How do you put a bunch of strangers together and they become a tribe? How come they are compelled to invest their time in online relationships with total strangers? How come they even pay for that experience?
Those questions have been at the top of mind of online creators for some years. I know the answers.
In the beginning of 2013, when forming an online community was an outlandish new concept, I took part in the Online Transformational Contest organized by Early to Rise. I experienced there an incredible community magic. I chased similar level of engagement and commitment since then; without much luck. Any other online, or even hybrid community, was subpar to the TC.
What was so great about the TC? Engagement and commitment. The contest lasted for three months, but the members developed deep bonds within a few weeks. They kept showing up. About 40,000 people interacted almost every day. We shared deepest, darkest secrets with each other. We consoled and supported each other. We were cheerleading each other. To give you the picture, here is how I recalled that experience:
I’ve never seen a group of people make such rapid progress in my life. I worked for several organizations, I have been with my church community for 14 years. I saw individuals make rapid progress. I saw the constant progress of my church community brothers and sisters, but it was at a glacier-like pace. The Transformational Contest was the only time I saw massive, rapid and lasting progress of many.
Why was the TC so successful, compared to other communities I was involved in? This community adhered to a simple rule that created the right environment for creation of the ideal tribe:
The rule of the contest was that each member had to login once a day and provide an update about their progress.
Frequency Is Everything
This simple rule made us to visit the TC’s website every single day and post something. Frequency is the glue that makes everything else possible in an online community.
Eighty percent of success is showing up.” – Woody Allen
When people show up, everything else can happen: they can interact, challenge, support, encourage, and help each other. But if they don’t show up, NOTHING can happen. Frequency of contacts is a prerequisite of a solid community, not a guarantee of it. However, infrequency is a guarantee of failure in building a community.
Frequency Invites Depth
We connected very deeply in the TC. Some folks shared incredible stories of trauma, abuse and tragedy. We didn’t pretend (like is common now in the online world) that we are perfect and our lives were wonderful. We openly shared our struggles and torments, our wins and successes.
But it all was possible, because every member had to visit the website once a day and post their own updates. We all had a new conversation starter every single day.
The TC never suffered from the affliction of many modern communities – you visit the place after a few days, and you see just a few new posts and comments. After several such visits, you conclude it’s a waste of time and go back there only for specific resources or events.
Other Success Factors
Online community is the function of two things: frequency and depth of connections between the community members. There are other elements which facilitate those two things. Let’s have a quick look at them:
If a group of people develops a bond quickly, chances are its members have been struggling together.” – Chip & Dan Heath, The Power of Moments.
Modern online communities are not so sticky because struggle is rarely at the center of attention. The online glitz became a new standard for operating in the virtual environment. People are quick to share the perfect photo from vacations, but reluctant to post anything resembling normal life.
If you share your struggles, you lay bare exposed to critique and judgement. This openness is exactly what is needed for others to relate to you. Struggle and pain is an obligatory part of life. We all participate in them. Luck and joy are rare visitors in the lives of most, so if we see them constantly online, we sense those pictures are fake, or at least they don’t show the whole story.
Open up, and you can attract not just the critique and judgement, but also compassion and support. You can create bonds with others. Glitz won’t take you there.
And frequency is an invitation for struggle too. Life happens and gets in the way. It’s hard to be show up every day for longer than a few days. Inevitably, someone will fail. It is a pretext in itself to talk about struggle.
In the TC, we understood that showing up, posting and commenting, was a value in itself. We worked on our own personal goals. Tracking them just made sense. It also made it much easier to achieve our goals. Nobody needed to convince us there was a value in showing up.
Unfortunately, it’s not the case with most online communities. Especially the paid ones suffer from this affliction: people sign up, visit a few times and they feel eligible to magically get out all the value within those few visits.
However, most of the value from online communities is obtained via relationships, and relationships aren’t built in a few moments. We need time AND interactions to extract value from a community.
So, it’s up to the community’s leader to provide value to members as soon as possible – or set up the community in a way that will make showing up valuable from the outset.
Gamification, done the right way, can help with this. Link the status of the members to their number of interactions and the streaks of their visits in the community. Organize onboarding challenges, which will engage new members.
However, do this in the right way. In SPI Pro, I was invited to the newbie challenge and did it the first day. Now, almost two weeks later, I’m still waiting for my badge.
If you want a thriving community, reward consistent showing up or frequency of interaction. Or both.
Recognize members who are active. Reward them with something tangible, valuable.
The TC worked so well because it was an actual contest. The winner got $100,000, if I recall correctly. Everybody, who showed up every day and provided their progress updates, was eligible to win.
But you don’t need to hand away money to reward showing up. Figure out your own currency, valuable for your community. I’d have given an arm and leg to be on a Zoom call with Pat Flynn; that might’ve been a proper monthly reward for the most active members in the SPI Pro community.
In any community, frequency is everything. It creates the right environment for: struggle, vulnerability, depth of connections, cementing relationships, and in the end – it generates value for members.
As the community’s leader, take care of frequency, reward it, and the other factors will materialize. Or at least, may realize. When there is no frequency, nothing can happen.
How can I be so sure? Well, in May 2022, I finally recreated the spirit of the original TC.
And I did that exactly by utilizing the above principles.
Tiny Habits Challenge
I organized a 7-day challenge for my Polish followers. The central hub was a Facebook group. I created it a few years ago and it was a ghost town, like most FB groups are.
The rules were simple:
- Each contestant had to login once a day and provide an update about their progress.
- Each contestant had to comment on at least a couple posts of other contestants.
The reward was a free 30-minute coaching session with me or the monetary equivalent.
For the whole week, the group was a swirl of frantic activity. Only about seven people took part in the challenge, but they all showed up. We achieved an easy 80% engagement ratio, if not higher.
The value for everybody was obvious – like in the TC, everybody was working on their own goals (habits).
Struggle was a given. Only two of us were able to post every day. Only one gal did her habits every single day.
Vulnerability was a natural consequence. Admitting to your struggles with habits or with posting was an invitation for judgement from others. Well, actually there is also #5 factor for creating a thriving community: Support.
I didn’t mention it because I considered it glaringly obvious. And it is not something you can command to practice. It just happens.
In theory, there might have been situations when people opened up, admitted to their struggles and got criticized for their failures. In practice, however, both in the TC and my challenge, others responded with compassion, support, and encouragement. Of course! We struggled with the same things too.
Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her.” John 8: 7b
And if you are guiltless, you don’t cast a stone, I guess.
Bam! A few simple rules incentivizing frequency, and I created the most awesome community experience ever. When creating a community, think in terms of the frequency of interactions between members. It will prepare the fertile soil for the depth of connections and value for the members. Don’t neglect the struggle aspect – it is a glue for the community.
Make sure those factors are woven into your community and Support will appear on its own.
This is how to engineer the greatest community experience.