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Open conversation isn't attracting more members like you think

Now that we’ve hopefully clear on how an audience is not a community, let’s assume that you have a community. And you also have an audience filled with people you engage with. I’d like to explore some methods for turning your audience members into community members and some of the common mistakes I see clients make.

I consider there to be three pillars for community programming: events, content and conversation. The number one mistake that I see clients make is they want to use conversation as their primary mechanism for converting their audience members into community members. I call it the conversation magnet trap.


The conversation magnet trap: using your community conversation as a lead magnet.

The thought goes: “Wow, look at how awesome this conversation/chat space is and how much value people are getting! We should make this open so people can see how awesome it is and want to join our private community. Let’s break the conversation into two places, then we’ll show them this good conversation for free, but this great conversation will be only for members.”

It’s a good idea on paper, but in execution it rarely works.

Problem #1: Temptation to promote

First, you have to recognize that what you are trying to do here is marketing, not community-building. These two things can support each other, but in this scenario they end up competing with one another.

Because of its purpose to drive new members into your private conversation space, your public conversation space will start to feel more promotional than conversational. This turns it into something totally different than the “real” community conversation space where members are getting the value. So it completely misses the original intention, which was to entice members to join because of the value they see happening.


Now you ask: “Well, what if we commit to zero promotion or marketing from us in the public channel?”

Problem #2: More free members ≠ more value

The problem with the conversation magnet trap is you assume the value of the conversation space will not change if we invite non-participating members to be able to view the conversation. But the value of a community comes from the participation of its members and the more you invite non-participating members (what I call lurkers) to observe, the more risky it is for real collaboration to occur.


Problem #3: Less broadcasting, more collaborating

And finally, this logic is still trying to treat community members like an audience . The logic goes: “If we open this space up so more people can see it, our community members can broadcast their conversation or message to more people.”

Community isn’t about broadcasting, it’s about crowdsourcing, which happens best when we all belong to a niched community with a specific social contract in place. You want to avoid conditioning your community members to treat your community space like a place where they can broadcast to an audience.

What really happens when you water down your chat and conversation spaces with members who have no skin in the game is the value of the space decreases. You end up relying heavily on a few leaders in the community to pull a lot of weight in the free conversation spaces with little return for them.

What often ends up happening in a freemium model is you build and manage two separate communities. Your free community (which probably isn’t a community, but just a marketing channel disguised as community) and then your *real paid or customer community.

My professional advice is this: keep it simple and keep conversations gated and only accessible to members of your community.

Trust me, I’m all about good marketing, but the conversation pillar is not a great place to try to implement your marketing tactics. There are other ways.

Try This Instead

Make your life easier and your community simpler by focusing on leveraging the other two pillars of your community programming to turn your audience into community members: content and events.

Broadcast Content created from within your community

Likely, you are already using this pillar to help your audience members become community-members, but I have a couple of recommendations. I define content as long-standing resources, stories, or past events. Recycling content from your community into your audience is low-hanging fruit, but partnering with your all-star community-members to refine and package what they are creating in your community to share with your audience is *chefs kiss*. Some other ideas for how to use content to convert audience members to community members:

  • Did a member hit a milestone in your community? Do a write-up and share it with your following.

  • Was there a thread that turned into an event or further collaboration? Write up a reflection on the experience and share it.

  • Share survey results from your community with your social media following

  • Build in public. Have a place where you reflect on the journey and changes and pivots and mistakes made building your community somewhere publicly on social media.

Leverage Public Events

Events are arguably one of the most difficult community programs, but they are also one of the most rewarding. If your events suck, you will find out immediately. People won’t come. You will be forced to innovate, make them better, and communicate their value more clearly. There are a few more fool-proof tactics than events. Events keep you on your toes and most importantly, they keep you closely connected with the people you hope to serve.


Secondly, in all the ways we hoped that a glimpse of conversation would entice people to join the community, a channel pales in comparison to what you can understand about a community when you actually meet people online or IRL. Events help you communicate the culture, values, and tone of your community to prospective members.

Finally, events keep member roles crystal clear. This drives me NUTS about the Conversation Magnet Trap. If I’m sharing my thoughts, ideas, and creativity here in a community I am invested in and you just get the same access to our collective collaboration into perpetuity without any agreement on how you will also show up here, something is wrong.


At an event, on the other hand, you are 1) forced to more clearly articulate who that event is for and what value they will get from it, and 2) there is an agreement on how to show up. Put simply, if you literally don’t show up, you literally don’t get the value, it’s that simple.

In conversation it’s possible to “not show up” (read: lurk), but still get all the benefit. It’s harder to hide in events.


A practical note about community platforms


It’s worth sharing how this connects with the two platforms I use the most: Heartbeat and Circle (these are affiliate links). Clients who fall into the Conversation Magnet Trap are usually most excited about Circle’s ability to make conversation spaces public. Which used to make my head hurt, now I can just send them this article.


On the other hand, being able to make Circle’s card-style spaces public is a phenomenal way to share content that can help convert your audience.


But the biggest reason someone would choose Heartbeat over Circle is if they want to host public events in their community. Circle does not allow you to host public events (even though their settings make you think they can). Heartbeat, on the other hand cannot make conversation or content public, but you can make events public and invite non-members to an event even if they don’t have an account with your community.



So in short, if you are primarily going to use longstanding content as a lead magnet instead of conversations, Circle is your best bet. If you see events as the best lead magnet instead of conversations, go with Heartbeat. But you can read more about the comparison between these two all-in-one platforms, Heartbeat and Circle here.

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