— Insights and takeaways from a 2-day conference all about communities and their place in businesses today —
In August of 2022, a community design client of mine sent me the link to an upcoming conference saying “HEY! I think you’d really like this. Maybe go?”
CMX Summit? Presented by Bevy???
I’d never heard of CMX before, or Bevy for that matter. But I took one look at the landing page and was like “YUP OK.”
A conference for community designers, managers, and moderators? Yes, please. These are my people!
Also, it was in the Bay Area in California, so, um, why not????
When I got there, I quickly realized I worked in a slightly different industry than almost all of the other attendees (at least the ones I met).
They worked in communities of product.
(companies like Microsoft who have an online community for users and customer support. Or others like Zendesk who has a community for folks who use their tool to find cool tricks, support, and new ideas)
I work pretty exclusively in communities of practice.
(spaces where folks aren’t centered around a product but on their own development, sharing ideas, getting vulnerable, and supporting each other. Think masterminds, group coaching programs, and the like)
Differences aside, I learned a lot at CMX.
The big hits?
- what is community-led growth and how communities can lead to new business
- how to create more meaningful gatherings
- when unintentional over-exclusion becomes a problem and what to do about it
- what are user-groups and how to step back and let the community take the wheel (without totally panicking)
Ready to read on?
**these are notes plus a heavy dose of my own thoughts on the ideas shared at CMX. I do my best to quote and give credit where I can! Please let me know if I missed anyone, fellow CMX attendees who may be reading this
What I learned at CMX Summit: 2022
“Community is your first defensible asset.” – Derek Andersen
A lot of the topics this year were centered around analytics to prove the business case for investing in community. The opening remarks by Derek, CEO of Bevy, were focused on exactly this.
When a market fluctuates, when society shifts, your community is your moat surrounding you. They are your first buffer from the storm.
It reminded me of all the times I’ve been in a community when shit hits the fan (here’s looking at you, pandemic) and because of that community my business not only survived but thrived. We helped each other. We referred each other to jobs. We held each other over Zoom while we cried.
For brand companies, a community member is worth loads more than a social media follower. A community member is integrated into your world, not just a participant in it. Want to have stellar retention? Community. Want to be one step ahead of the competition? Community. Want to be the first in your industry at customer support? Community.
Integration, not participation.
“Community leads to new business” – Linda Lian
All that good integration I mentioned above?
Here’s the business case for putting so much effort into making it happen: more revenue.
Community-led growth (CLG) is the next horizon for company growth and development in the tech world. Instead of product-led growth (a business methodology in which user acquisition, expansion, conversion, and retention are all driven primarily by the product itself – source), CLG is driven by the community engaged in the product.
A strong brand community is your:
- product research department
- What are your members asking for the most? What new feature should you actually focus on, not what you want to focus on?
- content creation strategist
- Pulling content ideas straight from your community makes your content across all channels more relevant and contextual.
- customer support team
- Members help other members work out kinks, hacks, and processes within your product, taking a big load off your in-house support team.
That’s a pretty strong business case if I ever saw one.
“Community is invented and shaped” – Priya Parker
Ok, not gonna lie. The immediate reaction of “YES I’LL GO TO THIS CONFERENCE” was because Priya Parker was the keynote speaker.
I give her book, The Art Of Gathering, as a gift to all my Community Campers. It’s a brilliant masterclass in how to create, hold, and host great gatherings.
Anyway…on to the show…
Community doesn’t just happen magically. I say this all the time!
But Priya really drove the point home.
Community is something constantly being created, invented, and shifted.
Gathering is a mechanism that can shape how people engage in a community.
I didn’t write fast enough to grab her exact definition of ‘gathering,’ but it’s more or less this:
“A gathering is when a group of people comes together under a set purpose, guidelines, goals, and expectations.”
I personally don’t think community leaders use the power of gathering enough or with enough care. In fact, the whole point of Community Camp is to help folks learn how to create meaningful experiences within their community.
Gatherings, from dinner parties to Zoom networking events to webinars and more, require thought and care.
So where does one start?
First ask: what is the need here?
Priya gave the example of a dinner party. The person who wanted to throw a party was an exhausted mom who just wanted to feel like an adult again without her kid being the main topic of conversation. She had other interests and hobbies, dang it!
So she created the “Exhausted Moms” party and set rules to it.
You’re not allowed to talk about your kid, and if you do you have to take a shot
One rule to rule them all.
That one rule created the gathering she actually needed.
If she had just thrown a dinner party with her friends who were also moms, the entire conversation would have ended up being about their kids.
Break from what expected and create what’s actually needed.
One panel also talked all about how to make events awesome, and their insights fit perfectly in this section.
You have to give yourself permission to be creative to meet the NOW needs.
Sure, we all create event calendars for our communities, but sometimes those need to be thrown right out the window because it’s no longer what your community needs NOW.
And remember, when you’re facilitating an event, you should echo and amplify, not control and manage.
Let people geek out!
Exclusivity as inclusion
Your community is not for everyone.
Your community will not be safe for everyone.
Your community cannot be for everyone.
Community, by definition, creates an in and an out group.
What’s important is understanding who your community is for.
But inclusion is more than just saying “our community is for x!” You have to think about intersectionality.
Are you considering all intersectionalities of the folks inside your community?
For example, is your community for women? Ok, for all women? What about women of color? Poor? Wealthy? Able-bodied? Neuro-divergent? English-speaking? Are you trans-inclusive? (P.S. if you have a community for women you fricking better be including trans women ok Anna rage over)
Unintentional exclusion happens all the time in communities, and it usually begins with how you answer the question: who is this for?
You have to dive deeper than just the surface level. Who is this really for? Can you hold space for everyone’s different experiences? And if you are building a more inclusive space, does your marketing reflect that?
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve said no to community invitations because nowhere in any of their marketing, outreach, or current membership (if that’s public) do I see any mention of trans or queer-specific inclusion. Why do I say no? Because I’m guessing, based on SO MANY past experiences, that I’d be the only one in the room.
And being the only one in the room would devolve into two scenarios:
- none of the conversations are really relevant to me
- or everyone asks me questions about my own personal identity so they can ‘understand it better.’
If you want to build a more inclusive space, dive deeper into the question “who’s it for” and then go reflect your answer in your marketing and materials.
But note! There is such a thing as over-inclusion. Some folks just frankly shouldn’t be in spaces.
Give up control, it’ll be ok
So far, all this advice has been pretty controlling, hasn’t it?
Define the space!
Define who it’s for and protect those boundaries!
Shape the community into something awesome!
This next bit is all about letting go. Once you’ve created strong boundaries around your community and created enough precedence, you can start letting go.
User groups are a powerful tool for any community leader.
A user group is when you hand over control as a moderator and let the community create their own, smaller, off-shoot groups. A community within a community, per se.
This lets members shape their own experience within your community (and create even more integration and loyalty to your space). It can also create smaller group moments, which are incredibly important for engagement, especially in larger communities.
User groups can be really scary for community managers, as you can’t control what happens inside those smaller spaces. What if something bad happens? What if they’re just talking shit about you? What if the quality of the conversations totally tank and make members leave the entire community because of it?
It’s totally fair to have these fears. And sure, maybe some of them will happen. But you can help craft spaces you’re not moderating through great design, communication, and training.
Zendesk built an entire user-group program. They created training materials, brand assets, and maintain a very strong group-leader connection. While they’re not in every room, they know that the quality, the brand, and the essence of the community is strong within those user groups.
So give up control! Show your members how to run their own side focus groups, give them materials, and check in with them.
The benefits greatly outweigh the costs in almost every scenario.
“Do the unscalable as long as possible.” – Molly Kipnis
This is quite possibly my most favorite quote of the whole dang conference.
Not just because it’s the best piece of advice for any community, but for any business.
We are so obsessed with GROWTH! SCALE! 10X-ING OUR REVENUE! that we don’t stop to consider what fast growth actually means for our overall business longevity.
For community building, the unscalable is the most important when you’re starting to build a new space.
- Do direct, personal reach outs to welcome every single member. One person talked about even though they had a huge influx of new members after an event they held, they still reached out privately to each and every one. All 400 of them. You can’t build an amazing onboarding experience if you don’t understand why people are onboarding in the first place.
- Send personal follow-ups after events to gather feedback. You can use a form, yes! But invite them to take the survey personally. It may take a lot of work, but you won’t get as quality of answers if folks don’t feel uniquely special. And you can’t build amazing events for your specific community if you don’t know what people actually need (see above!).
- Host office hours to give people direct access to you as the leader/head manager of the space. It might be exhausting at first, but folks want to feel like they are talking to the decision maker. You can’t design a better experience if you’re not talking to the people inside that experience.
Do the unscalable as long as possible.
If you take anything away from this whole blog post recap, take that away with you.
Bonus thoughts from conversations
My most important takeaway from side conversations in the hallways at CMX is this: practice how to have good conversations.
- Do you listen?
- Do you ask follow-up questions?
- Or do you just jump in and answer with your own story, disregarding what the other person shared?
- How do you engage with other people?
- What is the purpose of the conversation you’re having?
I had so many great conversations at CMX and it’s because we didn’t have to talk about what we do—we all work in community management. We got to go deeper, talk about how we got into community in the first place, and have a rolling debate on whether winter is indeed the best season of them all (it is I shall fight you on it).
When I got back from the conference I had folks ask me if I met any potential new clients or campers for Community Camp.
My honest answer?
I have no idea.
I didn’t go to the conference to drum up business.
I went to meet amazing people and get inspired.
From my years in business, I’ve learned that the best clients come from the most unexpected connections.
Converse and connect first.
Worry about business later.