I organized my first local Startup Weekend event in 2012 – that puts me at a full decade now of community building. And since 2017, the majority of my community-building work has been online.
The idea of online community is as old as the internet itself (at least Web2) but it really accelerated in 2020. With the global pandemic, entire countries went into lockdown and suddenly we were spending more time at home (and online) than ever before.
We are social creatures. We crave interaction with other people. And since IRL interaction was out of the question for a lot of people for a long time...online communities really flourished.
As more people were spending time online, more teams got to work building better tools for online gathering. We are finally (finally!) seeing software platforms built specifically for a modern online community.
Back in 2017 when I was building Unreal Collective, my choices were pretty terrible. Slack (which is built for enterprise companies) became my best option.
Better tooling made even more online communities spring up. As more online communities sprung up, the average person had more experience with being a member of online communities...which inspired many to start their own!
As time passed, we saw more examples of transformational (and profitable) online communities, which inspired even more people to start their own!
We see this cycle with all kinds of creator business models.
Tools become better and cheaper → more adoption
More public examples of success → more adoption
So sitting here in March 2022, online communities are more common than ever before.
Unfortunately, a lot of those communities are really bad. They're often add-on benefits to an existing product or poorly designed, straight up cash-grabs.
As you'd expect (and as you maybe relate to) the idea of an "online community" or membership now comes with more cynicism than ever before.
Once you've joined an online community only to be let down, you become more and more hesitant to join another.
So is the opportunity for building community online gone?
Not at all.
But the landscape is changing. And here's how I see things playing out...
We stop valuing add-on communities
A lot of creators will add "community" to their existing products to try and sweeten the pot. "When you buy [thing] you also get access to our community!"
Some of those creators do a really great job with this – especially if the community already has a purpose for existing outside of being an add-on.
But most of these pitches are trash. Add-on communities often lack intention or attention from the creators themselves and you join to find a ghost town.
It's still an effective add-on value proposition today, but people will lose trust (or interest) in add-on communities.
People reduce participation to 1-2 communities
I'm currently logged into 11 Circle communities, 5 Slack communities, and oh my god don't make me count Discord.
I'm a community guy who spends more time than the average person inside of different communities...but there is no possible way I could meaningfully participate in all of those communities. Not even close!
The average person does not tolerate having that many open loops. It creates anxiety to be "committed" to a community and not contribute.
I expect most people will reduce their focus and participation to 1-2 communities. That is not many, and the options are increasing all the time.
How will you ensure that you're one of the beloved communities in their life?
We expect more from the creator
Let's talk specifically about communities and memberships offered by creators. There are tons of different types of communities – but this prediction is specifically on creators' communities.
One of the biggest value propositions for joining a creator's membership is access. Access to that creator themselves.
Creators know that! You've been following me on Instagram for three years? Wouldn't it be great if you could consistently communicate with me directly?
So a lot of creators use that as a selling point of joining their community or membership. And a lot of creators are simply throwing their audience at a digital community platform and thinking that a true community will emerge.
There's a lot of bait and switch happening here (mostly by accident). A lot of creators fail to set an explicit expectation for how much access you'll have to their time and attention...and it's easy for someone to assume it's more than the creator is willing to give.
As a result, these communities become ghost towns. If you join for access to the creator, but it becomes clear you won't receive that...why stick around?
So we are going to expect more access to the creator or a better setting of expectations upfront that we SHOULDN'T expect access.
Prices go up
As we expect more time and access to a creator, creators will realize just how time-intensive building a community or membership is.
As a result, creators will raise the prices on their memberships to compensate them for the time and effort or afford the hiring of a dedicated community manager.
Pricing is also sometimes used as a filtering mechanism. Great communities are all about curating the room that the members want to be a part of...and a lot of communities are built on members who want the room to be pretty exclusive.
Pricing is a way to protect exclusivity. Pricing is also a way to create commitment upfront – we pay attention to what we pay for.
So, if you have enough demand for your community or membership, raising the price can actually encourage better participation. If we can earn more money AND make it easier to drive participation...we are going to do that.
Consolidation of tools
The user interfaces and feature sets of these platforms all started a little bit different, but as they each grow in popularity, they are all becoming more and more alike.
So as competition grows, these companies will either have to a.) differentiate themselves in a meaningful way or b.) acquire new users through consolidation or c.) become irrelevant.
This is probably my biggest reach in terms of predictions...but I would expect community platforms (beyond the tools listed above) to acquire other tools, be acquired by other community-adjacent tools, or even merge together.
Great community members get rewarded
Great community builders know how valuable their most engaged members are. The great communities that stand the test of time have staying power not because of the creator...but because of the people themselves.
The tough thing about building community is that you create the container for value to emerge. Of course, you can add a lot of value personally, but people love communities for the other people. And you can't control those people!
But you can reward those people. You can incentivize them. Sometimes we hire them!
The best community members will become more aware of their value, and they will begin to expect some reward, incentive, or upside in the success of the community itself.
In the early Web3 community-building experiments I'm watching now, some communities make their members actual stakeholders in the community itself. As more and more people want to join the community, access becomes more valuable, and so does their ownership interest in the community.
Can you imagine your time and effort put into a community generating an income or even wealth for you too?
Web3 moves beyond Discord
There are a lot of interesting (and terrible) community-building experiments happening now at the frontier of the Web3 evolution. But community builders are handcuffed to Discord and its native token-gating functionality (i.e. I can control what aspects of the community you have access to based upon the tokens inside your crypto wallet).
Discord is pretty terrible for building community. It just doesn't scale.
It won't be long until we see other modern community platforms dipping their toes into the Web3 world to support those communities, and that will be very exciting.
If this sounds like gibberish, I really recommend my Web3 Crash Course.
What I'm doing about these predictions
I'm betting big on online communities and memberships. This month, I'll publicly open up the Creative Companion Club, my new membership for up-and-coming creators who want to earn a living from their creative platform.
It already exists. I've privately invited a small number of people in to get the party started...and if you've made it this far in the email, I want to give YOU the opportunity to join too.
Membership will be $999/year (although, yesterday I was told by a member that I'm wildly under-charging). But if you trust me enough to join sight-unseen, you can join for half price (for life!) by replying to this email and saying you want to join the Creative Companion Club (offer ends Sunday, March 13).
I'm using the Creative Companion Club as my lab. A place where I am giving back to those who are supporting my work, and a place where I can openly experiment with new ways to create a remarkable membership. So if you're a community-builder yourself...I think you'll love it.
I'm also developing my most in-depth, high-production course ever on building a beloved membership community. That will be available later this Spring!
More to come soon!