My Failed Attempt at Building a Community

How I Built It
How I Built It
My Failed Attempt at Building a Community
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When I was in college, building a community felt pretty easy. Have some event, get free food, people come, people talk. Maybe they will bring some of their friends. This happened all the time – campus events, weekends at the bar, over the summer. So I thought building a community online would be similar. Easier even! There are no geographic boundaries. I would just invite people to come to my community, and they’d go and hang out.

But that didn’t happen. In fact, my community was a baron wasteland. And in July, I decided to shut down that aspect of my membership. So what went wrong? Well, I think there were a few reasons…and that’s what we’ll talk about in today’s episode.

Top Takeaways:

  • Think about community as you start a new endeavor. I thought about mine too late and most of my students were already done with my content and had no reason to come back.
  • You need to help your members with the habit of going to your community every day. You can do that by doing more events, or even having content exclusive to your community platform.
  • It’s up to you to drive the community. People won’t just go to an online community and start conversations at the beginning.

Show Notes:

Transcript

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Joe Casabona: When I was in college, building a community it felt pretty easy. Have some events, get free food, people come, people talk. I was on the events planning committee for my college all four years. This happened all the time: campus events, weekends at bars over the summer for something that we cleverly and fondly called Midsummers.

So I thought building a community online would be simple, easier even. There are no geographic boundaries. I would just invite people to come to my community, and they would come and they’d hang out. But that didn’t happen.

In fact, my community was a barren wasteland. And in July I decided to shut down that aspect of my membership.

So what went wrong? Well, I think there are a few reasons. And that’s what we’re going to talk about on today’s episode. I’m going to go through the four things I think I did to mess up my chances of creating good community, my plans for the future.

And then in Build Something More, the big fat question of platform. So if you are interested in me going through some options for where to host my community, you can become a member and get ad-free extended episodes of this and every How I Built It over at joincreatorcrew.com.

I want to thank MOFT, Nexcess, and LearnDash for sponsoring today’s episode. You’ll hear about them more later on in the show. You’ll be able to find all the show notes over at howibuilt.it/282. But for now, let’s get on to the intro and then the episode.

[00:03:04] <music>

Intro: Hey everybody, and welcome to How I Built It, the podcast where you get free coaching calls from successful creators. Each week you get actionable advice on how you can build a better content business to increase revenue and establish yourself as an authority. I’m your host Joe Casabona. Now let’s get to it.

[00:03:26] <music>

Joe Casabona: All right, so let’s dive into this solo episode of How I Built It, where I talk about how I built it and then failed. Because building a community is not as easy as you think. If you read some thoughts, especially from the height of the pandemic and how important it was to build a community.

And I’ve been trying to build a community, quote-unquote, “build a community” for a while, since pre-pandemic. But let’s kind of look at what happened, where I went wrong.

The four things I did wrong, and then we’ll dive into each of these is I launched one too late, I failed at helping my members form a good habit. I moved around too much and I changed strategies too much. So let’s dig into each of those.

First, I launched one too late. I had two to three very successful course launches. And I should have had something ready for the community before those course launches.

And I know hindsight is 2020 but I was really more focused on building in marketing the course than I was creating a place for students to go and ask questions and hang out.

So my first successful course launch was in 2017, I think. It was an intro to Beaver Builder course. Lots of people were buying that course over the course of a few days, and I didn’t do anything to nurture those people. I basically said, “Here’s the course enjoy.”

And then I made that same mistake with my Block Editor course and my other kind of WordPress-related courses, and then I made the same mistake with my Podcast Liftoff-related courses the first time around.

If I got all of my students in at the same time or had the community ready before surges of sales, it would have been different because I would have been like, “Go here, introduce yourself, when you get stuck ask questions here. And each week we’ll cover some different topic.”

That’s another thing I think I could have done differently was drip out some of the content or add more bonus content. I’ll talk a little bit about what I will do and plans for the future. But I didn’t launch a community until at least a year after my last successful launch.

And by that time, anybody who had taken especially the Beaver Builder course was gone. They were no longer engaged. And even the people who most recently bought the course, they were no longer engaged. So I launched this community, I invited a bunch of people, and no one was saying anything.

Sometimes new students would pop in, ask a question, and if I didn’t answer fast enough, nobody else answered them, so they decided to not participate anymore. That I think is the biggest thing that hurt me. I launched my community later than I launched my courses. And these were all self-paced courses, too. They were not dripped out. They weren’t cohort-based courses. That was like barely an idea I feel back when I launched my first course.

So my audience was cold and unengaged by the time I launched my community, and there was just no getting them back.

That brings me to the second thing I did wrong, which was I failed at helping members form a habit. Everybody I’ve talked to, most prominently my friend Chris Lema, but my friend Emily as well, we talk about where to put these communities. And the best option is really where most of your community has already formed a habit to check. That’s why Facebook is so popular still.

That’s why people of my age and in my field certainly prefer Slack over Discord because they’re already logged into Slack. They don’t have to do any more work. They don’t have to download a different thing. So if you are going to start a different thing, if you’re going to use Discord when most of your audience uses Slack, if you’re going to use Circle when most of your audience uses Facebook, then you need to make sure you form a habit.

So for most of the members and students who do trickle in, there’s no incentive to log in every day at this point. Maybe if the community was more active, there would be. But I wasn’t very active for a while. I was like posting the same questions every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday thinking that that would get engagement, but people just got tired of answering those questions. They didn’t care to answer those questions. Sharing your midweek when was not a reason to log into Circle every week.

Again, I wasn’t as creatively engaged as I should have been. I was having like Zapier and then my VA post those questions when I should have been in there every day sharing and emailing, making sure that people were seeing the things that I was posting to the community.

Unlike a college campus or any in-person event, you don’t have a built-in mechanism for people to start and continue conversations. At an in-person event, people are gonna gather around the bar or the food and they’ll just strike up conversations most of the time.

At a college campus, you have a fairly captive audience. You have the students who are going to classes, students hanging out on the green, people who are interested in similar extracurricular activities, and people going to parties on the weekend. So there was a built-in mechanism to get people together and continue to stay together.

In the first point or earlier I talked about how there was no geographic barrier for entry. But that geography forced people, especially in a college campus, forced people into the same setting. And so they had no choice really but to hang out.

Online, you’re competing with everything. Everything. Should I log into Joe’s community to see if he posted that same post that he did last week or should I go to YouTube and watch an entertaining video? Or should I go to a master class and learn something? That is where I failed. Because you as the community owner, you need to continually get people into your community. And you can do that with virtual events or networking events or whatever. But you need to get them there.

I think Jay Clouse does this really effectively. I’m part of his community. There’s an onboarding process where he forces you… He doesn’t force you, but he strongly recommends you do these four things on a checklist. One is like create your startup document or video, one is introduce yourself. And then he has regular like hot seat events and office hours and things like that. And so he has an engaged community.

I thought I could launch a Slack and just let people talk amongst themselves. But that’s not the case. That’s not how it works.

So I think those were really the two biggest problems. I launched one too late and I failed at helping members form a habit to log in to my community every day or every other day. But there are a couple of more, which I’ll tell you about after this word from our sponsor.

[00:11:53] <music>

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[00:12:58] <music>

Joe Casabona: Okay, so points one and two: I launched one too late, I failed at helping members form a community. Really the third and fourth one are, I think kind of more big… well not big picture. More like implementation details that I sweat it too much.

But number three is I moved around too much. First, I was on Slack. Then nobody was at Slack so I moved to Facebook. And then nobody was posting to Facebook and I didn’t like Facebook so I moved to Circle. Then I upgraded my Circle from the lower tier to the mid-tier to create a single sign on.

So when people joined my membership or a course, they didn’t have to create a separate login to Circle. I thought that was the barrier. But the problem is I was always too worried about where I was and how that would impact engagement. The truth of the matter is there will always be a number of unengaged people. No community has 100% participation. And if you make it worthwhile, people will participate where your community is.

I know that cuts a little bit against the grain of what I said before about like be where your community is. If 90% of your community hangs out on Facebook, you should have a Facebook group. If 90% of your community is already in Slack, then you should have a Slack.

But if you’re starting fresh and people are kind of all over the place, and you want to do things that Facebook or Slack doesn’t really support, it’ll take a little extra work but you can form that habit with Circle or Geneva which is a chat app or Discord. Right? There are things that you can do. It’s mostly about how you engage.

So we’ve seen successful moves, right? Like Pat Flynn from SPI moved from Facebook to Circle. And that, at least from the outside, looks like a successful move. Now, he has a huge community. I don’t have that size audience.

But theoretically, if I don’t have that size audience, maybe it’s a little bit easier for me to get a bunch of people to move over. “Hey, follow me here. It’ll be great for these reasons.” But I did move around too much.

In an attempt to reduce the amount of friction for new users to come and hang out, I increased the friction for my current members and my current students by making them move around so much. And I probably lost a bunch along the way. And I wasn’t doing a good job of forming a habit anyway. So I think I moved around too much.

And then number four is I changed strategies too much. I didn’t have a clear plan, a clear roadmap for how I would engage and grow my audience. So at first it was free. And then I thought, “Hey, this should be paid. This should only be paid because that’s a good value add for my membership, because my memberships weren’t selling as well either. So I thought, “Oh, I’ll just make a paid community.” And that’s like another thing, right? A little club thing. No.

But again, if no one’s hanging out, then it’s not really a membership perk, is it? And then I tried both, and then I tried paid again. And the benefits were unclear, and the value prop was unclear. And it’s because I didn’t have a clear roadmap.

So the biggest thing that I can do as I consider relaunching a community is make the benefits clearer, make the value proposition clear, work events into my schedule. And these are some of the things I have for the plans for the future. So I’ll dig deeply into my plans for the future, but first, let’s hear from our third and final sponsor.

[00:17:06] <music>

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[00:18:02] <music>

Joe Casabona: Okay, so let’s talk plans for the future. First, as I record this, there was a super timely episode of Smart Passive Income, Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income with Drew Dillon, founder of burb.io, I believe. And he talks about the secret to building the best community online.

And I thought, “Well, gosh, darn, this is exactly what I needed.” Burb.co, I’m sorry. It was burb.co. So I thought, “Well, this is perfect and really timely. So I had a list and then there were a lot of really good ideas there. So I’m going to take some of those ideas and work them.

Now, I should say I’ve become very anti-using other people’s playbooks. This is something that Cara Chase—her episode comes out in a few weeks. But I met her at Craft and Commerce. And she talks a big about this, right? Because there’s always like the playbook and then there’s the secret sauce. And you don’t have that person’s secret sauce.

So like in the case of Pat Flynn, for example, he talks about how you can do this and that. And it’s all good advice, but his secret sauce is that he already has a giant audience that he built in 2008. To pick on myself, I tell people how they can get sponsors, my secret sauce is a good network that I’ve already built. Right?

So really, part of my teaching is how to build and tap your network. But if I’m just saying like, “You can get sponsors without zero downloads,” people should know that my secret sauce was having a good network of people that I was able to tap. So there’s always that secret sauce.

That said, good advice is still good advice. I wouldn’t have this podcast if I didn’t think that the advice I give and get on this show are worth publishing.

So Pat’s episode with Drew Dylan was fantastic. There are a few things that he mentioned that I’m going to do to get more people into my community. These are things that were kind of always in the back of my head. So I’ll talk about like how hearing Drew and Pat talk about it helps solidify these ideas based on what I was doing previously.

And the first is do more events. Also, I should say, I will link that SPI episode in the show notes, which again you can find over at howibuilt.it/282.

So number one is do more events. Drew talks about how events give people an incentive to log into and be part of the community. I was trying to do this more towards the end. I would try to have monthly or fortnightly kind of office hours where people would come and we would chit chat.

One of the problems though was my schedule was pretty capricious up until like mid-June or the end of June because I was kind of at the whim of my wife’s work schedule before all of my kids were in daycare. Now my schedule is a lot more predictable. And as a results, I can have these kind of set or standing events or even not, right? They don’t have to be set or standing. Like Jay doesn’t have a standing event every third Friday for like morning coffee. He creates an invites people in the moment.

And I realized that like, Oh, I can just like spin up a zoom call and email my members. But having a central place to do this… Circle does this, I think, especially well is having these events, these easy to RSVP to events.

So I think that’s probably… if I’m keeping score in my head, Circle is a good place for that if I’m going to do these events. But you know, these morning coffee office hours or… At the University of Scranton, we called them lunch and learns. And they were like half-hour presentations over lunch, maybe something like that, where I get people into the habit of logging into the community at the very least to RSVP to these events, and then post questions for the events. And I think that will do well.

This coincides with another experiment for webinars I’m working on because I recently had a paid workshop that didn’t go well. And I thought perhaps free webinars are the way to go for a bit while I build my audience a little bit more. So do more events. Maybe these events coincide with my community.

One of the strategies I’m currently thinking through is, should this be free or paid or both? I’m thinking it’ll be both. And there’ll be a free part of the community and a paid part of the community. But I think I want to talk to some other experts about that and see what they’ve tried that works, what hasn’t worked, what the incentive is, etc.

Number two is invite my coaching clients into the community. I never even considered this. And maybe it’s because I don’t have that many coaching clients yet. But this is a perfect idea, right? Because it gives a kind of a central place for us to hang out. If they want to send me questions in real-time or post questions that they’re having to a coaching clients only area, and then they can exchange notes. This just makes sense. And I’m really mad at myself for not thinking of it myself. So kudos to Drew for that idea.

Highlighting my members more. This was something again that I tried to do but I think I made the barrier a little bit too high, because I was just like, “Do it here. Fill out this form if you’re interested.” And in my experience, if you want people to do something, you have to ask for it.

So in the future, if I do this, again, I am going to individually reach out to members and be like, “Hey, I really want to highlight this area of your expertise. Do you want to come on a members only?” Maybe even not. Maybe an episode of this, right?

Because the other thing I was like, “I’ll have a members-only version of the podcast where I highlight other members of the community. No, I should highlight members of the community to the public because I want to show people how great these members are, members of the Creator Crew. So highlight my members more.

And then create content in the community to get people to log in. This was something I went back and forth on as well. I was publishing content only to the community. I didn’t have email notifications. I didn’t want to bother people with email.

But here’s the thing. They can shut those emails off. Right? So I also felt like they should have an RSS feed if they want it. And again, I think I overthought this. So in the future, yes, there is going to be content that is only available inside the community, whatever that implementation is.

There’s like a Circle clone. That’s a WordPress plugin. And okay, I’m not really a big like WordPress should be everything. But if this is like lightweight and it works, great. Otherwise, maybe I’ll go back to Circle. Maybe I’ll try something else. Maybe I’ll try Discord. I probably won’t because Discord scares and confuses me.

But if you want to hear more of these musings, this is what Build Something More is about. You can become a member over at howibuilt.it/282 or directly over at joincreatorcrew.com. But those are the things I’m thinking. Create content to get people to log in. This is exclusive content. And if people want it, they log into the community and then they can engage with that content.

I tried doing AMAs for a while in the community, but like I didn’t really commit to that. And again, I didn’t email my members to let them know they were happening. I just posted and I’m like, “If they’re logging in, they’ll see it.” But if they’re logging in, they’re already engaged. I want to increase engagement.

So maybe I’ll do those AMAs but I will definitely email my list even of non-members. Like maybe that’s an incentive.

So this is all things I got to think through. But I think I’m feeling more positively about a community than I was back in July when I shut down the Circle community. And if you’re wondering, did I make the right decision, exactly one person in the intervening six weeks since I shut it down has asked me about it. So yes, I made the right decision.

But that’s it for this episode of How I Built It. Thanks so much for listening. Thank you to MOFT, Nexcess, and LearnDash for sponsoring. Definitely check them out and let them know I sent you because their support means a lot to me. And they will continue to support the show if they’re getting good conversions or whatever.

So if you enjoyed this episode, I’m going to ask you to give me a rating and review in Apple podcasts. I’m trying a little experiment which I talked about on making money podcasting, but I’m wondering if leveraging Apple podcasts is a good way for growth. We’ll see.

So if you listen in Apple podcasts, give me a rating review. If you don’t listen in Apple podcasts naturally, give me a rating and review wherever you listen. Or just say hello on Twitter and tell me you appreciated or hated this episode.

Again, that’s it. Thanks so much for listening. Stick around if you’re a member because Build Something More is happening right after I say this. Until next time, get out there and build something.

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