Online Communities Have Personality Types, Just Like People
How a Myers-Briggs type personality assessment tool can help community builders make more strategically aligned decisions
I’ve made a career out of giving advice on best-practices for community-building: first, occasionally sharing professional community building insights with the entrepreneurs in my community program at Teachable, then training other community professionals with C School at Commsor, and now in my work as a consultant. As someone who deals in “best practices” every day, I find myself keenly aware of their limitations: namely, that they are fundamentally “guesses” as to what will work based on what has worked well in the past in similar use cases. In my view, the value of “best practices” is primarily that they tend to allow you to skip testing steps by making a reasonable hypothesis of what is likely to work rather than a random one. Best practices are not, however, surefire paths to success that will reliably produce success in every scenario.
The value of "best practices" is primarily that they tend to allow you to skip testing steps by making a reasonable hypothesis of what is likely to work rather than a random one.
I’ve observed that the biggest risk to relying on best practices is the tendency to see them as an ending point to analysis rather than a starting point. Too many community builders fall into the trap of applying a “best practice” they’ve heard wholesale, without considering how it fits into their unique strategy or how their use case overlaps with (or diverges from) the one on which the best practice was based. The antidote to this is becoming very comfortable with one phrase: “it depends.”
In my experience as a community builder and consultant on dozens of community projects, I’ve found that one of the things that which community best practice will work depends on is the values, behaviors, and desires of the community members—in other words, the unique “personality” of the community. I’ve found that I often end up considering four different elements of community “personality” when I consider which best practices are likely to work:
Whether the community members are generally motivated by emotional or tangible community outputs
Whether the community members generally value independent, democratic structures or structured spaces where logistics are taken care of for them
Whether the community members generally prefer to interact with the community in a habitual manner, or only access the community when they have a specific need
Whether the community members generally see the community as related to an aspect of their personal identity or a compartmentalized aspect of their identity, like their job
So, I decided to try to put together a "personality type" framework for communities and community members. You can think of this like the Myers-Briggs of community building (in other words, maybe a bit reductive but useful as a starting point 🙂). My hope is that starting to identify and consider the different “personality types” that are present in communities can help you build strategies and apply best practices that are truly a fit for your specific use case, and thus more likely to work. Plus, at the end of this blog post I’ll break down a couple of example community personality types and talk through how they might change strategy application.
Community Personality Types
Communities that are motivated by social and emotional outputs, such as making friends, networking, entertainment, or developing soft skills such as confidence.
Communities that are motivated by tangible outputs, such as solving immediate problems, enhancing a product purchase, or reaching a defined outcome such as getting a job or promotion.
Independence Communities that value independence and democratic structure, shared governance, and egalitarian input from members, and reject authoritative admins.
Communities that value a set structure that is defined and enforced by an administrator, the sense of things being “taken care of” for them.
Communities that generally prefer to interact on a frequent and habitual basis, regardless of if there is a pressing need.
Communities that generally prefer to minimize time spent in the community, and only access the environment if there is a pressing need.
Communities that generally see the community experience as connected to their personhood, whether related to an aspect of their personal identity or a hobby that is integrated into their sense of self.
Communities that generally see the community experience as disconnected from their personhood, and more related to a compartmentalized need like a job or learning program.
Example Community Personality Types
Now that we’ve explored some of the common dichotomies in community personality types, let’s take a look at how some of these personality types might play out in a couple of mock community scenarios, and how that might change strategy and programming.
ESHC — Emotional / Structure / Habitual / Compartmentalized
May commonly apply to: niche professional communities
Strategy & programming: professionals in niche and emergent fields (like community management!) may join professional communities for both tangible and emotional outputs, but primarily to combat the sense of isolation that comes with working in a little known field. Professional communities are often comprised of busy people, so generally community members will favor structured environments where the community manager takes care of logistical and operational needs. Professional communities with a social/emotional bend like these will often garner frequent, habitual engagement as community members tend to keep the community open and use it regularly throughout their work day. Lastly, professional communities tend to serve a compartmentalized element of the member identity. Communities of this nature will tend to favor lots of synchronous chat around both personal and professional topics. They’ll also tend to appreciate opportunities to connect to other members in real time to build relationships, whether in networking or mentorship programs, or small-group masterminds. They’ll appreciate highly structured programs that reduce mental load for them (i.e., workshops and discussion groups with pre-determined agendas, rather than wholly open-ended meetups or distributed-ownership events). Because they favor both social and emotional connections and are interacting in a professional environment that’s somewhat separate from their whole self, they will tend to appreciate engagement series that allow them to weigh in on professional topics while maintaining a relaxed tone and occasionally discussing hobbies and personal lives in relation to work.
TSNP — Tangible / Structure / Need-Based / Personal
May commonly apply to: support communities related to non-professional products (i.e., software used for a hobby or creative pursuit)
Strategy & programming: members of support communities tend to go to the community environment for a tangible output, like a solution to a product problem, a workaround suggestion, or use case inspiration, rather than solely for relationships (although in the best cases, relationships may form around the community despite this). Similar to the scenario discussed above, members of support communities are unlikely to wish to wholly self organize, and will tend to prefer the community and its programming to be structured and managed by a community manager. Unlike the above, because community members will tend to seek out support communities in a moment of need rather than habitually, community programs should focus on asynchronous and evergreen opportunities (i.e., best-practice “show and tell” boards, expert residencies and AMAs, etc vs. real-time networking opportunities). Lastly, when communities form around an element of personal identity rather than a compartmentalized aspect of the self, there is an opportunity for community managers to build programs that connect more deeply beyond the product: for example, in a community centered around a music notation software, opportunities for deeper relationship building to occur between composers or music teachers in geo-specific locations could be the key to unlocking more relationship-building layered on top of a support instance.
Want to take all this a step further?
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post. I hope it’s been helpful to you—while personality frameworks are inherently imperfect, I've found that taking the time to consider the unique personality and values of the community projects I work on helps me make stronger decisions.
If you ever feel you could use a hand putting some of these ideas in practice, I’d love to hear from you—I coach my clients through elements of community strategy like engagement plans, measurement and ROI, community architecture, and more, every day. You can learn more about working with me and get started booking a call here.
Lastly, you can get free resources on community building straight to your inbox —like a templatized guide to a community launch, engagement frameworks, and more—by clicking below:
Thank you for reading!