Once a month my extended family gets together for a dinner.
It was a tradition that started nearly ten years by my grandma and it’s still going strong today.
My family isn’t known for Kennedy-like well-measured dinner conversations.
Nope, we’re raucous as all get out.
Once we spiraled down a rabbit hole of famous Lily Tomlin bits, laughing until our guts hurt.
Servers drop food off and run away.
Other restaurant goers look over their shoulders at us in disdain.
It’s not OUR fault we’re genetically pre-disposed to EXTREMELY LOUD LAUGHTER.
But I digress.
Our family dinners make the perfect mini-case study of a great community.
Paid online communities are popping up everywhere lately.
And it makes sense!
An additional revenue stream
Brings people together (we lonely right now)
A 1:many model
Everyone else is doing it so social pressure
We’re all taught how to launch a paid community (membership, mastermind, group coaching program, etc).
But we’re not taught how to design and facilitate the thing once people are sold into it.
It makes for a frustrating experience for the person who paid to join and an equally frustrating experience for the leader who is scrambling to figure out why THIS JUST ISN’T WORKING.
🤷 We’re super good at selling, not so good at facilitating.
I’ve been studying communities for a long while now through personal experience, a metric ton of books and articles, countless workshops, and secret in-depth audits of the paid communities I’m in right now.
On top of that, I’ve now run multiple Cabins in my own group coaching program, Community Camp, where I help folks design a paid community offer that best fits them.
Through it all, I’ve discovered the 6 pillars of what makes a paid online community great.
And when I say great I mean—
- *Actually* Safe and Supportive
So what are they?
The six pillars to a supportive and regenerative paid online community:
Let’s dive in, shall we?
🦄 Transformation: what change will your members have?
- Why does it exist and for whom?
- What do they really want out of this space?
When it comes to community design, thinking through the purpose and transformation your members are looking for is the number one question to answer.
No community can be sustainable without a deep purpose, north star, whatever you want to call it.
That purpose helps you show up consistently within the group, helps the members take ownership, and helps you understand the boundaries within which you can be creative.
And here’s the secret, right out of the gate, for a successful community: boundaries.
Your community can’t be for everyone, nor can it support and help everyone.
You can’t be everything to everyone.
Understanding what your space is for will not only help you with burnout but help your members understand how to show up best in the space to find the big transformation they are paying for.
For family dinner, we don’t just want food. We want to connect with each other and create more memories. If we just gathered to fill up on the necessary calories for the day, we might as well be futuristic robots at a charging station.
Family dinner is there for connection.
It is continuing the transformation of turning relations into really good friends.
⏱️ Immediacy: the beginning and the end of a community
- Is it a membership model? An open/close mastermind? Is it always around or does it have an end date?
- Having a clear reason to join and understanding how a space will end creates a sense of security.
Immediacy is the reason why people sign up and how.
It could be like my program Community Camp – there are cohorts with a limited amount of seats and it’s only open a few times a year.
It could be a rolling membership where the doors are always open.
Or maybe it’s a private invitation-only space.
Immediacy is really a nerdy way to say “model.”
What immediacy is forcing you to think through is how do you create a sense of urgency in signing up and how you help your members understand when to leave the community?
Yes, you need to think through how people leave your space.
No community is built to last forever.
Thinking through how or why someone may want to leave will help you understand the entire life-cycle of a member, not just the initial HOLY SHIT WE GOT A SALE moment.
Need some model examples?
Here you go:
- Strict open/close and then disappear – incredibly clear boundaries and members are encouraged to make strong connections because they KNOW the space is going away at a specific date in the future
- Forever-on private community with clear cohorts – most online courses have this type of community, with an injection of energy for every course launch. Be careful at setting clear expectations of down-time between cohorts though!
- Forever-on private communities – these are your memberships with people joining whenever they want. Think through how you help people settle in, as they won’t have that cozy ‘cohort’ feel in this model.
- Free communities – looser boundaries and typically harder to monitor, these have to be carefully facilitated so they don’t turn into self-promo hell holes.
The important bit!
Once you decide on your immediacy model, ask yourself if that model brings about the transformation you want your members to have or not.
Why or why not?
For family dinner, we know it starts at 6 PM and ends around 8 PM.
🌳 Cycles: the programming inside the community
- Will there be monthly themes? Weekly exercises?
- Programming is expected content, not the leader randomly asking people what their favorite color is. Cycles keep people motivated to show up and reduce churn.
Cycles are the reason why people stay.
Programming keeps communities lively, reduces burnout because you have a plan, and pursues the transformation you want your members to have.
Do you offer weekly live Q&As?
Weekly co-working sessions?
What type of expected, repeatable programming will help get your members closer to that transformation they’re looking for?
You can get between 20-80% expertise and integration from just consuming something – reading, listening, watching.
But to reach 95% mastery?
You get that with community.
What you’re building inside your paid community offer is that incredibly transformative 15%.
Where they can interact with that content, integrate it, learn more from it—that’s in your community.
Not just the course materials but the course interaction.
That’s the programming.
Deciding what you want your programming to be and making sure it’s the right balance is a bit of an art.
Not enough programming and your community is an awkward ghost town.
Too much and your members get overwhelmed…and it becomes an awkward ghost town.
For family dinner, we know it’s once a month and never more, never less.
If it’s more we get more easily annoyed with each other.
Less and we spend the whole dinner boringly listing off things we did, instead of relaxing and sharing fun stories.
😄 Mutuality: how people show up and engage with each other
- Is there a mentorship program? How do members become friends? Is there a Code of Conduct?
- A leader can’t be the sole connector in an online community. Creating ways for people to connect with each other is what makes a community truly vibrant (and what makes the leader less likely to burn out).
Mutuality is shared support between people.
How do they give back?
How do they ask for help?
How do they get involved?
Once a member has created their way of showing up for that particular community they feel more comfortable and invested in it and start giving back.
Think about it — we feel most comfortable in friendships and relationships where our role is known to us: feedback, support, cheerleading, etc
When we know how to show up, we really show up.
Mutuality is the rules of the relationship.
This is what makes people really want to stay, even beyond your programming.
Programming is the what, mutuality is the why.
If people feel truly connected to other members of your community, leaving will be that much harder.
AND it won’t be all on you to create conversation.
Your members will feel confident enough to ask for help and give support.
In other words: YOU NEED A CODE OF CONDUCT AND YOU NEED TO UPHOLD IT.
Codes of Conduct are a signal to your members that you take shit seriously, you are dedicated to creating a safer space, and you actually care about their wellbeing.
This matters to marginalized folks.
I cannot tell you how many times I have been in an online community and something happens that directly makes fun or attacks my queer/trans identity…and then watch as the leader leaves the conversation up to the community to figure out.
Mutuality is a three-way street: your members, how they interact with each other, and how you show up for them.
Don’t forget that last part.
For family dinner, we all have figured out how we show up in our own unique way and we stick to our lane.
It makes showing up fun and not a total chore.
🎁 Investment: how much time, money, and energy will a member have to invest?
- Is it a one-time payment? A monthly payment? Time intensive or at your own pace?
- Money is the first indicator of how much energy and time a member will have to invest in your community. Setting up the right expectation will help to ensure your members find the transformation you’re hoping they do.
We all have those relationships where we either feel like we have to invest a lot of our energy into versus relationships where we joyfully invest our energy.
With communities online, money comes with that time and energy.
Most folks are creating paid communities, and how much they cost is the first signifier to what you’re expecting out of your members in terms of energy.
If you charge too much and don’t deliver, you’ll create resentment.
If you don’t charge enough and overdeliver, you’ll create burnout and you’ll feel resentment.
Pricing is a whole strategy in its own, but what I really want you all to think about is the transformation you want your members to have.
If you price it low, will it push people towards that’s transformation quick enough?
If you price it high will it?
How URGENT is this transformation?
Investment is your first real chance to show your members what to expect out of your space.
For family dinner, Grandpa pays (wins!) so we know it’s our job to show up and drive the conversation.
And holy heck do we.
👐 Facilitation: how the space is held, supported, and guided
- Is there one leader or multiple community managers?
- Facilitating is much much different than leading. If you’re a service provider creating your first paid community, your role is going to look and feel a lot different than how you engage with your 1:1 clients.
When we experience great facilitation we think it must be magic, that that person just must be a natural.
And how can we ever be a great facilitator?
We don’t have the natural skills!!!!
The good news: facilitation is a learned skill.
Some people are born natural listeners, some people have to work at that, but the art of pulling into the conversation, listening, connecting, and stepping back?
That takes practice.
Facilitation is more than just calling on people.
Your job as a facilitator is to be a generous host.
That doesn’t mean let the wild west happen.
You have to be ok with interrupting people, putting things back on track, and gently reframing conversations both online and in person.
How does that make you generous?
A well-led discussion with well-defined rules creates a fulfilling experience for everybody.
Understand what your facilitation style is and then make sure your members know what to expect from you.
For family dinner, the person who picks the restaurant kicks off the conversion. It’s an unspoken thing.
You don’t have to leave your community culture up to luck.
Great communities are designed and facilitated, not just tossed up into a Slack channel and crossing fingers and toes it will ‘work.’
Communities take work and dedication, and your members deserve that focus, especially if they’re paying you for access to the space.
Looking to launch a paid community for your business?
Trying to make one you already have even better?
The best communities are built with purpose.