Building for Believers
The Key to Finding Community-Member-Fit
If you’ve been following me for some time, or have read my book, you’re familiar with the Commitment Curve.
Originally created by Conner and Patterson (1982) for the purpose of modeling organizational change, it’s a tool I use regularly to help companies map out their community member journeys.
The idea is simple: over time, as a member’s commitment goes up, they make larger contributions to the community.
A generic community commitment curve looks like this:
I was introduced to the Commitment Curve by my friend and mentor Douglas Atkin. He led community at Meetup and Airbnb, and he used the commitment curve to illustrate, "what asks to make, when.”
His advice was that you, “…must always lower the barrier to entry with low barrier asks and gradually ramp people up the commitment curve with incrementally harder asks that get incrementally more commitment, and generate incrementally more reward.”
At Meetup, that meant not immediately asking a new member to host a meetup. First, ask them to read a blog post and then attend an event.
At Airbnb, that meant not asking a new member to immediately post a listing. First, ask them to watch a video about how Airbnb works and then try booking a stay.
The psychology behind this is that people are more likely to say yes to your ask if they’ve already said yes to your smaller asks.
Makes sense. Don’t ask for marriage on the first date. Start slow.
But here’s the thing…
This advice only applies if you’re working on growing an established community. If you’re starting a community from scratch, and still seeking Community-Member-Fit, you need to do the exact opposite.
You need to start with people who are already highly committed.
Refresher: Community-Member-Fit (which I’ll refer to as CMF) is the point at which members are consistently providing meaningful value to each other without being asked.
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Don’t Copy Established Communities
When Douglas created these commitment curves, Meetup and AirBnB were already established ecosystems. They were attracting a lot of new members.
These new members needed time and education before they’d be comfortable contributing at the level of hosting an event or posting an apartment listing.
CMF existed and Douglas was focused on scale.
But if you’re starting a new community, and you focus on scale too soon, you’ll kill your community before it gets started.
You’ll spend a ton of energy supporting members at the early stages of the commitment curve before you even know if there’s value waiting for them when they get to the top.
Don’t copy how an established community works today. Copy how it started.
Both Meetup and Airbnb started by focusing on actions at the top of the commitment curve and they started with the biggest believers in the world: themselves.
The Meetup founders started by playing a numbers game. They posted thousands of meetups and if one got enough interest, they would actually host it. If a meetup worked, they would hand it off to someone who raised their hand to become the organizer. They also created their own event (NY Tech Meetup) to prove the model.
The Airbnb founders offered air mattresses in their apartment to designers who were coming into town for a conference. Hotel rooms would be sold out and people would need a place to stay. Those people were desperate, so they didn’t need much convincing.
To find CMF, start with the people who need little convincing. Ideally, they’re already trying, unsuccessfully, to do the thing that your community offers. Your only hurdle should be convincing them to do it with you.
This is the opposite of what most do when starting a community. They try to convert people all the way through the commitment curve on day one. They write blog posts, launch newsletters, post on social media, and try all kinds of tactics to reach a broad set of potential members.
You don’t need 1,000 people to start a community. You need 10 true believers.
Start at the Top of the Curve
Let’s say you’re starting an online community for car mechanics.
One of your biggest challenges will be that 95% of mechanics may not be regular users of online communities. So don’t start by recruiting all mechanics. Start by recruiting the 5% of mechanics who are already comfortable using online communities.
You have a much better chance of successfully engaging that 5%. Other mechanics will be more motivated to get over the hurdle of joining an online community for the first time if they see their peers participating and getting value.
If you want people to self-organize events, find the people who are already trying to organize events in that space. Not the huge conference organizer who’s already successful. Find the small organizers who still need your help.
If you want to launch a forum, recruit people who are already actively creating content about that topic. Not the big influencers. They don’t have time. Find the people who have the motivation, but who haven’t been successful yet. They need your help.
Yelp is another great example of a company that built for believers.
The concept of regular people writing a review of a restaurant online would have sounded really ridiculous to most people at the time. But Yelp found that there was a persona they could focus on to get the platform going. They were known as “Tastemakers”.
The Tastemaker was the person who loved to be the first to know about new restaurant openings and events. They loved to give their friends recommendations for places to go. They saw themselves as curators.
These people made for great initial users for Yelp because they already believed in the value of curating and reviewing restaurants. Yelp didn’t have to convince them it was important, they just had to convince them to do it on Yelp.
Nish Nadaraja, who led community for Yelp in those early days, created a program called the Yelp Elite. They would invite these Tastemakers to exclusive events, give them first access to new restaurants, and reward them in a way that aligned with their existing motivations.
The Yelp Elite would end up being responsible for a significant majority of the reviews published on Yelp.
The key, when starting a new community, is to focus on finding CMF for a small group of believers.
Only after you’ve proven the model should you start moving lower down the curve and recruit people who need more time and support to become true believers.
Map out a community commitment curve.
Identify the actions at the top of the curve that will create meaningful value for other members.
Find the “believers” who are already trying to take those actions and convince them to try it in your community (hint: the first contributor is probably YOU)
Once you’ve found Community-Member-Fit at the top of the curve, then start moving down the curve and onboarding members who will need more convincing.
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That’s all for this week!
I just got back from weekend upstate in New Paltz, a place I knew existed but never visited. It’s a new favorite. Epic waterfalls, beautiful hikes, and really good food.
It’s getting cold here in NY and the trees are almost done ditching their leaves.
I’m not a winter person. I find it depressing and uncomfortable. Now that I’m back on the east coast, I’m trying to reframe how I think about this season as a time to slow down and reflect. I’ll be doing a lot of meditation and journaling in the coming months. This has been a year filled with transition and deconstruction. Next year feels like it will be a time of reconstruction, putting all the pieces back together to form something new.
Thanks for reading and for all your comments and replies. I read every one and love hearing from you.
P.S. I currently have space to take on one more consulting client. I work with just a few companies at a time to help them launch and scale thriving communities. If you’d like to chat, drop me a reply.
This is such a phenomenal post David. Your clients are lucky to work with you!
Such an amazing piece of knowledge for me. Thank you for sharing.