How to Tell Whether You’re Building Community—or Just Doing a Transaction

Incentives and services can bring people in the door, but they can threaten the long-term stability of the community you’ve built. Here’s what the head of a for-profit community platform suggests for striking a balance.

Associations hope to grow their membership and strengthen their bottom line. But that’s not all they exist to do.

As nonprofits, their missions are intended to serve a broader group of people. Financial success can help serve that mission, making it a key performance indicator worthy of focus. But if the transactional nature of an association’s business endeavors takes precedence over building a strong community, it can threaten both.

For-profit communities, which face more direct ROI requirements, also have to deal with these issues—so associations can learn by watching how they balance community and commerce. David Spinks, the founder of CMX, an online platform for community managers owned by the virtual event platform Bevy, says that for-profit communities often lean toward transactional interactions just by nature of needing to support themselves.

“I think that all communities ultimately have to figure out how to become financially sustainable,” he says.

Spinks, the author of the book The Business of Belonging, adds that communities of all kinds need to be built with a return on investment in mind—even within associations.

“The key learning that community teams at for-profit organizations can teach us is that there are countless ways to build community,” says Spinks, who also serves as Bevy’s vice president of community. “But if it doesn’t ultimately drive a return for the organization, then it’s going to struggle to justify getting more buy-in and budget.”

As a result, he says, building community around revenue growth can strengthen a community over time. But just because community and revenue can directly influence one another doesn’t mean you should simply prioritize making money, he adds.

“It’s not about choosing profit over people,” he says. “It’s about finding the right balance.”

Take Care With Incentives

It’s often said that the difference between subscription services and membership-based services is the approach to incentives and discounts. For example, think of how services such as Netflix and Disney+ handle subscriber acquisition, and the churn challenges they face when those offerings don’t look so hot anymore.

This issue applies to communities as well. Community organizers might try to push potential members through the door by offering a one-off incentive in exchange for joining the organization. This can set up incentives—rather than the rewards of being part of the community—as the main benefit.

Spinks suggests that how an association frames incentives is important.

“It’s a subtle but important difference between saying, ‘If you do this, you’ll get that’ and ‘As a thank you for doing this, we’re giving you that,’” he says. “Use incentives as a form of gratitude rather than the core motivation that moves people to participate.”

Consider the Value Proposition

When people come to your community, do they get value from it? Or are they likelier to feel like it’s extracting value from them?

Without a clear value proposition, it can turn even the most community-minded endeavor into work. For example, volunteer opportunities can be a handy melange of skill development, goodwill, and community-building—or they can simply be uncompensated labor.

“There’s a fine line between empowering volunteers and taking advantage of someone’s time,” Spinks says.

That might mean focusing on mutually beneficial approaches to community, such as mentoring programs. A one-sided transaction, however, isn’t always antithetical to community-building. Spinks cites the example of tech support forums, which are not intended to actively build togetherness but provide community support in another way.

“The significant majority of people are just there to get answers to their questions, not to form relationships,” he says. “So in that case, it’s about getting them the right answer to their question as efficiently as possible, rather than driving more social interaction.”

It’s about knowing how people get their value from a given community, and what the purpose of that community is.

Find Your Heroes

Of course, an incentive too many can eventually dampen engagement within any community, as people choose not to stick around because they already received their incentive—and don’t see enough value in the community surrounding it.

If that seems like a problem for your organization, Spinks says, it’s important to take a back-to-basics approach, led by your strongest community members.

“Identify the people in the community who are interested in something more than the transactional value of the community and focus on building community amongst them,” he says. “It might be a small group of people who are the most engaged in the community. Organize special events for them. Bring them together in intimate groups. Deepen the sense of community at the core of your community, and that culture and tone will spread throughout the rest of the network.”

With the right touch, this micro-community might just push you out of the trap of transactional relationships.


(oatawa/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!