One of the most challenging questions you will have to answer as a community leader is also one of the most fundamental.
And it comes right at the beginning of the entire process.
When is the right time to launch a community?
There are four fundamental factors that need to be in place for you to have a chance at a successful community launch.
Factor #1: You have a Minimum Viable Audience (MVA)
The first factor you need is a minimum viable audience, and you need to have spent enough time serving that audience to have gained a deep understanding of your audience members’ hopes, dreams, desires, problems, and questions.
The size here can vary, though I’d suggest that at an absolute minimum you need to have at least 100 engaged email subscribers to even consider it.
Here’s how I arrived at that number:
Chances are good that even if you start out with a free launch to seed your community, you won’t get more than 10% of your email subscribers to take you up on the offer to try it out. At 100 engaged subscribers, that’s 10 community members. If they’re all super engaged, you can get something going at that level. It’s much harder, but it’s potentially doable if everything else is in place.
But even if the audience number is small, it’s important that the number be growing because when you have a true minimum viable audience, not only is the audience engaged but it’s starting to grow itself through people are sharing and recommending your work to others. If you’re not seeing any of that, then you probably don’t have an MVA yet.
More than likely, to be ready to launch a community, you’ll want to have at least several hundred engaged subscribers — meaning people who actually open and click on your emails. If you can get into the thousands, even better.
What if you don’t have an email list? Say your audience is primarily subscribed to your podcast or YouTube channel, or maybe it’s all social media. You can certainly build a strong audience this way, but it’s going to be tougher to convert it into a formal community. To compensate, you’ll need to have much bigger numbers as compared to what you’d need on an email list.
If you are serious about a community commerce strategy, then I highly suggest working email into your context mix. At a minimum, you should be getting people onto an email list for updates. Ideally, you are providing additional ongoing value via email — like a curated email newsletter or a free course — and using less intimate channels like a podcast or blog to get people subscribed.
The reason why email is so important is because it remains the highest-converting sales channel. So if you have moderate to high engagement on your email list, you will convert a much higher percentage of your subscribers on any call to action compared to simply mentioning it on a podcast or blog post. You can, and should, do both — but just know that the podcast or blog post mention may help to build awareness, but the email will do the majority of the actual converting.
Bottom line: you need a minimum viable audience to launch a community, and you’ll be in the best position for success if your audience is organized through an email list.
Factor #2: You’re seeing community occur organically
You should be seeing signs of community already. This gives you an indication that you are already bringing people together who are seeking some sort of connection and have shared experiences or problems they can help each other work through.
What are some examples of signs of community?
- Comment threads on blog posts, especially if you see the same people over and over again.
- Twitter discussions — again, especially if you see the same people over and over again.
- People showing up and participating in chats during live events.
- Multiple people replying to emails you send or to simple calls to action to make on podcasts.
Basically, if you see people congregating around your content, especially if a recurring group of people are congregating together around your content, then your audience may be ready for more formal organization.
So if you have a minimum viable audience, and you’re seeing signs of this congregating together around your content, you should dive right in, right?
Factor #3: You’re really committed to building community
Before you take the leap, you need to make sure that you’re committed to doing community right.
This means being committed to a community commerce strategy for the long-term — because it could do more damage than good to your reputation and your relationship with your audience if you launch a community, get people excited about connecting together … and the preside over it fizzling out.
All this is going to do is disappoint the people who were the most enthusiastic about your work! Not good.
So you should make sure that you have the time and the resources to stick with it, especially if you’re not seeing big revenue right off the bat — which often happens with new communities.
You also should make sure what, exactly, you’re committed to.
I’ve written about the difference between an online community and a discussion forum or education library.
If you’re committed to creating a forum or education library, but don’t have much interest in creating a long-term sense of belonging among members, that’s fine. But you should know that going in — and then make sure that you adjust your expectations, and the way you describe what you’re building, accordingly.
Factor #4: You have a business plan for your community
The fourth factor may seem obvious but too often goes overlooked.
You have to understand what your business model will be, and make sure it’s a business model that can work over the long-term.
- Is your community going to support a course? Great! But will the course sell enough long-term to give you the revenue you need to support the community? Do you need to charge a recurring fee for the community part, or are you going to price the course high enough so that lifetime community access is included?
- Alternatively, is your community its own standalone revenue center? Great! Can you get the right combination of price and volume of users to make it sustainable? Do you need to plan content or course upsells within the community to make it viable?
Without context, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. But these are the types of questions you need to be asking yourself and mapping out, even in the beginning.
Now let me share an example of a community I launched that didn’t have all four of these factors … and failed because of it.
The saga of the Showrunner community
The Showrunner was a podcast about podcasting that I co-hosted with Jonny Nastor. It was a successful show by any metric: we had 100+ episodes, we’d built an email list of nearly 1,000 people, and we’d even executed a successful 6-figure launch of a course.
As Jonny and I started discussing launching a community, we had factors 1, 2, and 3 well in place. The issue was #4 — the business plan.
While we did have a successful course, we had pretty much tapped out our existing list. The community we were launching was mainly to people who had already taken the course, meaning we weren’t going to generate any new revenue from them without something new. But we also didn’t want to charge for the community right off the bat, since we were just getting it rolling.
So we launched the community — with a free window for anyone who signed up right away. And we had hundreds of people join. And the early momentum was great! We had a consistent content calendar, there was lots of conversation, and we were highly motivated.
But then reality hit: we were putting in a lot of time to engage the community, but we needed to start making money from it. Unfortunately, there weren’t any clear, quick paths to monetization. There were several reasons for this:
- Our audience was tapped, so we needed to grow it to find more course buyers.
- The course and community were presented separately, and we’d let a lot of our course buyers into the community for free — something that can be difficult to reverse.
- And, frankly, we just didn’t understand community commerce well enough at that time to have a smart, methodical plan in place from the beginning.
So … the momentum slowed. Eventually, I had other opportunities come up that I couldn’t say no too, and the same happened for Jonny. And a really engaged, enthusiastic Showrunner community fizzled and fell by the wayside because it just didn’t have the right leadership.
We had an MVA, there were definitely signs of community … but ultimately we didn’t have the business plan, and that led to us being unable to maintain our commitments to leading the community the right way.
I still have a lot of regrets about the Showrunner community to this day. There was a profitable, sustainable community commerce strategy there; but we just didn’t figure it out in time. And that sucks. But it also taught me some really important lessons that have made me a better community leader since.
And the most important lesson is this:
It’s okay — in fact, it’s necessary — for the money to matter
It’s not selfish to put your business plan, and your need to make a certain amount of money from your community, front and center in your thinking.
It’s not selfish at all. It’s actually silly and amateurish not to think this way.
The money has to matter.
Because if your community cannot sustain itself, and can’t support the work you’re doing to build it and engage it, then it’s ultimately going to go away when you reach a fork in the road in your life or career.
And this is why there is nothing more fundamental to your leadership of an online community than your willingness and ability to devise and stick to a smart community commerce plan. That’s why commerce is right there in the name.
All of the belonging and campfire events and connections ultimately won’t matter if the community eventually just fizzles and goes away.
So make sure you have all four of these factors in place before you launch. Of course your business plan can change and evolve over time. But have a plan … or you’re just planning to fail.
The pride you feel in your plan to build a community will almost always manifest itself in enthusiasm, and possibly even impatience, to launch. But you should avoid a premature launch at all costs. It can sink your community before it ever has a chance to leave the dock.
Maintain a sense of humility toward the process, and be sure that all four factors described here are in place before you launch. That way you give yourself, and your future community members, the best chance of experiencing long-term success and connection together.
Thank you for reading this issue of Primility.
Please consider forwarding it to a friend who wants to be a better servant leader and build a strong online community.
Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash