It feels like we are in a renaissance of membership communities. Coaches are using ongoing community as a way to scale their work, big companies are increasingly finding ways to bring value to customers by connecting them to each other and many online courses are becoming a communal experience that continues way beyond the classes.
Paid membership communities are trendy right now, but they are not new. People have been gathering in the cozy nooks of the internet (and paying for it) for a long time. And thoughtful entrepreneurs have slowly been able to build sustainable businesses that prioritize connection.
I recently became a member of Dreamers & Doers. It's a private, paid community for women entrepreneurs that has been around since 2014. Since joining I've gotten to know the founder, Gesche Haas, who then hired me to coach them through their transition from Facebook to Circle.
D&D is a great example of how a mature community business can operate and continue to grow after 7 years. If you're building a community business at any stage, I hope these reflections will spark new ideas as you plan for the long term.
- Build a community you want to be a member of
Gesche started Dreamers & Doers to solve a problem for herself — she was building a business and wanted a network of other smart women around. Because of that, the community selects members who are both "impressive and values-driven." Gesche never strayed from building the community she wanted to be a part of. She's still excited and impressed by new members and still uses the community as she hopes other members do.. to improve and grow her business, including hiring members (like me!) for freelance projects that come up.
Gathering people is hard and many community leaders end up burning out. One way to stay excited and engaged is to build a community that you want to be a part of as a member.
2. Solve your members' problems
For Dreamers & Doers it was clear that in addition to feeling lonely on their entrepreneurial journey, big pain points for members were getting more customers, getting funding, selling more products, making more money. They decided to lean into that and built a dedicated editorial team whose whole focus is to create visibility opportunities for members. They now provide members regular ways to be featured in media that brings visibility to their work. This service brings so much value to the membership. Because they focus on women entrepreneurs, amplifying women is part of their business model and also part of a larger mission to close the gender gap in entrepreneurship.
Listen to your members and see if there's something you can add to your membership, in addition to community, to solve the problem they're most struggling with.
3. Charge enough to make your business sustainable
The current pricing for Dreamers & Doers is $105/month paid quarterly, a little less if paid yearly. The price has gone up as the community has gotten more valuable including the addition of visibility opportunities. Charging for the value has allowed Gesche to work full-time on it for years and grow the team as needed. Though it's on the high end for a community, for the members, the quality of people they get to meet plus the additional offerings like the visibility opportunities, make it more than worth it. When I first joined, one member told me "it's a business expense I never question."
Your members are willing to pay for value. You may have to start small, but plan your business so that longterm you can charge enough to be able to spend the time and attention your community will need to sustain and grow. It's one way to help it reach its potential.
4. Be thoughtful about growth
Dreamers & Doers has been very careful in the way they grow. They don't do any marketing outside their own members and most new members come from referrals. I find the members and their businesses to be diverse in many ways, but that doesn't mean everyone gets in. Potential members fill out a long application to be considered. The applications are carefully reviewed and many are rejected. Because as a member you're expected to contribute, not just come in when you need something, the questions in the application are meant to gauge values-alignment and generosity. They definitely take the *hell yes or no* approach when selecting new members. In the last 7 years they've grown steadily, but slowly.
When you're building a paid community, part of what you're selling are the people you're gathering. Because the group experience and identity are important, fast growth comes with a lot of challenges. So be clear about who you're for and be thoughtful about who gets to participate and when. An application process is just one of the ways to do this.
5. Celebrate and feature members to generate connections
Most of the events D&D organizes for members, feature members presenting about their work. Even if they never bring in any outside experts, it seems like they'd never run out of content, just by highlighting members to each other. The events, a member directory and a perks portal featuring member companies all make it easy for members to partner, hire each other, buy from each other and become friends. By being specific about who the community is for and what they do, D&D has been able to create network effects within the community. Their content reinforces the behavior they want to encourage.
Find members for your community who want to connect and help each other, then make connection a guiding principle in everything you do. How can you flatten the structure of your community so that everyone can learn from and help everyone else?
6. Forget gimmicky "engagement" metrics
Dreamers & Doers is a successful community business. It has high retention, high member satisfaction and it's profitable. But the online community (previously on Facebook, now on Circle) is not a constant stream of chat. It's pretty quiet in there! Member posts tend to be longer and more thoughtful and it is common for equally long and thoughtful responses to come days later from members who login just a few times a week. This makes the experience of participating manageable even if you're busy, and generates deeper conversations and connections.
Reframing engagement is a key to building communities that last a long time. Communities that are too busy with small talk, can make members who aren't always available feel like they're missing out and not taking advantage of their membership. Those members are more likely to churn. In contrast, if you prioritize thoughtful interaction between members, even if less frequent, you can build a sense of belonging within the group that doesn't depend on constant interaction.
Communities don't have to be around forever. Plenty are designed to be more ephemeral and dissolve after they've fulfilled their purpose. But the ones that are able to age well and stick around can feel pretty special, even for members who are brand new.
Are you a part of any communities that have been around a while? What are the things they do well to keep people around for the long haul?