Community leaders deserve better: An open letter about community software

By Li Jin and David Sherry

If you’re like us, you probably have some unread red-dot notifications in your Slack sidebar. A few are work-related, a few are from social groups or communities, and a few are ghost-town workspaces you keep forgetting to remove.

Firstly, to level set on what we mean by “community:” we’re referring to groups of individuals that have shared interests, goals, and values who desire to deepen their relationships with each other, but who aren’t part of a formal or centralized company. Increasingly, these communities form and engage online on platforms like Slack, Discord, or Facebook Groups. 

Some examples:

  • Li Jin runs a 270+ member private Slack group for founders in the Passion Economy

  • David Sherry runs a 400+ member private Slack group for internet business owners and operators 

  • On Deck Fellowship is a 1,200+ member Slack group and tuition-based cohorted educational experience, with founders at the earliest stages of company building

While many communities have built atop various communication platforms and social networks, those platforms aren’t primarily focused on serving the needs of communities. For instance, while both Li and David use Slack for their communities, the platform is clearly designed for enterprises, which is apparent from its pricing model (starting at $7/member/month), lack of native monetization features for community leaders, and limited functionality and organization for fostering new bonds among members.

Our belief is that every niche will form a community around topics of shared passions and learning; during COVID, there is a greater need than ever before for online spaces that facilitate those communities. Yet while the appetite for online communities grows, the accompanying management toolkit still largely misses the mark. At the end of the day, a community platform should have a feature set that accomplishes two key goals: (1) to make the community leader's life easier, and (2) to improve member experience.

All of this begs the question, what are the platforms building for the unique needs of online communities, and what features are needed to make those communities successful?

Here are 10 features that we wish we had in a unified platform, based on real experience running and leading communities: 

  • Member directory – Typically, Slack or Discord communities have an #Intros channel for members to introduce themselves. But these posts are ordered chronologically, and the volume of posts rapidly becomes overwhelming as communities grow. A turnkey directory product that aggregates and showcases member information and interests in a centralized place would be valuable for current and prospective members. We’d like to see a directory built right into the app or that seamlessly integrates with wherever community interactions are happening. 

  • Payments and built-in monetization models – Just as ads have become the predominant monetization model for social platforms, we believe member subscriptions are promising for communities. Because people are more likely to consume a product when they pay for it, subscriptions can incentivize engagement.

    We’d also like to see more innovation and support for various monetization mechanisms for communities; that could include charging to unlock premium channels, tipping creators of posts (similar to Reddit), the ability to donate or leave a contribution for live events, etc.

  • Knowledge hub – Community knowledge hubs can house any type of content that’s value-additive to members, including relevant resources, FAQ, top posts, PDFs and links. Given the chat-based nature of many community platforms, the “best-of” content is often drowned out by more recent posts. We believe such a knowledge hub should be baked into the product as a searchable database. 

  • A better, built-in application flow and onboarding experience – Application submission, review, and approval, as well as a better, more productized onboarding experience should be native to the platform to keep membership organized.

  • Email digests – We’d like a way to re-engage members and surface content they may have missed. An easier way to create an email digest / recap of top weekly posts, new members, events, and other notable happenings in the community, with information pulled directly from the community platform, would be ideal.

  • Ability to engage across different channels –While new platforms often try to change user behavior and redirect their attention to a new destination, we’re interested in meeting members where they are. That could mean the ability for users to engage with the discussions via email or text message (if that's their preferred medium). Flexibility should be celebrated and optimized, not shunned and ignored.

  • Calendar integration & video service integration for organizing and joining events – For communities running weekly or monthly live events, we’d like to see the ability for attendees to join events directly from the application, and have a shared calendar of upcoming events. Also, currently, the lead-up to the event requires planning and coordination that happens across chat, email, polls, etc.; we’d love to see a platform incorporate scheduling and planning tools.

  • Analytics & automated actions in response to member activity – We dream of a dashboard for better understanding member behaviors, with metrics such as:

    • Engagement over time

    • Power members/top advocates

    • Lapsed members or those who are at risk for churning

    • Attendance/participation at events

    Beyond just analytics, automations for what admins should do with data would be useful: for instance, users who are at risk of churn get an automated check-in email or text message if they don’t respond to DMs within a certain number of days. Another example could be celebrating member and community milestones.

  • Member tiers, permissions, sub-groups – Many community tools like Slack, Facebook Groups, and messaging apps have a binary treatment of members: either they’re in the group and have access to everything, or they’re not a member at all. This ignores the fact that communities are comprised of heterogeneous sub-groups with differing roles and engagement levels. Community software should ideally reflect this heterogeneity in roles: imagine specific channels where a set of users are able to access fully, and other users have just read-only access. Furthermore, automating access to sub-groups based on some relevant trigger would be valuable (rather than relying on manual classification). Sub-groups could also be tied to monetization, e.g. tiering members based on price points and granting different access to different channels or features. There could also be ephemeral channels that are spun up for live events, but then vanish afterwards.

  • Smarter matching/conversation suggestions – Given that healthy, vibrant communities are composed of members with strong shared bonds, we’re interested in helping foster more direct connections and trust between members. Perhaps this is an element of the member database, but we’d love to have a way to more intelligently match members together for 1:1 or group conversations.

If you’re building a startup in this space, we’d be delighted to chat. Li is actively investing in the future of communities; and both David and Li are open to trying new products for their own groups!

Thanks to Jack Cohen, Lenny Rachitsky, Greg Isenberg, Patrick Woods, Welly Sculley, Winter Mead, and Shiraz Dole for providing feedback on this post.

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