In The Art of Community, Charles Vogl lists seven principles for belonging that all genuine communities share.
Over the next seven weeks, I am going to explain how each principle works within the specific context of online communities.
This week we’ll start with the first principle: boundary.
Who’s in, who’s out?
Vogl defines boundary as “the recognized demarcation between insiders (members) and outsiders.”
For online communities, this often can be quite easy to delineate.
If your community has a paywall, then people who have paid are in and people who haven’t paid are out. It’s cut and dried.
Even if you don’t have a paywall, simply having a membership area where people have to log in creates a boundary.
That’s all very simple. But creating and maintaining an effective community boundary goes much deeper.
The questions you need to think about when it comes to boundary are:
- Who is your community for? And who is not for?
- What are the values that define your community?
- How are these values enforced?
- Who enforces them?
- What is the difference between the “exploration zone” for visitors and the inner ring(s) for members?
Values are the foundation of any community
Here is an essential point that anyone trying to build an engaged and profitable online community must understand: your community cannot be for everyone.
There are two primary reasons why this is true:
- A community must be organized around at least one guiding value to give membership in the community any meaning. By definition, anyone who does not share this value is not a qualified member of the community.
- To attract new members to your community, you are going to have to market it to potential members. The only effective and efficient way to do this is to understand who you’re trying to attract (and, conversely, who are you are not trying to attract).
Your community’s values build a natural boundary that attracts the right kind of people and repels the wrong kind.
But you can’t take this for granted. Communities are not going to police themselves. It’s your job as the community leader to enforce both the explicit and implicit boundaries of your community. Even if this is a job you delegate, it’s still your responsibility.
So just as you enforce a paywall by not allowing non-paying members in or by removing members after their subscription lapses, you also have to make sure that there are consequences for members who don’t adhere to the community’s values.
In other words, the boundaries have to matter.
Properly articulated and enforced boundaries make people feel special for being a part of your community. Weak or inconsistent boundaries create weak and inconsistent connections.
Be mindful of where explicit boundaries are placed
Your community’s implicit boundaries — its values — should be evident from your most open, public-facing piece of content all the way to your innermost circle.
But explicit boundaries require strategic thinking to set properly.
You can’t close off everything about your community or there is no way for curious potential members (visitors) to check it out and see if it’s for them.
Yet, if too much is open to everyone, then there aren’t enough special gathering places for deep community bonds to form.
So you need “exploration zones,” as Vogl refers to them, where visitors can become acquainted with your values and the potential benefits of investing more time and resources in your community.
This could be a freely available lobby-type area of your community, which then branches off into private areas. Or you might consider your blog content and podcast the exploration zone, with the community area completely private.
There are plenty of different ways to set this up. As usual, what matters is the mindset that you bring to leading the development of your community.
If your blog and podcast are going to be your exploration zones, then you need to offer opportunities for people to feel little bits of the connection that they can feel in full as a community member. This might take the form of responding to a blog comment, or responding to an email, or broadcasting your recording live and interacting with live chatters who show up.
As the leader, you need to take pride in your community’s values and confidently enforce the boundaries that enforce them.
At the same time, you need to empathize with prospective members and understand what they need to experience about your community to convince them to join. Don’t just expect them to take your word for it.
Now here are some additional links on this topic …
Turn values into practices
Values are just words and abstract ideas until they are put into practice. And when you officially codify them as part of your community’s operations, it gives the values a chance to endure even if the original founders move on.
Organizational values are great —turning values into practices is even better. | Fabian Pfortmüller
Keep your eye on Circle
Part of creating strategic explicit boundaries for your community is choosing the right software platform to host it. Last week, I saw a demo for a new community platform called Circle, and I was impressed.
I’ll need to do a lot more investigating and testing before I’m ready to switch any communities to it or officially recommend it, but you should definitely keep your eye on it.
Creators need better community tools — Circle wants to fill the gap | Tech Crunch
Should you offer a paid membership?
Even if your goal is to create a revenue-generating community, you might still decide to offer a free membership on your website. Your revenue model can build off of it in a different way. This post provides a few basic pointers for how to decide if you have content worth charging for.
Should Joining My Membership Community Be Paid or Free? | Buddy Boss
What is the role of free content?
What are the benefits of using free content to drive membership registrations? And what kinds of content are you most likely to have success charging for? This post provides a basic explanation.
Membership Site Content: Which Content Should Be Paid or Free? | MemberPress
Thank you for reading this issue of Primility.
Please consider forwarding it to a friend who wants to be a better servant leader, build a strong online community, or, preferably, both. 😉
Photo by Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash
Great! This helps me in setting the right tone as I’m forming a community now. At first, I thought of this a just a group interactive course, but your posts have inspired me to think beyond just a group, and to set the tone & values as a community. A much higher level.
And looking forward to hearing more about Circle – sounds interesting!
Thank you Lindsay. I definitely think you can and should make it more than just a group interactive course. How can you get members to actually develop genuine connection and concern for one another? Especially for something like health, that might be the key to people sticking with you, and the new habits you’re trying to inspire, for the long term.