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The Key to Community Success: Behavior Change


by Rachel Happe, Co-founder of The Community Roundtable

I often get asked whether a specific use case is a good candidate for a community approach but to me, I think about it a bit differently. A community approach is a strategic operational choice for achieving almost any organizational goal. For many processes, you have the choice to either execute it in a traditional, transactional way with a high level of control and predictability, for which you will pay a lot or you can choose a community approach which you will have less control over, will not be as predictable and, if you do it well, will engender buy-in and advocacy that will dramatically lower the cost structure of execution.

The management nut to wrap executives’ heads around is that building community is an organic process, not a transactional one. In organic processes, you have to invest to get to a tipping point but then the cost structure changes dramatically. In transactional processes you have more predictability, you pay as you go and the cost structure does not vary dramatically as you continue to execute. So making the decision to take a community approach is in essence a pay now or pay later decision. There are quite a few other influencing factors but at its core, that is the financial decision.

Because of this dynamic, communities (from an ROI perspective) look like failures for a while before they look like successes because you are investing value to get your community to a tipping point whereby it starts creating value on its own. The obvious question is, if this is the case how do you determine whether you are failing on your way to success or failing on your way to failure?

In the initial stages of building a community, the ability to change behavior is the primary success metric. If you can orchestrate behavior change, you can fundamentally shift the economics of a process. Typically this behavior change is also seen as valuable to community members and that generates a pull effect that grows the community and normalizes the new behavior.

The challenge is that inspiring behavior change is complex and not linear so it’s hard to know what’s required without experimenting. One of the things I have been doing over the past few years is experimenting with my own behavior and trying to crack the nut of getting myself to do things that I’ve had great intentions around, sometimes for years, but never fully habituated. This summer, as part of the summer programming in TheCR Network, we read The Power of Habit which articulated three things required for habit change:

  1. The mechanics of the habit change
  2. The faith that change is possible
  3. A community of peers that support the change

We’ve had members choose a habit that they want to start changing over the summer and we are using weekly happy hour chats and our online community to help reinforce and support each other. While this has benefits personally to our members, the goal is to help us all better understand the requirements of behavior change because as community owners, inspiring behavior change in others is the lock that opens community value.

The questions for every community manager are these:

  1. Do you know what behavior you are trying to change and what that looks like?
  2. Do you know if community members believe in the change for which you are looking?
  3. Have you set up your UX and community management practices to encourage and support the change?


TheCR Network is a membership network that provides strategic, tactical and professional development programming for community and social business leaders. The network enables members to connect and form lasting relationships with experts and peers as well as get access to vetted content.

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