One Self-Inflicted Community Killer & How to Keep Your Paid Membership Community Engaged

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When you first pulled the goalie on your paid membership community,  you probably dreamed of the impact it would make on the lives of your future members.

The successes, the relationships, the connections, the random thank you cards and gifts (yes that shit happens). Not to mention the predictable income, stability and ability to focus on your best clients.

It made you feel all warm and fuzzy, didn't it?  {I’ve got the feels just writing about it}.

What you probably weren’t dreaming about though is something a far cry from “warm and fuzzy”.

Fast forward 4 years from now.

You’re sitting at your desk with tears in your eyes as you hit publish on your latest blog post, announcing the heart-crushing decision to close down that very membership {which could be pulling in a sweet $330k a year}.

Now you might be different of course.

You might be 100% sure of yourself and your ability to nail your membership and continue riding the “predictable income train” into life’s sunset.  Or maybe you’ll eventually kill it…unintentionally of course.

I bet Margo Aaron thought the same thing when she set up “The Arena” to help connect solopreneurs, freelancers and online business owners.  After 2 years though, she just had her “shut down moment”.

Ramit Sethi, from GrowthLab also closed down two membership programs, Ramit’s Brain Trust and Accelerator.  He confesses why he shut down RBT {a $2M product} on GrowthLab.

Have I got your attention?  Has your resting bitch face changed to concerned furrowed brow with a touch of “cold sweat”?

Are you worried about what you've gotten yourself into with your membership and if you're destined to end up with a shutting down post too?

If you are, it’s time to talk shop about the REAL reason why memberships die {or get put down by their owners}.

I bet you a pink sprinkled donut that you can’t guess this “deadzone-maker” I’m about to share with you.

  • Maybe it’s a tactic that blows up in your face.
  • A NEW community platform that licks balls.
  • or maybe I’m going to share a secret that is so freaking simple and logical that once you know it, you’ll have the guilty pleasure of knowing how little you actually have to do to engage your membership.

Here we go…

Your community doesn’t need YOU {well…not in the way you THINK it does/should}. 

That’s right…

You don’t need to check the community on your phone as soon as your eyes open in the morning; or always be in there answering questions, commenting, replying and “engaging”.

As a membership host owner you probably ASSUME that you need to jump in all the time.  Am I right?

You need to post “engaging content”, answer questions, comment and encourage your members to engage.  You know…show them the ropes and “seed” engagement so you can back off eventually.

THAT right there is the elephant in the “membership” room.

Let me explain.

Most memberships are based on what I like to call The Triangle of Membership (the 3Cs of Membership).

  1. Content
  2. Coaching
  3. Community

Most memberships will have all 3, but some will only have one, like my badass client Heidi Probably and her membership community, “Fashion Industry Friends” for Fashion Designers.

It’s straight up community.  No content and no coaching, just a SPACE to connect with other peeps…and they have no fucks to give about Heidi showing up to answer questions or “be” there.

It wouldn’t have been that way though if she had set up her membership alone.  She assumed that she would have to coach somehow…to make that triangle complete.  But working with me forced her to LISTEN to her members and all they wanted was community…so she delivered it.

Now, the funny thing is, that even though she had decided NOT to coach in her community…she was naturally drawn to doing it…without even realising it {just like most hosts are}.

On one of our 1on1 strategy sessions she started talking about all the content that she was going to be posting that week…which was 3 posts.

WTF Heidi…they don’t care about YOU…back off and let them own the community.

Ok ok..I didn’t SAY that but I gently reminded her that her job wasn’t to “engage” people…it was to ALLOW her members to engage.

Now something else was going on as well.  I stopped her from “coaching” because coaching and community don’t play nice.

Yup, “coaching” is like the black widow lady spider eating her “community” LOV-AH post coital. Nom-nom.

It sounds weird right?  {yes the black widow shit is WEIRD…but I’m talking about keeping coaching and community separate – keep up dude}.

You might be thinking,

“No no…coaching and community are complementary, they add value to my membership!  All memberships offer some kind of coaching and community Diana!”.

Yes, they are valuable but coaching is all about supporting somebody, answering questions, helping people move forward, and providing accountability to meet their goals.

Community on the other hand, focuses on human connection. Period.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that most of the time community hosts start using their community to coach members {just like Heidi started to do without noticing it}; things like challenges, Q&As, check-in threads, accountability, coaching calls or webinars, and other coaching activities.

When you do this, your members start to focus on getting support and connection from YOU the host (coach) rather than connecting and getting support from fellow members.

Members start thinking (consciously or subconsciously)…

“I don’t care about these other people.  I just want access to you. Talk to the hand fellow members…I’ve only got eyes and ears for the host!”

When this happens, brace yourself for a drop in engagement and a fast-pass to

“Faack!  Why is my community a deadzone??”.

Honestly…coaching will side swipe your community engagement like…the Orient Express, doused in gasoline, lit on fire, and clocking 150km/hr…with failed brakes…and filled with killer bees.  AHHH! Where is Keanu when you need him?!

Let’s dig deeper to really hit this home for you.

Take a look at this doodle below that I did.

When you set up your membership… you became a host (happy stick guy in the upper left corner of the doodle) and with that new role you probably felt a strong sense of responsibility for the success and well-being of your members.

You felt all “Mama bear” for her cubs, and Mama bear wants the best for her BAY-BEES!

Not to mention Mama Bear wants people to STAY in her membership bear-cave as long as possible.

I mean…who doesn’t want recurring payments, consistent income, and the ability to focus on supporting your best clients?!   #Magicsauce!It totally makes sense for hosts to want to support their members and offer as much value as possible.

So when you  set up your membership you probably used the following “typical” process to pull things together and offer value via the Triangle of Membership.

Typical membership set up process {see if you can spot the red flags}:

  1. Ensure that your audience wants and needs a membership (beta test).
  2. Choose a platform (usually Facebook, Mighty Networks or a WP based platform).
  3. Set up the platform and also find solutions to provide your content or vault of materials.
  4. Decide what content to provide, and add the initial content to kick things off.
  5. Plan out your live coaching calls, figure out how the calls will be delivered and how you will promote the coaching calls via the community.
  6. Craft onboarding emails.
  7. Create some onboarding content in the platform (welcome thread, community guidelines etc).
  8. Invite your members in.
  9. Welcome everyone in, reply to their comments, engage with them and make sure they feel welcome.
  10. BOOM…you’ll have a highly engaged membership community that knocks your member’s socks off and makes them never want to leave {…or will you?}.

The process outlined above is an ok start, but it’s missing a lot to ensure your membership community launches and grows smoothly… like butta!

Not to mention those red flags in step 5 and 9…assuming that you should be doing “coachy” activities in there…when you shouldn’t; remember black widow? Nom-nom.

Back to the doodle.

In my super realistic doodle {look at the shading dude…oh…what shading?..ummm}, you’ll see that the host has answers (as an expert) and her members have Qs, so as she builds and manages her community she naturally {and with good intentions} ASSUMES that she should answer those questions

“I can answer their questions, offer more value…and they will stay longer…money in da bank…weeeee!”

But when a host starts answering questions…the community shifts to a coaching platform.  See the PROBLEMO {that’s spanish for problem dude} section where the peeps are in their own cute little boxes.

Check out the 4 little dudes with their eyes fixated on the host.  The members have questions and they “believe” that the best way to get answers is by having the host answer them.

Why do they believe that?  Because the host trained them to!

They don’t even think about the other members and their experience/opinions.  They simply post and wait for the host to reply.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Imagine if your members want you to answer their questions individually.  That might be ok if you have 5 or 10 members…but what happens when you hit 100, 500, 1000?

A clusterfuck of exhaustion for YOU, that’s what.

No wonder so many entrepreneurs complain about communities being a huge time and energy suck…and end up popping it into a potato sack and dropping it into the digital river…meow.

The problem is that this issue is SELF CREATED.

Hosts unintentionally train their members to go to them for answers rather than each other.  It’s not sustainable or scalable to have all your members relying on YOU for answers and support.

That’s coaching, not community.

Sidenote:  Community IS scalable, and allows members to support each other, and takes the pressure off you…when done right!

Now, it sounds like I’m poo-pooing all over coaching, but it’s not the “bad guy”.  It can be a wonderful addition to a membership on live coaching calls, or in situations that are intended for coaching.

The issue I see over and over with my clients and other successful entrepreneurs is that they don’t set clear boundaries for themselves.

You created a membership with the intention of having a peer to peer community {sounds gravy right?}.  The idea being that members will talk to each other, provide support and insights for each other and you can step back and focus on fostering the space.

That is what leads to a thriving membership community that doesn’t suck up all your time and energy.

Unfortunately, what ends up happening though is that most hosts (who are usually experts on the topic that the membership focuses on) feel like they need to jump in and answer questions OR they offer that as an incentive to join, “Get expert insights from me”.

So when engagement dips they DO more, which trains members to expect the host to answer their questions more, which leads to members ignoring each other more and presto…DEADZONE.

Why does coaching have such a bad effect on community engagement?

Like you can see in my doodle, when there’s a lot of coaching in a community, members stop turning to each other for support, and only have eyes for the host.

Community members:

  • Stop posting in the community {if they ever did in the first place}
  • Direct all their posts to the host.
  • Disengage from other members and “not bother” adding their perspective when someone else does post.
  • Become less interested in other members personally…as they simply want to get in, get answers to their Qs, and get out.

Sounds like a fucking nightmare – doesn’t it.

Another great way to look at this is to imagine yourself hosting a Dinner party.

Picture it.

Your guests gather round a table and proceed to only ask YOU questions.  Whaaaa?

You sit at the head of the table – trying to get some food in your belly – while each guest writes questions on pieces of paper and passes them to you.

You open each piece of paper…look at that ONE guest with uncomfortably unwavering eye contact and answer their questions.

You might go back and forth a little but it’s not a discussion.  It’s not personal…it’s simply a problem solving session.

Once finished you move onto the next piece of paper and the next person…while everyone else sits patiently waiting for their turn and focusing on eating there food.  You on the other hand will not get any food in your mouth…let alone your belly because you’re talking the WHOLE time.


Who wants to be sitting at that dinner table?  Not me!

THAT is not how a dinner party works, and a membership community works on the same principles.

Look at my doodle again.

You can see on the left the KING...I mean host…has all eyes on him and is focusing on answering questions.  But what’s happening at the dinner table on the right? The dinner table on the right has a completely different dynamic.

There is NO head of the table…you can’t even really tell who the host is (they aren’t that important).

The table is circular and allows everyone to participate in the conversation as a whole, and to break into smaller groups and pairs to chat.

Notice as well that this isn’t a Q&A session…it’s conversations, connections and interesting issues that each person is either facing or going through.

THAT is an amazing dinner party experience and it’s the perfect metaphor for a community.

“The purpose of a community is to bring together people who have similar goals, situations, or circumstances. NOT to answer questions.”

YES…questions will be asked and answered in a community but that should be a happy side effect between members…not the main event!

When you focus a community on answering questions (especially having the host or the team members doing the answering) the community quickly transforms into a coaching platform even though everyone will still define it as a community.

This is a shitty deal for you because when community engagement takes a hit {remember…choo choo flaming orient express with killer bees!}, you and your members will be left wondering…why doesn’t anyone “engage” in this community?

Answer?  Because you coached the community to death.

(Side note:  Coaching platforms aren’t bad…you just need to know if your members want a coaching platform or a community and position it that way from day 1)

So my friend…don’t be THAT guy who jumps in and coaches his community into an engagement coma.

Take a strategic backseat {RESIST} and facilitate connections between your members and save coaching for your live calls.

Now, telling you to “resist” sounds easy in practice but rather than leave you hanging and wondering how to actually DO this, I'd like to help.

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  1. Muhammad Fawaz on October 13, 2020 at 4:00 pm

    Great post! So unexpectedly eye opening and I must say I love your writing style. So unafraid to be yourself… Way to go!!!

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