You Have the Right to Make Money | A Case for Online Community Builders

I am an online community builder.  I help people make connections, I support local professionals and I am passionate about helping others learn how to do these things online.  It’s something I believe is a valuable service and, when done correctly, I believe it’s a service people, those who understand the core value of community, connections and relationships, are happy to pay for.

About two-and-a-half years ago, I created an online community for the local business professionals in Lakeland, Florida called the Lakeland Business Leaders.  As a member of the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce and a weekly leads group, I discovered an opportunity for the members of the networking group to reach more people than the 10-20 members who attended the leads group each week.  As it was, members would stand and give testimonials for other members.  Depending on how many were there that day, 10-15 people heard the message.  I suggested that we write reviews on Google Places pages, I mentioned the value of an online review that lasted and could be seen by the public.  Trouble was, not everyone had a Google account and not everyone had a business and not everyone had a Google Place page on which to write a review.  What about the non-traditional businesses?  The professional who worked for a big company and whose reviews might be lost on a corporate website?

Join people where they already are, don’t force them somewhere new.

It was my observation at that time that almost everyone in the group had a Facebook account and, on some level were familiar with how Facebook worked.  I asked why we didn’t have a group with which to communicate, and then I created one to help facilitate the communication within that particular group.  But this was not enough.  I knew, if we were going to bring real value to the members of the leads group, we needed to reach more people.  We needed to bring the community together in a bigger way.  A way that would allow the very segmented community of Lakeland to join together and bring their great ideas to a place where people would listen, respond, engage and give feedback.  I approached several people at the Chamber of Commerce, suggesting this would be a great way to build community for Lakeland.  I knew they had the best interests of the city at heart, but I also knew their business model was to serve only their members, and they did not have the skilled staff immediately available to begin this project. They encouraged me to Start – and so I did.

Lakeland is a city on the brink of greatness.

The group was free to anyone who believed, as I did (and still do), that Lakeland was a city on the threshold of something great.  You see, I believe everyone has an important part in a community – any community, big or small.  I don’t like to see people passed over because they lack the pedigree or last name required to be “someone” in a community.  I was “no one”, I knew how it felt to be an outsider in a community that seemed to exclude (or include) people based on where they went to school, what kind of car they drove, who their father or mother was (or was not).  It was a cold reality for the outsiders who were trying to survive in one of the most difficult economic declines in history.

Managing online communities takes a lot of time and dedication, maybe even a little craziness.

There’s a lot that goes into managing and moderating a group like this.  It’s a time investment most people would never consider, especially not for FREE.  But I believed it was important.  I welcomed everyone who joined with a personalized message – because I believe everyone is important and I personally am not a big fan of canned responses.  So, I went above and beyond because everyone mattered.  I asked questions to get people talking about themselves.  I made people feel comfortable.  I allowed myself to be laughed at and mocked for my idealistic dreams and I kept putting my heart and soul into the project.  I did this because I believe in Lakeland and I believe, with all my heart, that people are inherently good. I wanted to focus on the goodness in our community.  I wanted a place where people, no matter who they were, what “group” (Chamber, BNI, LDDA, DLP, CRA, Non-Profit, Leadership Organization, business, etc.) they represented, they could bring their information to the group and bring VALUE to their organization by getting the word out to a wider, broader audience.

This has not been easy.

At some point, I realized it was going to be necessary to charge people for the service I was providing.  It was a value that many people encouraged me to charge for.  They argued with me and cajoled me and supported me.  I was scared.  I was afraid it would defeat the purpose.  How could I charge people for this?  Well, it had to be done, because my time invested in the group was not paying the bills it was either charge, or shut down the group.  It was making a difference and the members of the group were benefiting – growing their businesses, generating solid leads, selling products and services, and most importantly, building real, genuine relationships, based on this community’s effort to focus on, well,  real, genuine relationships!  It was working! I know the value of the service I provide.  I know my members.  I listen to every conversation, I remember when people mention something about their business.  And, when someone asks, I can recall the obscure details of something shared months ago and connect them with the right person, or the person who can lead them to the right person.

Free is not Free

I am trying to wrap this up in a tidy little bow, and I know I cannot.  The value of community building is not tangible.  Some people don’t get it. Or, they just don’t care enough about the community.  Maybe they are scared, or maybe there’s something else entirely.  But, now I charge for the group.  I hear about people who disagree with this.  (Funny, most of them don’t tell me directly, they just discuss this in their free time.)

“i suppose you wouldnt care about that if it isnt monetizing for you. “

When I receive messages like the above quote, I am troubled, but only for a moment. As an online community builder, I recognize the value of the community.  I realize there are Facebook groups out there that have a bunch of people who aren’t paying attention, who often don’t even realize they are a member of that group. People are only looking out for themselves.  A community builder looks out for the entire community.

As Seth Godin says in his book Tribes, “Twenty percent of the population of Canada now uses Facebook. Many of those users have the false impression that joining a group somehow matters. It doesn’t. (And Canadians are not the only ones with the same impression.)  Sending in your resume, showing up at the networking reception, hanging out at the singles bar – these are dumb ways to lead the tribe, and they’re not even useful ways to be seen as a valued member.” I wrote about this in another blog post, All Groups are Not Created Equal.

My hope in moving forward is to let other community builders who are leading Tribes, and building communities know, you have the right to make money doing what you do. And So Do I.