The Harsh Realities of Running an Online Community - Tom RossThe Harsh Realities of Running an Online Community - Tom Ross

The Harsh Realities of Running an Online Community

Do you ever feel like every community builder out there is crushing it? They’re scaling like crazy. Their members love them. They’re running an endless series of incredible community events. It can be easy to feel inferior.

Throughout my career, I’ve been bullish about sharing the full truth of entrepreneurship and community building. I think it’s so important to go beyond the PR-approved highlight reel. Personally, whenever people that I look up to admit that they have the same struggles that I do, it feels like a massive relief.

The biggest community builders in the world are humans too. They burn out. They screw up. Things go unexpectedly wrong. Growth is not consistent and linear. They search for meaning. Struggle with imposter syndrome.

As I increasingly connect with successful community builders in this space, I always like our conversations to be real, raw and honest.

So, in that vein. Today I wanted to share some of the more negative or difficult aspects of building an online community. These are all things I have felt and continue to feel at various points:

It’s hard to separate the success of your community from your ego.

I struggle with this one big time. When things are going well, I feel invincible. But if we fall short of targets for a cohort. If we get a negative piece of feedback. If things feel like they’re stalling – I immediately feel like I’m the one failing.

It’s a dangerous road to go down, but sometimes it feels impossible to separate your mood, self-esteem and confidence from how your community is performing.

There is a constant pressure of acquisition needed to offset churn 

Every community experiences churn (a monthly loss of members – through either inactivity or cancellation).

This can feel really stressful. Essentially unless you continually top up your community with fresh members, it will slowly, inevitably succumb to the unstoppable force of entropy.

Even if your churn rate is extremely low, your numbers will gradually shift backwards, unless you’re actively replacing those lost members.

To me, this feels like I can never take my foot off the gas. I can never relax or become complacent. Acquisition is always on my mind, making it impossible to fully switch off.

You end up spinning a million different plates

Unless you’re lucky enough to employ a sizeable team, you will invariably end up spinning a lot of plates.

Task switching is stressful and has been proven to kill productivity. Yet it often feels necessary to keep on top of the many aspects of running your community.

Currently I’m producing content (like this article), handling community operations, dealing with automations/tech, managing members, organising and hosting community events, leading workshops, doing design work, writing surveys, and the list goes on…

My wife Maxine does a great job with many of the essential admin tasks that keep our community running, but there’s still an enormous number of tasks that have to fall to me. In time I will delegate many of them, but for now, we’re still early stage.

Overwhelm can strike at any moment

The other day, I had a full blown anxiety attack, the first in years. The sheer volume of projects looming over me finally caught up. I had to get my wife and mother-in-law round to talk me down. I wrote everything down on my office whiteboard and slowly worked through it with them.

Trying to keep so many projects and tasks in my head eventually bubbled over into complete panic and overwhelm.

Perpetual guilt over acquiring new members and ‘neglecting’ current members

Due to the constant need to acquire new members, you have to split your time between serving your current members and finding new members. There can be a real tension here. If I could, I would spend all day long doing nothing but serving our existing members, as I love helping them. However, it’s vital that I also focus on my marketing efforts to keep the community growing.

Whenever I’m focused on one group, I’ll feel guilty for temporarily neglecting the other.

There is a constant need to stir up activity

Even when all of our numbers are going in the right direction. Even when I see our engagement growing – I’m still constantly worried about if it all goes away. Early stage communities are fragile things. It’s easy to feel like any time people could get bored, or stop showing up. There is an ongoing pressure to keep generating engagement from members.

It’s difficult to take time off

It can feel difficult to take any real dedicated time off. Whether it’s a long-weekend, as we’ve just experienced for Easter, or a full vacation, when you shut down, you feel like you’re abandoning your ‘baby’.

Community can also really feel like you’re tying yourself into something forever.

A community is not some digital product that you can easily retire one day.

These are real people that rely on you and the platform you’ve built. There is a real sense of responsibility to continue showing up for them. That can be wonderful, but it can also detract from your own need for balance and downtime.

Things can go sideways at any moment

Even when you’re doing a great job, things can happen in your community or organisation that can blindside you. One of our recent guest experts in Learn.Community shared how some internal management decisions eventually led to a massive community backlash. It sounded incredibly emotionally difficult and something that was gruelling to navigate. What was fascinating is that from the outside, this same community had always felt ‘perfect’ to me, like I could never compete with their execution. Despite me feeling bad for their experience, it was equally reassuring to know that even the strongest communities will encounter struggles.

You can’t (and shouldn’t) control the narrative

Companies and brands are often used to controlling their own narrative. They curate their messaging, content and much of their public perception.

With community you can’t, and shouldn’t, control the narrative. If members have a problem, they’ll tell you. If there’s public uproar amongst your members, it can become a nightmare that unfolds in front of your eyes.

In the early days of Learn.Community I posted a ‘tough love’ announcement, in an attempt to push our early members to engage more. When several members publicly shared that my message made them feel guilty, and that they felt I’d mishandled things, it hurt. I knew they were right, and I learned a lot from the experience. However, it also taught me that community is a place where everybody can voice how they’re feeling. That’s very different than a social media page. You need to give space for your members to air their ideas, even if it’s difficult to hear.

Community members will demand your time

One of our Learn.Community members had been receiving an endless influx of private messages from members of her community, to the point it was overwhelming her. Despite there never being a promise of her one-to-one time, members expected that of her. This can be really difficult to manage. You want to show up for your members, but you can’t do so in an unsustainable, or unscalable way.

Start a community with your eyes open

Ultimately, I love running online communities. They’re fulfilling, fun and I could easily write a long post on the benefits. However, posts like this are important, so that you start your community with realistic expectations. It’s also important to dispel the myth that any community builder has everything running smoothly the whole time. We’re all just figuring this out as we go. What’s important is that we give ourselves some self compassion and empathy along the way.

Join our private community for community builders

Connect with like-minded community builders and make real progress with your online community. Learn.Community offers an active forum, weekly workshops and a complete learning pathway.

Learn more about Learn.Community

Join the discussion!

Get my ultimate guide To niching

Thank you for subscribing!