Sometimes tough love is the best kind of love, and it might be just what you need if your community is struggling right now. It’s not unusual to see activity slowing down during summer, but what are the hard questions you should ask yourself if your members don’t see the value in coming back?
The lone rider for this episode, host Jillian Benbow shares the steps you need to take if your online community is slowly becoming a ghost town. Now that things are opening back up in real life, memberships are dwindling, and the virtual tumbleweeds are rolling. So what should you do?
Give up! Just kidding, but we do discuss the other opportunities available if you don't enjoy running your community anymore. Jillian also goes into the one-size-fits-most strategy you could use to get your community back on track and the exact recommendations she would make as an outside consultant.
This solo show is a new format for us, so we would love to get your feedback on it. Listen in and hit us up with your thoughts on Twitter, @TeamSPI.
In This Episode
- Jillian’s love of ghost towns
- Digital communities that addressed a need during the pandemic
- Why you should ask if your community worth joining today
- A one-size-fits-most strategy to get your community back on track
- Why some of the best ideas might come from surveying your members
- Asking the right open ended questions
- Taking advantage of one-on-one calls with your members
- Crosschecking what people say with what they do
- Why it’s okay to put your community on pause for a while
The CX 53: Pandemic Communities Gone Bust with Jillian
Jillian Benbow: Hello, and welcome to this episode of The Community Experience Podcast. I'm Jillian Benbow, and now for something completely different. We're going to try this, let me know what you think. Like really, let me know. Because I'm out of my comfort zone a bit. This week is a solo show, just me, faster, quicker format. We're going to talk about specific things that I'm seeing in community and I want to talk about, and I want to help. Today that is ... oh, something that's been on my mind, which is the rise of communities and now, the inevitable fall of communities, thanks to the pandemic. So pandemic communities gone bust. Let's get into it today on The Community Experience Podcast.
Welcome to this week's episode. As I mentioned, it's solo and we are talking about ghost towns. We're talking about pandemic communities gone bust. Is this a thing? Is this real? Yes, short answer. Let's dive in, but let's talk about the ghost town. I'm sure everyone like Wild West Trope, that's a big thing in America. But I think globally it's something associated with the United States and there was a lot of stuff happening. There were booms and busts, left and right. It was the gold rush, it was frankly mining. It was also the railroad and reconstruction after the civil war. The railroads, mining, all of these things were creating opportunities for people to move westward from the Eastern coast and areas, the south.
It was an exciting time. People didn't know what was going to happen, but they thought they could find their fortune out west. Someone would start digging next to a stream and find a gold nugget and then that previously desolate area next to the stream became a town. It became a booming, if you will, mining town where there were hotels and commerce and possibly a railroad going through. Then eventually that economy that had seemingly been built up overnight just as quickly, was abandoned to find the next place, the next opportunity. Over time, those literal towns turned into what we know as ghost towns today, which is one of my favorite things to go and find, by the way. I don't know if that's surprising or not, but I love an old ghost town and finding the relics of opportunities past.
I will just say, as I'm talking about this and with, I think all of us just becoming a little more aware of, especially as a white person. Like how I talk and what we talk about. I do want to acknowledge that this wasn't just this untamed land that was made to be conquered. I want to just have a moment to acknowledge the indigenous people of the Americas and they were already there and thriving until we came along. So we'll leave it at that, but I feel morally obligated to point that out. Because I don't want to just skim over that very big truth.
So let's pivot from the wild west and we are going to say, "Well, how does that relate to digital communities and pandemic communities gone bust?" Besides, I just really wanted an excuse to talk about the wild west. Also, digital communities going bust, there's a lot less decay and that like disappearing back into the earth, as we all know nothing actually ever leaves the internet. Fortunately, the digital community bust is much less dramatic than in real life.
So as a community builder, you may disagree. You may say, "Hey, I have put in a ton of time and effort and emotion into launching a community during a very scary time, the pandemic. When we didn't know what was going to happen the next day." Do you remember? Did you do this? Did you bleach down your kitchen to bring groceries in and then have this whole like hazmat situation of wiping down the boxes and all of that? Yeah, I mean, my family did that and it was just like the new normal until things eventually changed. But for a while there, we didn't know, we had no idea. We were just trying to stay safe as reasonably as we could and protect our neighbors and our loved ones and ourselves.
It was a scary time. During that time, as you remember, everyone was home all the time, all day, all the time. You might have lived somewhere where you could go outside, you might have lived somewhere where you were literally tracked. To even get outside, you needed some sort of permitting to take your dog on a walk. I mean, there was all sorts of ways of life that even now looking back, it's like, "Wow, I can't believe that happened." But at the time, we didn't know. So we were just doing our best. That was a time when a lot of people, like I said, were home and had time on their hands and felt uncomfortable or scared or just unsure or annoyed or all of the above. And was on the internet a lot. We were missing our in real life, social support networks.
Like sure, I did a Zoom with my family that was absolutely lovely. Because most of my family does not live in this country. So being able to see people's faces and talk to people, we should do it again, as I'm thinking. So we just didn't have that in real life opportunity, but we did have the digital thing that we all dabbled in and maybe did things we wouldn't normally do. One thing that came out of that was a lot of digital communities that really met people's needs for the time. You're locked down, schools at home, work's at home. You may be on unemployment and concerned, will it run out? You may be worried you're going to get laid off. Just so many things happening.
Now we're two years in and I mean, were we ever normal? No. Has life returned to "normal"? Sort of. But the thing, at least in this side of the equator, it's been summer. Cases in summer of any sort of viral infection go down because you can be outdoors and naturally have like space. The CDC is doing ... I don't even know. But point being, I think a lot of us feel more comfortable, getting back into some routines that we had pre pandemic. And with that comes less time at home, unsure and clinging to the internet for normalcy.
So I am not surprised personally, that digital communities are struggling more than they used to, especially the newer ones, to keep their engagement and growth up in the way that they could before. It's gotten harder. So with all that, let's talk about, okay, how do we intervene with that? If you have a community and you're seeing this, is there anything you can do? Or do you just have to cut your losses and go somewhere else? So let's dive in.
Okay, so here's what we're going to do. I'm about to ask you some questions. This is kind of like a choose your own adventure novel, except not at all. But like a similar premise, just go with it. We're tired. You're tired, I'm tired, trust me. I'm going to ask you some questions and this first one is going to hit you over the head. It's not to be mean, it's blunt. But it's a very real question you need to answer. So I'm going to ask you some questions and then I'm going to give you some actionable things to do after you finish listening to this, to help steer your community back into the place you want it to go or not. Which leads me to the first question. Just now, I do care for you deeply. But sometimes tough love is the best love.
So tough love. Dear listener, is your community worth joining today? Is your community something actually worth joining? Before you get huffy, you're going to say, "Of course it is. It's my community." So let's reframe it a little. What does your community provide to your members that's worth their time? What is your community doing? How is it helping your members? And I'm sure you have an answer, I hope you do. I mean, think about it. It's certainly not alike. You must know the answer right now. Think about this and think about, why should your members log in? Like what incentive do they have to, of all the things they could be doing right now, log into wherever your community is and participate. Like what are you providing? You may have events and scheduled posts and things that you've been doing for forever. That's not a good enough reason. Like what is it about the events? What are they about? What about the content that you post? The conversations happening? What makes that special? Versus it just being there.
I know. They'd probably come across kind of harsh and maybe I'm being a little dramatic to prove a point. But it leads me to this next question. And I think this is such an important question to ask yourself, myself included. But if you're in a place where you're burnt out, you're frustrated and your community is not going the way you would like it to. So here's the question, be honest. Are you enjoying running your community? Do you want to keep doing it? This is where the choose your own adventure starts. Because if deep down the answer is no, that is okay. Even if it's super successful, that is okay. If you are ready to close the community chapter, it's more work than you thought or it isn't what you thought it would be. You can.
There's several ways to exit a community as the community builder. You can sell it. You can give it away. You can just close it and have people, whatever in your business, you are going to prioritize and focus on, send people to that. Whether it's a list or a course or whatever it is. You can just deprioritize it and let it die a slow death. Or maybe, like past guest, Matt, maybe you come back and it's thriving. But realistically, that's very unlikely. So if the community model is not working for you, I would say, think about it, give yourself some time. If you decide, yeah, I just like the idea of not having to do this makes me excited. Think about how you can either pivot it into something else. Because those are obviously people who are your people and have been curated into full on members. Is there a different way to connect with them? Especially if there's a financial piece to it with your business, if you collect dues. Could it be done totally differently? And in a way that excites you.
So there's lots of ways. If there's interest, we can have a whole show about how to close a community, how to exit a community. But for the sake of everyone and time, let's assume you say yes. So you enjoy running the community, you want it to continue. It's just not where you want it, it's busting. So here's what we're going to do. This is not a one size fits all, but I think it's a one size fits most strategy. Do with it what makes sense for your community. Alter it in a way that is doable for you, your capacity, whatnot. But with the big caveat, if you're like, "I don't have time to do this, I need a magic pill." Then you should probably go back to that question of, do you enjoy running your community? And maybe it's a no, but that's just me. So let's get into it.
Your community's on the decline or in your opinion, it's not hitting the marks you need it to. Which means something's probably off. Now keep in mind historically, again, if you are in the US, in North America, really, it's kind of like back to school time at the time of this recording. And that's a known lull, the end of summer, also with the pandemic not ending. If anything, it's turning into an endemic, but people traveled this summer. Like this was the summer that all those vacation savings, we could flex if we wanted. And not everybody. But a lot of people were traveling.
It's expected to have a lull right now. But it's also a good time with the fall kicking in to prepare for this. So we're going to do something that's so simple, but everyone forgets. And that is a survey. This is a survey specific to your community and about engagement. There are tons of tools, many of them free. We like Typeform and Tally.so, Google forms, of course, I think people still use Survey Monkey. Use whatever you prefer to use, it doesn't actually matter.
Second thing, set dates around this. There's going to be a survey launch date that you have announced in your community beforehand. There's going to be an explanation of what it is and why people should fill it out. You are going to communicate this to people by posting in your community, by sending at least an email, DM, whatever way you connect with people in your community. You're sending them this over multiple like ways. Because some people prefer email. People are going to miss it. It's just inevitable, so if you're repetitive and you have posts and emails and DMS, will you annoy people? Maybe, but probably not.
So we're going to tell them ... it's that whole like, tell them what you're going to tell them. Tell them and then tell them what you told them. But I guess not really, we're going to tell them what's going to happen. Then as it's happening, we're going to tell them it's happening. Then we can share the results. So yeah, I guess that works.
Couple key things in said survey. Do not make it anonymous. You're going to want to know who said what for follow up, which we will get into. Also, give people the option to give like a check mark, consent to follow up for a one-on-one with them to talk further. Finally, and I don't always say to do this because it's not always the best idea. But in this instance, incentivize filling this out. So yet another reason why it's not anonymous, you can put a preface that like, "Hey, be brutally honest. The more honest you are, the more helpful it is." But have a good incentive. So depending on what your community's about, give something high value away.
It doesn't have to be anything that creates financial issue for you. But if you're a coach, maybe it's a session. If you have courses, it's a free course of their choice up to, whatever. If you have a store it's a X amount of dollar gift card. And if you don't have anything like that you can give, that's already something that exists. I mean, buying a gift card to the place of their choice or something like that. I mean, I would invest like a hundred bucks in this, if that's the route.
So we've got an incentive to fill this thing out by the deadline. We have a strategy to get it out so people see it and know that they should fill it out, and that there is an incentive. By the way, the incentive was like a raffle. It's not for everybody that fills it out. Was that clear? Hopefully, just in case. Don't give everybody in your community a hundred bucks, unless you can, then whatever.
Okay, so enough rambles, let's talk about what we're asking in this survey, because that is also important. I would ask some open ended questions and let people say what they want to say. Some questions, if it was me, what I would ask and these are by design. Open ended, what does this community offer? What are they going to say? How are they going to answer that? That's going to tell you a lot about the perception of your members, of what the point of the community is.
Next question, open ended, what is the most valuable part of your membership? Or feel free to reword it, but like what part of their membership do they find the most valuable thing of being a member? Open ended. Again, that's going to tell you a lot about motivations.
Next question, also open ended. What is missing from your membership? What do they want that they aren't getting from this membership? Now huge caveat with this one, just because they say something does not mean you're going to do it. You're looking for trends, you're looking for patterns. If 10 people say the same thing, pay attention to that. If one person says something that's completely out of reach for you to provide, okay, that's nice, but like not possible given the existing structure of membership. And that's okay. We're not going to respond and say that. We just want to hear like what's someone's ideal membership? Then based on the data you get from that, again, you're looking for common trends. But also, you might just get some great ideas that you haven't thought of.
Some of the best things we do in our community are ideas for members. They are your best source of knowledge for like, what do you want? Then a final question/questions and add more questions, these are just the ones that I think like, make sure these are in here. You can ask also like on a scale of one to ten, how likely are you to recommend this community? Why or why not? You can do all that. It's your community.
But also final question, and this depends on like how you do community and what events and programming you have. But ask, how can we adjust our events to get you to attend? Or what can we do to get you to attend events? Like what's the block. We're identifying blocks in this. It might be change the time. It's during nap time, dinner. Then you can also ask this for programming. So like how do we adjust our programming to get you to participate? So depending on what kind of programming you do, would dictate how you ask that and all the gritty details. Hopefully you're picking up what I'm throwing down.
So you send it out, people fill out the survey, that one person or however many people like wins the prize. Yay. Okay, we're not done. So now between the people who said, "Yeah, I'll do a one on one follow up call." That consented in the survey. But also, anybody in your community that say was like a super member and has fallen off. Or someone who like as a member, you just enjoy how they would post and the things they would do. Like they're your ideal member and maybe has fallen off or gotten quieter. Reach out to them privately and whether or not they filled out the survey, be like, "Hey, your opinion means a lot to me. I'd love to just like have a coffee chat one on one."
So schedule one on one calls with some of the people who consented to do that in the survey. And then any of those special members that you'd really just like to get their advice, their opinions about. Especially members that were previously pretty active and you're not totally sure why they're no longer as active. I don't want to give specific numbers or percentages. I certainly have opinions, but there's just so many factors in community. As soon as I start thinking about a percentage, then I realize that's not relevant to all communities. So use your best judgment. Always better to do a few more than a few less, just to get a bigger picture.
So schedule those calls and the key here is to just go over the questions, but not necessarily their responses, unless you want to be, like you said, this, tell me more. Because that kind of puts them in a weird situation. You could just be like, "Okay, let's talk about the first question I asked. What does this community offer?" Open ended. Then your role in this one on one is really to just listen. It's definitely not a place for excuses and to get defensive. That's human nature, we want to be like, "Oh yeah, totally. It's because of this." The context doesn't actually matter. To be harsh, but also truthful. Just let them talk. If you know much about active listening, repeat what they said, like rephrase and summarize what they said to you, back to them. They'll probably then continue talking.
So you can do that with any of the questions in particular of theirs, their responses or anything you really want to dig into. Obviously, you can ask follow up questions to get to the meat of things. But just have like a 20, 30 minute call and listen. Then finally at the end of those calls, obviously thank them for doing it. You can also incentivize people scheduling those calls if that makes sense for you. But just give them the open invitation to email you with any follow up thoughts. Because if you're anything like me, I think everybody does this. Often after a conversation, the shower thought, you think of like what you wanted to say or you think of the words to describe the thing you were trying to convey. So just giving that invite like, "Hey, if you think of anything else, please email me. Happy to continue the convo that way."
So that's a lot and you're not done. The final thing here is so you get through one-on-one calls, hopefully you're taking notes. I wouldn't record them just for the privacy of your community members. They'll feel more comfortable if you don't, but again, it's your community. Look for, where are the themes? Where are the commonalities of the people you talk to face to face in those one on one Zooms or however you did it. What do they want? That's the ultimate question. What do they want in this membership? Then flip side of that, is that something you're willing to do? Is this something you can do? Is it aligned with what your community is about? Then you got a lot of thinking and planning to do.
I realize this all sounds like a lot and honestly, community is a lot. So it kind of is, but it's also, I think not as hard. I think it sounds more scary right now as I'm talking, than it actually is. I mean, it's actually kind of fun. Then the final thing, crosscheck what people are saying with what they are doing. What do I mean? Oh, everyone's favorite thing. I mean, metrics. So look at the results even just of the survey, like not even the one-on-one calls. If people are saying, this is my favorite event, it's the best. But then you look at the event attendance of said events and those people aren't going. Then what's happening? Where's the disconnect? Is it the time of day? Is it something easy you can tweak? Because a lot of times it is. There are ways to just fidget things around in the community that make a huge impact versus reinventing the wheel.
So look at your engagement metrics. If people are saying, "Oh, the programming that you lead about accountability is the coolest thing in the community." Look at that person, are they engaging in it? Are they participating? Because if they say that and they're not, why aren't they? And then that's the question to ask them like, "Well you said this, but you haven't been participating in the last two months. How can I help you to engage in this again?" They might be like, "Oh, well, yeah, I'm really busy and I don't have time to write out a whole thing." So maybe the solution is ... and I'm making up a scenario, a community programming scenario here. So creating a solution for, it seems kind of like a cheat, because it's not real. But just discussing with them what the blocks are. You can brainstorm ... you can ask them, how do I make this easier for you? Or how do I make this reachable for you? Again, they probably have a great answer.
So let's wrap it up. Keep in mind, you don't have to do this. This is my suggestion. If someone was paying me as a consultant, this is what I would take their community through. Then based on the data, come up with recommendations. Sometimes it's helpful to look at your community and go through this process as if you are a paid consultant and not the person who owns it. Or alternatively, you could hire someone to do this for you. I am not available. Also, I charge a lot for consulting, you don't want to hire me for this. You can do this, but do it in a way that works for you and really spend time looking at the responses, the trends, the metrics, all of it.
Again, if it's just not working, this is the unsolicited permission you did not ask for. It is okay to take a break, walk away for a bit, just tell your community you're doing it. And/or just say, "This part of my business is not what I'm doing anymore." I don't want you to do that. I love community, I love that people can create communities. But it isn't for everybody and that's okay. So you're great, thank you for listening to me talk at a microphone for half an hour. I apologize. We will see you next week on The Community Experience Podcast. It will be the more traditional format. Hit me up on Twitter @JillianBenbow. If I don't see you on the Twitter, I'll see you next Tuesday.
Your lead host for The Community Experience is me, Jillian Benbow. Our executive producer is Matt Gartland. Our senior producer is David Grabowski. And our editor is Paul Grigoras. Sound editing by Duncan Brown. Theme music by David Grabowski. See you next Tuesday.