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Let’s build some community flywheels

Ask a community builder what their challenges are and way up on the top of the list are the things that require a constant flow of activity. A thriving community is one that feels like there is just the right balance of activity.

Not too much. Not too little. Just the right amount.

We often look at our communities and hope to increase the quantity or quality of activity in the form of:

  • more discussions
  • more members
  • creating more value
  • events that matter
  • more connection

The Community Funnel of Hope

But when the quantity or quality of activity stagnates, we panic. And that’s when we turn to (cue the dramatic music) The Community Funnel of Hope 🤞

Instead of funnels, we are better off thinking in terms of flywheels. An effective flywheel creates energy or traction, which then naturally leads to growth.

A flywheel would look something like this:

It’s crucial to understand that things just don’t happen. We have to bring them to life by starting small, experimenting, and finding the energy, aka traction.

Starting small means paying attention to the details. Introducing too much at once can often lead to lack of understanding of what is actually working and dilute your effort overall

The key is to figure out a set of actions that support each other and keep doing them, and then build upon them if they:

bring energy and traction, usually in the form of more or higher quality activity

add value to the community

align with your goals and vision

The life of a flywheel

Every flywheel has a life span. I have this loose rosie theory that all good things come to an end. After a flywheel, or multiple connected flywheels have grown and evolved there will be a time it comes to a natural end.

The world changes. People change. Tech changes. We should look to move on and find new ways to start afresh with approaching community. What worked 5 or 10 years ago most certainly won’t work today.

Now, I’ve done my rosie research on flywheels, there’s some good information out there, but in the spirit of being community focused and tactical, I thought I’d draw up some hypothetical examples of community flywheels based on my experiences, or situations I have seen in the wild.

This is in no way a comprehensive list, but hopefully, it’s enough to get you thinking about how you can build your own community flywheels. 💜

The “I want more members” flywheels

This is a classic problem. You have or want a community, but you’re stuck with getting members. People are either not interested in joining or have joined and never come back. Sad times, I know.

Now the answer here isn’t necessarily finding and throwing people into the funnel and hope that they stick. We’re not marketing, ok? 🤣 (joke, joke).

Rather you probably need to think about what it is members need and how you can align that to your community vision.

Start by getting to know your people.

Finding existing blogs and newsletters is a great starting point. When searching for this type of content, you’ll want to have a person in mind. Sometimes we call this a persona, however, for me personas don’t feel real. I like to focus on real people.

In my personal context, this has meant being on a constant search for community builders and whether they write anything online.

You can take this and apply it to any platform. On Twitter, for example, instead of subscribing to their newsletter, you follow them. Bonus points for building trust by participating in the conversation.

Then you can start leveling things up, bit, by bit. The next logical step might be something like.

You’ve been putting these into action. It’s a smooth flowing flywheel. You’ve done this more than a handful of times. Infact, you’re a pro because it’s an ingrained habit.

So, what next?

You know where you want to head and you know what your people care and talk about, so now it’s time to start creating. Again, start small, replace ‘Write a tweet’ with any relevant content medium and build upon it.

But Rosie! How is this community building? And how will this help me get more members?

Simply put, you can’t build community without:

Knowing your people

Conversing with them

Creating something of value

Building flywheel actions like this will help you get there. People will naturally gravitate towards you when you come to launch a blog, a newsletter, or a community.

And what happens when you have that gravity? People join your community!

The “I want more discussions” flywheels

I think every community builder out there has felt like this at some point. Finding that initial traction with ongoing discussions can be hard.

You write discussions and nobody responds. Or the types of discussions being had are just not very interesting.

Here are some ideas to get you going.

Start with easy discussions, like introduction posts.

Then experiment with writing posts, but do more than write and wait for people to magically appear. Find tactical ways to pull people in.

Or maybe you want to try creating a regular or ritual post — something that you post on a regular basis, usually weekly or monthly.

The point with all of these mini flywheels is you can’t write stuff and expect magic to happen. You need to find actions to elevate your content.

This doesn’t mean you’ll have to keep doing this forever. There may be some parts that generally stay for the lifespan, but to get things moving you need to focus on the details to pull people in.

The “I want an awesome community culture” flywheel

Great communities are built on great ethics, kindness, and human behavior. You can build all that into your community, one small flywheel at a time.

In fact, maybe this is the only way to build culture into your community. Community guidelines do not make a great culture, actions do.

Having a flywheel that encourages great community culture not only encourages others to copy your ‘good actions, but featuring selected community activities also indicates things you want to see within the community.

One way to do this might be to uplift a post you want to see more of. Don’t expect people to just notice it. Give good feedback and then feature it, in your newsletter, for example.

Giving and helping are at the heart of great communities. Perhaps the only way for this to happen within your community is to be at the root of the giving yourself. The more you give, the more others will notice and pay it forward.

Ok, ok, I’m a believer in the people, and that all the people have good ideas, or potentially good ways to contribute. When you believe this, you can alway keep an eye out. By doing this you will have a much higher chance of finding opportunities to support and promote along your community journey.

Community culture does not happen overnight, nor by magic. Be what you want to see in your community.

The “I want more people at the events I’m organizing” flywheel

I’ll finish up with events focused flywheels.

Strategies for getting your first events off the ground will be very different from when they are more established.

I went back in time in my mind thinking about how I got some of my events going. This is what my brain came back with.

Honestly, I’m still in shock with myself that I ever got into the event business. I had no idea what I was doing, but I’ve made it work. I’ve personally always found the first few events were nerve racking.

It’s hard to predict who will register if you’ve never hosted an event before, my natural instinct was to try as many things, within reasonable reach, as possible. However, in the end, what I’ve found work for me is to stay focused in serving the community.

My events flywheel ended up evolving to look kind of like this.

Of course, I wish it was as simple as one flywheel. The act of recording the content, publishing it, sharing it with the community and condensing down the content also had a big part to play. This isn’t a small task, but it’s one that was valuable, helped us produce content and gave us credibility as an event organization.

Practice the art of community flywheels

Flywheels take practice, lots and lots of practice. You will fail and succeed along the way.

The magic is when these flywheels almost become invisible to the rest of the team. They become things you do. The processes. The daily tasks.

Thanks for reading 💜

This post is part of my current community building work over at Orbit. You can read the original, or check out my Twitter thread where I am posting a long running thread on what I write each week.

  1. 2

    Thanks for putting this together @rosiesherry, this is really insightful! Especially the last part about events is something we have been putting a lot of thinking into as we build and expand our virtual events platform, Balloon (joinballoon.com). The way we look at it, events are one of the many "expressions" of a community, but most events end there. There is no continuity to keep the conversation going and allow community members to network with each other even after the event ends. We've been experimenting with some ideas, it's an interesting and challenging problem to solve and hopefully, we'll have something ready in the coming months 🤞

    1. 2

      Yes, so much this. I see events very much as part of a community.

      With Ministry of Testing we had community and then built events around the community. We kept in touch with the community all year around.

      This was crucial to our success, imho. All other competitive conferences hosted events then went quiet until it was time to start promoting their next event.

      1. 1

        Very interesting. Did you engage with your community on an existing platform, e.g. Facebook groups or on a platform you owned? What type of content seemed to work best for creating excitement and increasing attendance for the event?

        1. 2

          Everywhere, a bit of everything. Always with the goal of bringing them back to our own space, but also embracing the fact they usually wouldn't.

          1. 1

            I see, thanks for sharing 🙏🏻

  2. 1

    Thank you Rosie. Excellent perspective.

  3. 1

    Rosie - this was a great read! I've been reading a lot on communities and content flywheels as I think that's going to become increasingly important for our site. Will definitely be returning back to reference this

  4. 1

    Really enjoyed the post Rosie. Currently working to build a community of startups to share and grow together. I'm considering several options (blog/newsletter, private slack channel, etc) to give the community a space to come together. Great ideas!

    1. 1

      Yes, in reality, communities exist in various places/tools and we need to embrace that.

      I call it parallel communities when we have spaces where communities exist. e.g. IH exists here, but it also exists on Twitter. There are pretty cool flywheels you can build to support them.

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