonging and cohesion within the community often involves establishing weekly rituals and fostering the use of shared language. These rituals could be regular discussions, challenges, or themed events that create a sense of anticipation and participation. Shared language allows members to communicate more effectively, forging a sense of unity and identity.
Collaborative Efforts and Work: For a community to thrive, members need opportunities to collaborate and work together. This could range from joint projects to problem-solving initiatives. Collaborative efforts foster a sense of achievement and deepen connections among members.
A Manifesto or Shared Statement: A clear and compelling manifesto or shared statement outlining the reason why the community exists serves as a guiding principle. It aligns members with a common purpose, reinforcing their commitment to the community's goals. While the early members contribute to this document, future members will join because this document exists.
but, But, BUT...Not Everyone is Participating!
One of the greatest challenges in phase of building is recognizing that not every member who joins your community is will engage or actively participate.
In fact, it's common for up to 90% of community members to passively engagement. They are content with consuming value rather than actively contributing. It's not that they don't seek value; they simply prefer to receive it in a different manner.
As a new community manager, the balancing act lies in meeting the immediate needs of the vocal+active members seeking instant value while also laying the groundwork for long-term sustainability.
Here's how you do it.
Adding Value through Tiers: The Third Dimension of Time
Now, let's take a closer look at the third dimension of your three-dimensional community strategy – time.
As we ascend the layers of your community pyramid, each sequential, concentric layer serves as a valuable proposition for your members. What distinguishes these layers is their proximity, size, and the distinct value they offer.
Crucially, this value is delivered over time, making time itself a vital dimension within your community.
It's important to note that the value proposition of each layer can vary, but what unites them is their ability to provide members with ongoing benefits.
The beauty of these value points is that many of them are simple steps that can be executed regularly. Some can be automated or outsourced, while others can be strategically planned.
This means that the value isn't just another task on your growing weekly to-do list, it's part of your long-term community-building strategy.
Planting Seeds of Future Value
These longer-term elements of your community also extend value to your members beyond the immediate present. Rather than focusing solely on "What have you done for me lately?" conversations, members begin to grasp that there is continuous, evolving value in their participation and membership.
You can clearly articulate this for them through words or visuals, demonstrating that every month they receive value, every three months they can unlock more, every six months there are new opportunities, and every year brings a special event.
This reassures members that their engagement and (sometimes) mere presence in the community will yield benefits that accumulate over time with minimal effort. This is how you cater to the needs of those 90% of members who prefer a more passive but sustained experience.
Monthly Newsletters (30-Day Value): These newsletters provide a consistent stream of valuable content, insights, and updates, ensuring that members receive fresh and relevant information month after month.
Live AMA Sessions (90-Day Value): Members can look forward to engaging in live Ask-Me-Anything sessions, where they have the opportunity to interact with you or other leading figures in the community, deepening their knowledge and connections.
Recognition as Member of the Month (Prestige): Acknowledging and celebrating outstanding community members each month adds prestige and motivates others to participate and contribute actively.
Annual Events (Relationship Building): Hosting annual events or gatherings allows community members to connect in person, fostering stronger relationships and a sense of belonging.
One-on-One Coaching with Experts (Personalized Value): This tier offers personalized guidance and expertise to members seeking individualized support, further enhancing their experience within the community.
By incorporating these tiers of value, you provide a roadmap for member engagement and ensure that your community remains a dynamic, evolving space where participation yields continuous rewards over time.
The Final Word
Building a thriving online community and cultivating a membership for people who are eager to invest their time and money requires intentionality and planning.
Rushing to deliver short-term value may seem satisfying, it often has little lasting impact. Consider these activities the "sugary snacks" of your job, and work to diversify your "work diet."
By embracing the concept of the three-dimensional community, you're adding a crucial dimension to the community experience – time. This perspective empowers your members to self-organize and self-select activities that align with their interests and aspirations. It provides a roadmap for sustained engagement and value delivery that benefits both you and your community.
Step off the treadmill of instant gratification and focus on building a community that thrives over time. Your community members will appreciate the depth and longevity of their experience, and you'll reap the rewards of a vibrant and engaged online space.
Start shaping your three-dimensional community pyramid today, and watch it evolve into a resilient and enriching digital community that truly stands the test of time.