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Matt
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Your members don't want you to grow (and what to do about it)

Every time I checked in with a newly launched running community, it seemed like there were more and more new people posting.

As a result, I found it harder to find my friends' latest run write-ups and even harder to reply directly to them. Speaking with other early adopters, they felt the same way, and we all eventually drifted out of the community's orbit. 

It's natural to want your community to grow; indeed, a lot of community management strategies are based on increasing registrations and scaling upwards.

However, your early adopters may feel very different about growth as they watch their close friendship circles dissolve as more members join and begin posting.

A small and tightly connected community is very different from a large sprawling community, and often our business goals as community managers can be at odds with our member's goals.

Let's take a look at the problem and then the solution.

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A new community is small and personal. Your early adopters will make friends fast by sharing their experiences and stories. They start to learn about each other and actively look forward to new posts and content. It's easy to keep track of the conversations and people in those early days when memberships are still in their infancy.

Before themes and topics drive your community, the primary reason your members return is to strengthen burgeoning bonds.

As your thriving community grows, more names appear, generating more posts and content. It can become harder to keep track of those personal conversations and friends. For those early adopters, it becomes overwhelming, and the feel of the community changes.

The key to growth is to do it with consideration and understanding by allowing your members to retain smaller friendship circles within the larger community. Think of these small circles as a secure basecamp your members will use to explore more of the community together.

How you structure your community can heavily influence member behaviour, so let's ensure you are set up for success.

Forum structure
Deciding how many forums to have largely depends on the size of your community. Generally, fewer is better; however, adding more when activity increases is recommended. Using the example of a running community, when you have few members, a single topic can be used to keep track of workouts; however, as membership increases, a dedicated forum where members can post and maintain their own workout log topic makes it easier for others to find specific member's logs rather than trawling through a long busy topic.

If you're in doubt, asking your community is always a great way to draw out real honest feedback and guidance on how to improve.

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Nerd Fitness forums allow each member to maintain their own training log in their busy forum

Clubs
Creating a sub-community is a big decision. On the one hand, you syphon off discussion to areas outside the main community, but this can be an advantage if you want members to retain their smaller friendship circles. On the other hand, you may find an appetite for more niched discussion within your topic. For example, while your site may be based around road running, you may have a small group specifically interested in mountain running. Using a club allows them to follow that passion without altering the core purpose of your community.

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Even though our own community is here to serve our clients, we have a health club where members can discuss health and fitness away from the community's primary aim

Follow
Using the robust follow and notification tools is an efficient way to let members know when a favoured member posts something new or a loved topic gets a reply. Make sure your members know how to set up notifications and the different ways to receive them, such as via mobile, email, or the community's bell.

Your members need not miss a friends update again.

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We have a very comprehensive follow system

Discover
Activity streams allow members to personalise their first point of discovery. In addition, the flexibility of the streams will enable members to choose which member's content to see and which forum's content to include in a single news feed style stream. 

Giving your members the ability to customise which content they see when they first visit the community allows them to check in with their favourite areas before exploring the rest of the community.

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NerdFitness use streams to show content for each 'guild'

Growing a community from a handful of people to tens of thousands takes a lot of planning. Unfortunately, it's easy to focus on just numbers and forget about the people behind them. However, aligning your business goals with your members' goals is critical when growing beyond your early adopters.

Setting up your community for success using our built-in tools will help your members feel comfortable as you grow.


 

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Although there are lots of settings and features built into the suite to programmatically encourage "connectivity", it takes a great deal of finesse to keep both the early adopters and those that join later "truly" connected.

If a site admin "wings it", then...

travel flying GIF by Sanni Lahtinen

It will likely lead to a "very" bumpy ride for one-and-all.

It takes thought and experimentation to hit upon how to create an overall environment that encourages members to connect with each other at the various stages of a site's development and long-term existence.

Eliciting feedback from early adopters is important but there is no guarantee that the first cohort's personality and interests will mirror that of future members. As such, it's wise not to build-out a site utilizing their input exclusively.   One should continuously elicit input from folks that have been around for varying periods of time. When you get a handle of the needs of your overall membership new and old you will have a better sense of how to guide the community towards ever more connectivity around areas that matter to the group as a whole.

As people's interests change (and you factor in short-lived trends) a site needs to constantly figure out how to address those changing interests and possibly differences in how members engage with each other. This is especially important if a site caters to a demographic that encompasses multiple generations and geographic regions.

Adopting a top-down approach to community engagement is unlikely to work much past a site's launch. A site admin should refrain from thinking this is "my site" and instead of think of it as "our site". What should "we" do to make this site far more engaging for all of us in comparison with our competitors?  Does "our" content "engage" and "inform", and does it feel like a place to hang out and make "real" connections with others.

Instead of admins setting the tone for a site by ensuring members adhere to a complex set of community standards one might consider changing their roles to be facilitators. They could be utilized to facilitate great dialog and introduce various members to each other they think might benefit from getting to know each other and elicit great conversations.

Getting to know other members in meaningful ways may require revealing a little more about oneself than just one's screen name. Profiles with just the right kind of fields filled out can go a long way towards helping ferret out fellow members with similar interests. This is a feature that often isn't utilized to its fullest extent as the value proposition isn't properly communicated to one-and-all from my observations of this site as well as others.

I've had 12,719 profile views here but as very few other people have filled out their profiles, I've followed suite and left mine almost blank.  People appear to want to know more about other fellow members here, but IPS has chosen not to promote the use of profiles.

Being in regular contact with your entire community (not just your early adopters and power users) is important. This will better allow you to find common ground amongst your entire membership. You might have to make a special effort to draw some folks out but it's worth it in the long term.  Many new members are a bit shy at first but in time may become quite active when they reach a certain comfort level. Who knows, some of these folks might be some of your best contributors in the years to come.

Society seems to instill a strong sense of independence in the populace.  Although that has many positives there are negative aspects as well.  One being that we are often reticent of asking for help from others.

Collectively we can accomplish so much more than what we can do individually, so don't be afraid to ask for assistance from your membership to help create a "community". You might be surprised by how many folks will offer to lend a hand if it is being used in a truly useful fashion and a task can be completed in a short span of time.

@Matt made some great points above, I would recommend folks check out more of his blog postings along with Joel R and Jordan Miller.

 

 

Edited by Chris Anderson
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