January 14, 2022
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The Problems That We Try to Solve With Community

We, in the media, love to glom onto new ideas and run with them irrespective of if it actually makes sense. A big example of that is the concept of community. Brian Morrisey over at The Rebooting in his sum-up of 2021 did a nice job explaining how overhyped the concept of community really is:

I plead guilty. True communities are incredibly valuable for those able to put themselves in the middle of them. But most claiming a community – or calling their subscription a membership – are just putting lipstick on a pig. My test of whether you have a community is whether the people in your audience want to connect with each other because that brand represents a point of view. Most communities are audiences.

Brian is right about all of this. And I am guilty of it to some extent. I call all of you premium members, not subscribers. I refer to this as a membership, not just a subscription. I feel okay calling this a community because there is a place for people to connect with each other (join the AMO Slack if you haven’t).

But I think what we’re looking at here are a few problems wrapped up in one and I think many publishers try to push community as the solution for it. In reality, though, that’s just not the case and we need to call things what they are.

Let’s break into the problems…

Fear of asking for money

The first thing—and Brian calling it lipstick on a pig is spot on—is this attempt to sanitize the fact that we are, in effect, trying to get people to pay us for our content. There is no way to spin it. Each of you has paid to receive A Media Operator, in big part because you want what I create.

I find many media companies pushing this “membership” as trying to minimize the financial aspect of the relationship when in many respects, it is entirely financial. We do not balk when other companies charge for products, but as media operators, we feel uncomfortable with it. The slogan “content wants to be free” has rotted our brains to the point that we feel this desire to mask what we are doing: running businesses.

But whether you call it membership or call it a subscription, the reality is, you are trading your content for dollars. Even if you give a sweet tote bag, that’s just part of the transaction. Used car dealers give you a car freshener; we give you a tote bag.

We need to get over our fear of asking for money and many publishers have done incredibly well with this over the past couple of years. So well, in fact, that there are now media executives concerned that we’re doing too well with subscriptions. You can’t win.

Suffice it to say, this bizarre fear of asking for money needs to stop.

We believe audience isn’t enough

With all this talk about DAOs, Web3, etc., much of which is built on this theory that they’re community projects, some publishers now might feel that an audience isn’t enough. It’s as if creating great content that serves a purpose, acquiring an audience with it, and then monetizing appropriately means there’s a problem.

But this is the wrong way to think about it. Your local car wash doesn’t have an existential crisis just because it can’t be more to you than just a place to get your car washed. Honestly, even your bar doesn’t really care about that. Both of these places just hope you’ll show up, think the service is worthwhile, pay, and then move on.

Audience is enough, traffic isn’t. An audience—especially one that you can email—is enough. If you have a legitimate audience that depends on what you are writing, it’s enough. Advertisers will pay for that and people will pay for that. Content has value.

One-way communication

Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the aggressive rise of the creator. Many reporters and content creators were bolting from media companies to go solo, they were seeing incredible success, and people were talking about how “amazing the communities were.”

But what these people were calling communities was actually just creators responding to readers, something most media companies simply do not do. In my piece about what publishers could learn about community from OnlyFans, I wrote:

On OnlyFans, which is currently photos and VOD, users can leave comments on each piece of content. The most successful models reply. Recall the quote above: people are paying to feel acknowledged. There are plenty of places to get this sort of content online for free. Yet, this is the only place that a user can go to interact with that specific individual. And often times, a single reply can keep a user engaged for a long time.

This is one of the big reasons that newsletters have become such a successful business. It’s not just me pushing information to you, but there is an opportunity for you to reply. Suddenly, we have a separate email thread going. But that’s easy when the medium of distribution is a primary communication channel. Email is built for discourse, so I fully expect people to reply when I send them a newsletter.

How can we expect to have a community if we simply push information to readers and never actually hear what they have to say? “But we used to have comments sections,” some might say. It’s true, but how much time were the writers or reporters spending in those sections?

Too often, we just publish a story and move onto the next one, forgetting that people might have follow up questions. It’s why I like when people respond to my newsletter. I don’t always respond—I need to get better at that—but it also doesn’t just go into the ether. I read them and sometimes they wind up in newsletters.

Community requires two-way communication to start. If you can’t even do that, just give up on community entirely.

People talking to each other

But even if you have two-way communication, it’s still a very weak community. While it’s better than a lot of the big media companies are doing, it’s still not a true community—at least in the way that many people think when hearing community.

The real secret to a communtiy is in getting people talking to each other. Before I left Substack and went on my own stack, I wrote this piece about community. This part is worth exploring:

Nucleus: The content that you create. At A Media Operator, that’s the essays that I write about media businesses.

Layer One: The access readers have to me. People reply to my essays all the time and I try to reply to every single email. That access has built a stronger relationship.

Layer Two: The access readers have to each other. A Media Operator doesn’t really have this yet. I offer comments, but by and large, people don’t feel inclined to participate here. I’ll have to continue figuring out the right way to build this.

Layer two is what we’re really talking about when we talk about community. It’s a place where people that are first attracted to you, the individual or media company, can then be engaged by others who were also first attracted to you. This is where the magic can really happen.

For some, this is an online space. A lot of the Discords that have popped up around specific NFTs and DAOs are communities that were brought together because of a common nucleus, but might stick around because of a connection to each other. There’s a reason crypto is so tribal; people become connected with each other over a common thing and feel a sort of bond.

But communities can be other things as well. Part of the reason I am such a big fan of events is that they are snapshot communities. You bring people together because there is hopefully great content, but what people really remember is the people they met while there. As the saying goes, “maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way.”

In the AMO Slack channel (my attempt at a community), an interesting conversation was started about community. Jacob Corley of Digital Wildcatters said this:

Over the years, we’ve tried Slack groups, etc – none of those seems to really stick for us. We finally went to the community and asked them what they wanted. What they wanted was to connect with their peers in the community 24/7. Our app, Collide, was born. It was an MVP to test the thesis and we onboarded users steadily with zero promotion. Now that we’ve proven this is the way – we’re investing in version 2.0.

His readers told him what they wanted: a way to connect with other people. He was able to step into the middle of that with the app and that is really valuable.

If you’re not going to foster connections between your audience, then you’re not really building a community. But let me just say this as loudly as possible: that’s okay. While I believe we can do a better job of creating two-way communication, we don’t need to be connectors. There’s legitimate value in just creating exceptional content for your audience.

But if you do want to build a community—or if you already call what you’re doing a community—really figure out how to connect. There is value there too.

Thanks for reading today’s newsletter. If you have thoughts, please hit reply and let me know. Or, join the community and sign up for the AMO Slack channel. Many other members share their thoughts and I hear the DMs are the best part.

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