Photo by Cory Bouthillette on Unsplash

Last night I had the pleasure of being part of a beautiful panel discussion about community building with Kristin Hodgson from Meetup, Jillian Richardson from Joy List and Kara Cronin who runs community for theSkimm, moderated and organized by Marcos Salazar from Be Social Change.

The question came up why people join communities. And I shared a hypothesis with the group that I’m curious to test (and would love your feedback on): my feeling is that people join a community and show up for the first time for a whole range of reasons, usually some external reason, like they want to learn, they want to be inspired, they want to hear a certain person talk, they want to have an impact, they want to create something together. Some tangible reason.

But my hypothesis is that whatever reason x brought them there, it is often not the same reason that people come back for. People keep coming back for relationships, for belonging, for trust. In the long-term, genuine relationships have a much bigger pull than any other factor. Even a collective impact or learning.

Why don’t we just show up for relationships?

I’m always reminded of that at conferences. Conferences try to have fancy-sounding speakers or otherwise inspiring programming, because they will attract people. But in most feedback surveys from events that I have seen, the main value for people came from meeting other people and having quality conversations. People are constantly asking for more time to connect with each other, more breaks, more time to have longer, deeper discussions. And on the flip side of that, most presentations, content and panels at events are mediocre at best. Yet, ironically if the conference would be purely about meeting people and there were no speakers listed as headlines, would people actually show up? My gut tells me no.

Why is that? I don’t know. Here are some guesses – and I’d be grateful to hear your perspectives in the comments:

  • We need a reason to show up somewhere, because simply showing up for relationships might make us look desperate (even though we are of course all feeling that)
  • We are living in a world that’s so focused on making sure we have a return on our time and money all the time. So maybe we feel that simply going to an event to focus on relationships wouldn’t be worth our investment of time and resources. We want something tangible to point to and maybe relationships feel too intangible.
  • Maybe we feel that relationships are too long-term a return and that we need some shorter-term reason.
  • Making sure that the marketing of community doesn’t become the substance of the community

If this hypothesis were true, it had some important consequences for community design:

  • We have to make sure we find a strong reason to attract the right kind of people to show up
  • Yet we can’t get side-tracked and invest too much into that part of the community, rather we have to invest heavily into the relationship building, as that’s long-term the real meat.

Changes as community matures

My sense is that over time this effect becomes less potent. The longer the community has been around, the stronger its reputation for quality people, the better known its brand, the more willing people might be to join simply to build relationships with those peers.