#20 - Why creators struggle with community
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Hi I’m alive.
Apologies for the long hiatus, and thanks to everyone who nagged me to write.🙏
I have been heads down since joining Discord (we’re hiring!). We’ve started piloting Premium Memberships, and there’s much more coming. If you run a community that you’d like to monetize right on Discord, DM me.
Going forward, I’ll be publishing shorter pieces every few weeks. Ok, let’s go!
In this post, I’ll talk about the differences between community and audience, why community matters, and why most creators struggle with it.
To clarify, content will always be an important part of how creators build an audience. That’s not changing. But being great at content is no longer a differentiator, it’s a table stake. The bigger tripping block to success that many creators have to overcome is the transition from building audience to building community.
Community vs. Audience
To build an audience = Create value through content / service / product that you make directly for consumers.
To build a community = Create value by building the space that facilitates people helping and connecting with one another.
Communities can form around shared interests and topics, or around personalities and groups. In this post I’m primarily talking about those that form around personalities (e.g. content creators).
Community Place vs. Audience Place
Audience places help creators to reach people and help consumers to find content. Creators are in these places to grow a following. Because content distribution is the primary value in these places, creators can make money via ads and brand sponsors here. More or less, this is the primary way creators think about monetizing.
Community places are spaces where people with shared beliefs and norms connect and interact. These spaces revolve around conversations and shared experiences, rather than “views”. As a result, creators can make money via direct value exchange by offering community connection, recognition, expression, and tangible value.
Just as eligible singles wouldn’t build a deep relationship on Tinder, creators wouldn’t build an engaged community on TikTok. TikTok is for content discovery and consumption. It does not truly support people talking to each other.
A community requires a place where people can talk directly to one another, and there are better places for this next phase of relationship building.
For singles, the chat transitions naturally from Tinder / Coffee Meets Bagel into SMS / messaging apps.
For creators, the interactions transition naturally from TikTok / YouTube into community spaces such as Discord.
Note: A key difference between community and the dating app analogy is that a community space benefits from network effects, where additional members makes the community more valuable for everyone else.
Why community matters
Communities can scale a creator’s efforts. With communities, creators are no longer bottlenecked by their own output, and instead they scale by tapping into the passion, creativity, and resources of a collective.
Feedback from an engaged community helps creators to learn much faster. Creators run polls, surveys, and small tests on their Discord servers to calibrate and gain early intuition on their content.
Community members amplify creator voices when there’s a shared purpose. A community with strong allegiance to a creator is far more likely to mobilize and share content / a story. This word-of-mouth is key to creator growth.
Co-creation is a force multiplier on content production (i.e. potential to lower effort, raise quality, increase output). The best community minded creators use community discussions as collective wisdom to form new ideas, make key decisions, or repurpose conversations as content🧠 (e.g. Lenny’s newsletter).
“A strong community is an extension of [you], and you can further [your goals] by enabling the community to contribute to, and organize around it.”
- David Spinks, author of The Business of Belonging
When people join a community centered on a creator they all enjoy, there’s a sense of connection between people, and built-in activity / conversation topics. That’s because:
They are drawn to the same creator, and likely have some shared values
Creators make content consistently, so there's a constant stream of "shared experiences" that get people to interact repeatedly. Content drives community.
Doing things together is the essence of being in a community. Over time, members build up strong bonds that manifest in familiarity, recognition, trust, and reputation through their shared history.
Common lexicon (e.g. emojis, slang), implicit references (e.g. memes / inside jokes), and lore emerge over the course of many interactions. These are hallmarks of community, and they strengthen the connections between community members.
Control & Freedom
Compared to content distribution platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, platforms such as Discord and Slack give better control and freedom for community building.
Creators set ground rules for how community members conduct themselves.
Creators organize and decorate the space to fit their community needs.
Creators provide the value and incentive structures for community members.
Community removes the burden of catering to “the algorithm”.
People are reachable in a predictable manner, and there’s flexibility to communicate and interact without concerns about stunting distribution.
Creators can select among numerous interaction paradigms to engage in kinds of conversations or activities.
Why most creators struggle with community
Time management (sometimes by choice)
Creators have a lot on their plates with content creation (ideating, writing, planning, executing, editing, publishing, promoting, and repurposing).
Community is often perceived as one more task or burden. Some creators make decisions to forego community. This can be a prudent focusing function for many creators who are still figuring out their creative identity and process.
However, creators I’ve spoken with who are further along but do not invest in a community are:
Stuck on getting started: The thought of starting a community is terrifying. Being responsible for engaging with community members directly is “too much work” for these creators, even if they’d like to try it. (IMO this is lazy and fearful)
Optimizing only for what they know: “I’m busy making content. That’s working so why not keep doing that?” These creators have something that produces results, and they stick with that. (IMO this is short-term focused, and a trap)
Consciously designing a journey without community. These creators have assessed where they want to take their creator careers. They’ve made a call to pursue fame and fortune. Their chosen strategy is a large, diffuse audience whose attention will be monetized via ads and brand sponsorships.
Healthy long-term engagement
The skills creators use to create content are not the same as the skills required to run a healthy, engaged community. It takes new muscles (or new people on the team).
There are also differences creators must be aware of in terms of participation.
With content, lurkers contribute comparable value to creators, because they view / like content, which helps content ranking. They watch ads, which helps monetization.
With community, passive lurkers lose value. A video with 5,000 views and 5 comments is fine. A community with 5,000 members and only 5 participants is a ghost town.
To get people participating, the initial momentum comes from creators / moderators who prompt fun interaction. They must do so until the community self-organizes sustainably, otherwise they will need to spark up conversation / activity in perpetuity.
If activity wanes, people are more likely to leave. Communities with a retention problem have an existential crisis. Unfortunately, this is a common problem today. In a survey of 600+ community creators, it’s revealed that the #1 most challenging problem for community leaders is just getting people to show up regularly.
There are more things vying for attention every day. For people to want to engage with a community regularly, it is important for members to make connections amongst themselves, and form habits associated with the community.
Note: Moderation is a separate but related topic that I may write about in the future.
Balancing their own participation
Creators can be the reason people join a community, but they cannot and should not be the only reason people stay.
Creators need to be present to an extent, but they also need to elevate culture bearers that run the show, and be comfortable letting the community grow on its own.
Of course, constant creator involvement is unsustainable. If a creator’s involvement scales linearly with community growth, it is not a durable pattern.
On the other hand, creators who are never present in their own communities are not invested in its success. As expected, these creators typically don’t get significant value from their community.
So should all creators invest in community?
Short answer: It depends on their goals.
Plenty of creators choose not to invest in a community because 1) it takes work, and 2) they don’t ascribe value to having a healthy, engaged community.
Think of it this way: Plenty of people voluntarily stay single forever. Most people never pursue their dreams. It takes work to achieve anything worthwhile. Some go for it, and others put their effort elsewhere. It’s a personal decision, there’s no right or wrong.
However, with any comparable options, consumers tend to choose the one they have a deeper affiliation / relationship / trust with. This extends to how people choose to spend their time, attention, and money. As a result, community will be an immense differentiator for creators in the coming years.
If they choose to put in the effort, creators will see that communities can help them to:
Form meaningful connections
Gain control and freedom
Thanks to Rick Ling for providing input on an earlier draft.
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