One of the questions I get asked most about running Women in Tech SEO is: "What are some of your learnings from building and growing the community?"
I've been asked this question on webinars, podcasts and sometimes in 1-1 Twitter DMs by others who are running their own community or planning on launching one. I tend to give different answers each time, usually depending on how my day is going.
The honest answer is that I've never sat down to properly reflect on what I've learned from building a community. I'm usually jumping from one initiative to the other, thinking about the next project to launch and prioritising which projects should launch first.
As we're wrapping up another year, and as this is a question I get asked a lot, I thought it would be best to sit down and properly reflect on it. So here I am, typing out the words as they come to my mind.
Something I always admit out loud is that I started Women in Tech SEO back in May 2019 for purely selfish reasons. I was struggling to stay motivated in the industry and I couldn't find a safe space to ask questions, seek advice or feel represented. So I started my own group, and just like that, hundreds of women related to the sentiment and joined. 30 months later, and there's over 4,000 of us and the group continues to grow.
If you're running a community or thinking of starting one: then all, some (or none!) of these learnings might be helpful for you. Every community is unique in its own way and every community is run differently. Having said that, I’ll try to keep my learnings as general as possible so that they can help others; but I'll probably be sharing specific examples from my community.
With this caveat, here are some of my learnings:
1) Set your community values and rules from the very start
The fact that I’m starting out with this learning probably says a lot about the kind of person I am. But that’s okay, because I don’t think Women in Tech SEO would’ve grown to the extent it did if it wasn’t for the values and rules that I put together in our very first month.
It’s difficult to know the kind of community you want to become and grow into without having values from the beginning, ones that you share with your members and ask for their feedback on how they resonate with them.
Our WTS values are:
- To be kind
- To be helpful
- To be respectful
- To be a safe and judgement-free community
Those haven’t changed since our first month. To this day, if someone doesn’t exhibit these values, they’re removed from our group.
As for rules, they’re just a more detailed way of assessing your values. And those can definitely change over time. For example, a rule that I added a year after launching the community was: There's no such thing as a stupid question.
The reason I added this rule is that lots of questions being added to the group started by apologising that the question was stupid/basic/simple. It didn’t feel right, our community is meant to be a safe judgement-free group so why does one need to apologise or caveat their question?
Every time someone posts a question with this caveat, I always step in and remind them of our community rule. The beautiful thing is I don’t need to anymore, because other members jump in and do it on my behalf.
Without values and rules, it’s going to be difficult to moderate your community and group. It’s also important for YOU as the founder and main moderator to always live by these values and rules. Over time, members automatically exhibit these values and rules as well.
2) Be open to feedback but be decisive about next steps
Feedback is so important and you need to be open to it. You have a wonderful thriving community where you can learn more about what your members want more of and less of. Whether it’s feedback about the platform you use, about what they’d like to see more of or about how they interact with one another; this feedback helps shape your ideas on what you can focus your community on.
Having said that, as helpful as feedback is, you need to be very decisive about the next steps. At the end of the day, a community that you founded and are constantly growing is one that you know best. Members are always on the look out for a decisive strong leader, be open to feedback as a collective but it’s up to you to decide which processes to start, stop or change around.
3) You won't make everyone happy and that’s okay
With the above said, of course you won’t make everyone happy. People are different, they won’t necessarily agree with every decision you make. But that’s okay.
It’s not your job to make everyone happy, it’s your job to continue growing your community to be the healthy safe space that lives and breathes your values and rules.
It took me a while for me to accept that. Most of the time, I get wonderful messages of support, but every now and then, there’s that one message that might make me feel angry or upset. I’m human, of course that happens. But it’s important to remember that you’re not here to make everyone happy. Focus on your community as a collective.
4) Communities are about giving and taking
Something that took me a while to realise was the power of a community member giving and taking. And I decided to share my thoughts on it with the group as a mini-brain dump.
This is what I said:
Imagine having a group where people simply ask questions but no one answers them. That’s the recipe for a failed community. How can we ensure that we all do our part?
To be part of a thriving community, each one of us needs to put the conscious effort to give and take as equally as we possibly can.
As a group leader, it’s important to lead by example and to remind our members of these values. Over the past year, I’ve shared my thoughts on Giving & Taking in a number of different ways with the group. I also shared it through my thoughts on how we ask questions and answer questions as a collective:
These reminders help, they help existing members and new members and they’re pinned in our groups as announcements for new folks to see and read. Think about how your community members currently give and take and what you can do to balance it out even more.
5) The dilemma of paid versus free is never easy to figure out
I can’t begin to explain the number of times I’ve overthought this. I started Women in Tech SEO as a free community and until this day, it remains free. All our initiatives are free, the groups, the newsletter, the podcast, the workshops, the mentorship program, the hubs and more. The only initiative that has paid tickets is our annual conference, WTSFest.
Each community is different, some are paid from day 1, some change from a free to a paid model, some have both and others are always free.
As this is a passion project that I run as a side project next to my full-time job (and life!), I knew this wasn’t scalable. But the only reason I started looking for ways to fund it is that I wanted to start paying our speakers. My first call for sponsors was for WTSWorkshop where I vowed to pay our speakers for sharing their knowledge. I didn’t want to do that by charging our members for workshop tickets, instead, I did a call for sponsors and it was very successful. Other initiatives that have also helped over time were setting up things like our very own Buy Me a Coffee page.
There’s pros and cons to keeping a community free. The most important pro for me is keeping the community accessible. The second you start charging membership fees, you’re restricting who can join, even if the cost is low, not everyone on a global level can afford to pay a membership fee in British pounds. So just like that, you’ve raised a serious diversity and inclusion issue within your community members.
The con to having a free community is that members come and go, it’s free, it’s there, there isn’t that “I’ve paid for this so I need to make the most out of it” factor. You notice that with No Show RSVPs and with your matched mentors/mentees that go missing. It’s not common but it’s frustrating when it happens.
For now, the pros far outweigh the cons for me and through partnering up with sponsors, I can continue keeping our community free for our members. Think about what model works for you and your community, write out a list of pros and cons, get feedback from your members and make the right decision for the group.
6) Only partner up with those who share your values
This brings us to a very important point on partnership. If your community relies on sponsorship, then it’s important for you to partner up with those who share your values. Giving & Taking is definitely an element of that relationship too. You need to make sure that you work with sponsors who understand your community and the value you’re trying to share through it. It shouldn’t just be a monetary relationship.
You also need to enjoy working together, I’m going to give a shout out to the Sitebulb team here because they were the first team to make me realise that working with sponsors is meant to be fun. We’ve worked on lots of initiatives together, but for me, the relationship grew when I found myself emailing them for feedback about upcoming sponsorship opportunities. I’d literally reach out and ask: “Here’s what I’m thinking of charging sponsors for this initiative, what do you think?” and they’d give me their honest constructive opinion.
Make sure you’re partnering up with the right people and make sure there’s a respectful balanced relationship established from the start.
7) If something stops being fun, stop working on it
When you’re growing a community, especially one that’s a passion project and isn’t your full-time job - if something stops being fun, you need to reassess whether it's worth working on. I love working on Women in Tech SEO initiatives. Every time I have a new idea, or I’m about to launch a new initiative or I’m sharing an update with the community, whatever it might be, it gives me energy: positive and happy energy.
But every now and then, I find myself rethinking a project I’m working on and whether I want to continue working on it. The second this happens, my gut feeling tells me that this isn't something I should continue working on. There are different reasons why this could happen. The project doesn’t feel fulfilling, the initiative doesn’t feel useful, the people you’ve partnered up with are draining you, the list goes on.
Whatever it could be, you need to assess whether it’s worth continuing.
8) You can’t do it all on your own
Finally, the last learning I want to share is one I haven't been able to do myself yet. You can't do it all on your own. It’s so tricky when you start a community by yourself to have people join forces down the line. Confession: I’m jealous of communities where a group of founders built something together as a team. 30 months in, it feels too late for me to do that now. I’ve worked with some brilliant people on different projects but I always make a point to ensure that their work is paid for and they’re offering a service. That’s very different from co-running a community with someone.
I know it isn’t scalable, because at the end of the day, I am a single point of failure and that shouldn’t be the case. So here I am, full transparency, adding this to the end of my learnings list because I’m still trying to figure it out myself.
Having said that, your community members are a big part of why you never feel alone. I always reach out on a 1-1 basis to some brilliant active members, asking their advice and sharing thoughts. I also reach out to other community builders in our industry who can relate to some of my challenges. If you're still thinking of starting your own community, think about who you might want to start it with, because it can get quite lonely down the line.
That’s everything I could think of for now. If you’ve made it this far, then thank YOU, I hope you’ve learned something.
I’ll probably post this then think of 8 other learnings I should've shared instead. But as I said, these learnings change from day to day, and they’re very likely dependant on my mood and how I'm feeling. The important thing is we keep growing, learning and sharing together.
I’ll make more time to reflect on my learnings moving forward, it’s the best way for me to continue growing my community.