A few weeks ago I launched my latest Community, OnlyFounders.com. They say entrepreneurs want to change the world. That is a debatable statement. But one thing is clear, in my 20 years of being an entrepreneur the things that I have done that have literally changed the world all involved the communities I was involved with. Facilitating communication is one of the most powerful things you can do in your career as a digital marketer. So in honor of my 4th (most likely my last) community building effort, I thought I’d share what Ive learned over the last 20 years of the importance of community, the impact it can have, what makes a good community, and how to build one that engages and inspires people around the world. And perhaps even more importantly, how it changes you as not only a digital marketer, but as a human being.
Over the course of my career, I’ve created 4 different communities, each launched for a different reason, each having a different focus, but each successful in their own way. And each became bigger than myself and generated ideas and actions that I could never have predicted.
I think being a good community manager starts with the love of being part of a community. I certainly had that. I was one of those folks that would walk away from an intense online discussion in a sweat, my first experience being the Stacy Horn’s EchoNYC a 90’s bulletin board that I became involved with both virtually and in reality. And over the years I’ve been an active member of various affinity communities focused around music, marketing, and entrepreneurship.
It was as a member of a marketing community back in the 90’s that led to the creation of my first early entrepreneurial effort: The Rich Media Sig. But what launched my community manager career was a response to an occurrence when I was a member of Tom Hespos’s The Oldtimers List, a discussion listserv for those of us who were early pioneers in the digital advertising industry.
The Oldtimers, which still exists today, albeit under different management, went through a change of ownership in the early 2000’s. After a disagreement with the new owner, I made the decision to launch my own discussion list, The One Hundred Club. Which brings us to our first type of community: The Community based on exclusivity.
The One Hundred Club: The Key is Exclusivity.
The One Hundred Club was a discussion list whose members were 100 of the top minds in digital marketing at the time. One of the biggest challenges that any community faces is how to get the members engaged. There are a number of ways to do that which we will explore in this article, but one way is to create a sense of exclusivity. The thing that made 1980’s disco’s popular was the gatekeeper outside the club who decided who got in and who didn’t. One way to get folks engaged and take ownership is to make them part of a special club where they are in, and others are out. The One Hundred Club was limited to 100 members. You couldn’t get in until someone else was shoved out.
I called it the Purge. Every member was required to participate and provide some meaningful discussion to the group each month, or you were purged from the 100 and someone else would take your place. One of the psychological mysteries of a good community is how important being a member becomes to people. I mean, we are just talking about a discussion list, emails that we get everyday. There was no commerce going on, no selling of any kind, there was no financial profit to be gained in being a member.
But once a month, when I warned everyone the purge was coming, people would panic, not wanting to be on the outside of this world that only existed in their minds. Every single member of that community contributed every month some of the best discussions on digital marketing anywhere. Some of the seeds of future innovation were planted on that list. The Purge itself was more ceremonial than anything else, because even though I went though each member each month to make sure they had contributed, I never had anyone who didn’t participate. 100% of the community was actively engaged and had taken ownership of the community. Exclusivity can be an extremely powerful feature for engagement.
At some point, I launched eDataSource, the world’s first email intelligence company. And my needs for a community changed. Before that, my business was based on me being the “Rich Media Guy”. Now I was the “Email Guy” and the requirements of a general digital marketing community were less interesting, and less connected to my business. At the suggestion of member David Baker, I shut down The One Hundred Club and launched: The Inbox Insiders.
The Inbox Insiders: The Key is Privacy
Another method of generating engagement is the human need to be part of something that no one else knows about. A secret society. Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club is, you never talk about Fight Club. When moving from The One Hundred Club to The Inbox Insiders, there was no longer a need for an artificial membership limitation and “purging” became impractical. When the threat of being purged was no longer hanging over people’s heads, how do you get them to participate? One way is to make the membership feel part of a protected and private community, invisible to the outside world.
With the Inbox Insiders, you could only join if you were invited. It was never publicized. In fact the first rule of the Inbox Insiders was, like Fight Club, you couldn’t tell anyone about it. Membership was still exclusive: no salespeople were allowed. Only the C-suite of email marketing companies. You had to be at a CEO, VP level to get invited. What was said on the list, stayed on the list. Anyone caught forwarding a message from the list to someone NOT on the list was immediately and permanently banned. And you knew, as a member, you were only communicating with your peers.
And as a result it became the place where the email marketing industry was really born. The concepts, best practices, the functionality of the industry were debated and argued. Moving the industry forward, changing the perception of the industry from being just spam, to positioning it in the marketing industry as a whole as an equal, if not more, vital component to the marketing mix was developed.
And out of this privacy, huge leaps in the industry came about. The DMA’s Email Experience Council began life as a discussion on the The Insiders List. Partnerships were formed and solidified. And slowly the public perception of email marketing changed. And it changed in large part as a result of private, behind closed doors, seen on a need to know basis discussions generated on the Inbox Insiders, and the first rule of the Inbox Insiders: you never talk about the Inbox Insiders.
Only Influencers: The Key is Education, Promotion, and Brand Building.
In 2010, after 10 years of making the commute into Manhattan, building a SaaS company, dealing with investors, employees, customers, partners, a board, I really felt the need to build something new, something that I could run from anywhere and something with much less stress than I was dealing with. Up until this time, my communities were free to join, and I made no money from them, even though a lot of money was being made through the partnerships that these communities generated. I was able to leverage the contacts and friendships made through the community to advance my own business and that was enough.
In the summer of 2010, I asked myself: could I support myself just running a community? Seven years later, the answer is: absolutely. And so Only Influencers was born. Once you charge money to belong to a community, the nature of that community changes as well as the focus. And so it was when transitioning from a free model of The Inbox Insiders to the paid model of Only Influencers.
First, the focus moved away from building an industry, to building a career. We were no longer the hidden “Fight Club” of the Inbox Insiders. We were the very public, blog producing, newsletter generating entity with a membership that changed from the C-suite to the email marketer working in the trenches. And there can be some growing pains associated with that change. Some members didn’t like less experienced email marketers asking questions they thought were beneath them. But I was personally not interested in just having an elite group of insiders anymore. I wanted to help those coming up to be better email marketers, to take pride in email marketing as a career and to help them in their career trajectory become smarter, better known and enhance their own personal brands.
So, now how to you keep people engaged and participating?
Key to a successful paid community is first having a community based on a topic where there are many moving parts that are constantly in flux. You probably would have a hard time building a community around Facebook Advertising. After you have the basics, nothing really changes all that much. But email marketing has many many different parts: Design questions, Coding questions, Strategy questions, Delivery questions, best practices questions, vendor questions. And on and on. You need a subject that is dynamic and constantly in motion.
But all the other aspects of building community come into play: Every person joining still needs to be recommended. Every person joining still has to be screened by me. It is strictly forbidden to prospect the list or reach out to anyone off the list to sell them something.
But we have provided a means where vendors can expose their products and services to the membership. Each Friday we have The Friday Pitch, where one discussion thread is dedicated to letting any member pitch a product or service they have. All pitches are confined to that one thread and we only allow it on Friday, so members can stay educated about the latest and greatest tools and services designed to make their jobs easier.
And if one of the members asks specifically about a particular tool they are interested in, vendors who provide that tool and chime in and give the buyer a chance to reach out to them.
And we allow members to write for the OI blog and get their names out there, helping to enhance their personal brands as well a providing anonymous job placement services to help those looking for a new job, or those looking to hire new people.
And over the years we have added a huge archive of blog posts, available to the general public on every aspect of email marketing, we accept advertising and promotions, we launched a well read weekly newsletter and 2 years ago, launched an expanding conference series. Our focus has become the “care and feeding” of the entire career of the professional email marketer. And as a result, members keep renewing and participating and have the chance to feel part of something bigger than themselves and their companies.
Only Founders: The Key is Mentors Helping Newbies.
Which brings us to my latest community, just in it’s infant stages, but one based on a subject very near and dear to my heart: entrepreneurship. I’m currently inviting experience Mentors to join that will be come the core of a community dedicated to something I wished I had had 17 years ago: a community of entrepreneurs to ask private questions to and to provide support and fellowship to that most lonely of occupations: the risk taker, the job creator, and those that put everything on the line for their freedom and yes….to even change the world.