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Symbiotic, Tangible, Existential: 3 Pillars of Effective Goal-Setting for Online Communities

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Discover how better goal-setting can be the secret to your online community's success

In as a strategy coach for online community projects, I’ve had clients come to me with a wide array of challenges:

  • “How do I foster more engagement in my community?”

  • “How do I measure the success of my community?”

  • “How do I scale my community program?”

All of these are “greatest hits” of community challenges I hear from clients every day. But, rarely do clients come to me telling me they’re having a hard time setting goals for their community projects.

Community builders often feel they understand intuitively what they’re driving toward with their project—they’re trying to create a space of deep connection for their community members, and sometimes they have some business objectives in mind as well. And yet, more often than not, the community builders I've work with often don’t have goals that are adequately clear and focussed to truly support helping their projects flourish. And, nine times out of ten, tightening up community goal setting is something of a “silver bullet” that begins to untangle huge portions of the challenges they came to me thinking they had.

In my time working on successful community projects myself and coaching my clients, I’ve come to rely on a goal-setting framework for community projects that supports decision making at every level of the project, all while helping the community become more measurable and valuable to the business and more compelling to the member. In today’s blog post, I’ll deep dive into the “secret sauce” behind truly effective community goal-setting by exploring the three things all great community project goals have in common: they’re symbiotic, they’re tangible, and they’re existential.

Philosophy of Goal-Setting:

Before we dive into the three pillars of effective community goal-setting ("symbiotic, tangible, existential"), we need to talk a little bit about the philosophy of goal-setting that informs my point of view in this post.

One of the biggest challenges I see community builders at every level of the career—from solo-preneurs to directors at enterprise scale organizations—encountering with goal setting is scope. In other words, how small or large should a particular goal be, in a particular context, to make it as useful as possible to the person who has to execute? This is complicated by the fact that there are countless different settings where goal-setting might take place: from a company-sanctioned quarterly OKR protocol, to a goal written at the top of a meeting agenda, to a post-it note an entrepreneur puts on their bathroom mirror to keep them motivated. All of these things have their place.

But, for the purposes of this blog post and discussion, the type of goal we’re talking about is an over-arching, north-star objective that governs your approach to an entire community project or program. This is the type of goal that should stay relevant for quarter or years, that should be on the tip of the tongue of those who execute and those who oversee, and that should feel present and stable during all other goal setting exercises. It's the "big picture" to which all other smaller goals and decisions ladder up.

A couple of things to keep in mind about this type of goal:

  • It should define what you’re optimizing for: Most community projects have several, if not dozens, of positive outputs for both the business that runs them and the community members themselves. But, this type of goal is about forcing you to choose which one is most important. This necessarily means pushing other things, even good things, out of focus. Being willing to name what's most important, to the exclusion of other important things, is a key ingredient to clear decision-making and defending your project from scope creep.

  • It should be as simple as possible: This type of goal should feel so simple that it's easy for you or anyone on your team to rattle it off at a moment's notice. And, it should feel logical and obvious enough that you could state it to someone who really doesn't understand community and they'd still get it without much explanation. If it feels maybe a tiny bit reductive, you're doing it right. There are plenty of other opportunities for context and nuance.

  • It should inform what you measure & report: Most importantly, this type of goal should be directly reflective of what you and your team pay the most attention to measuring and reporting up to executives, investors, or other stakeholders. If your goals have no connection to those things, they are likely not effective or are too granular.

Now that we’ve discussed the philosophy behind goal setting we’ll be unpacking in this blog post, let’s get into some of the key pillars and process to setting strong goals for online communities.

1. Understand stakeholders and create symbiosis.

I mentioned in the intro section of this post that many of the community builders I’ve come across in my work struggle with setting goals that adequately support their projects. One reason for this that I’ve observed is that most community projects function with multiple, equally important, stakeholders. And, individual community builders tend to each have a bias toward which stakeholder’s objectives they optimize for. For example, some people are very business-minded and tend to consider community goals exclusively through the lens of business impact. More commonly, many community builders are extremely empathetic, and are very conscious of what community members themselves want. Lastly, many founders and entrepreneurs tend to focus most on their values and mission, or the impact they want their community to have on the world and culture at large. These perspectives are all valid and important to keep in mind.

However, the most effective community projects are born from the intersection of the objectives of all the most important stakeholders. That’s because one of the core functions of community projects is to create alignment and symbiosis between organizations and the people they serve. For that reason, I always advise my clients to create goals that address what each essential stakeholder is trying to get out of the project, and finally, to try to combine those goals into a “statement of symbiosis” that suggests how those different goals exist in relation to one another. That statement of symbiosis should be your big takeaway from this—what you carry around in your pocket and are ready to refer back to at a moment's notice when you're building your community.

Here’s an example of how that goal-setting exercise might look (let’s assume this example is for a customer community for a SaaS product):




To reduce churn and increase the lifetime value of subscribers.

Community Member

To connect with other users of the software and learn enough about using it effectively to make my subscription feel worthwhile.

Statement of symbiosis: If community members are able to get value from the community by connecting with other users of the software and learn enough about using it effectively to make their subscription worthwhile, they are less likely to churn, which will lead to recurring revenue retention for the business.

In the example I’ve given above, it was relatively easy to create an “if/then” relationship between the objectives of our most important stakeholders: the business, and the community member. Generally, the more difficult it is to create a statement of symbiosis, the more difficult it will be to create an effective community program for that particular project.

The risk of not intentionally designing for that symbiosis is that communities become vulnerable to “push comes to shove” moments down the line—because businesses go through lots of changes as they scale, this will almost inevitably happen. The most common manifestation of this is when a community starts off with a strong value to serve its members, and doesn’t consider how the community may benefit the solvency of the business that runs it. Community builders who are practical about which stakeholders a community project has to satisfy in order to survive tend to create better, more resilient programs.

2. Create goals that are tangible in an intangible field.

The second element to setting effective goals for online community projects is that they must be relatively tangible. This is usually easier when considering the business as a stakeholder, because businesses often already operate in the realm of the measurable. Usually, the objective you set for the business will be most effective if you choose something that is directly connected to the bottom line —that’s because it helps you tie your community project back to something that is already valued by executives and decision-makers, rather than having to “teach” the value of community. This type of objective most commonly falls into one of three categories (you can see the example I gave in the section above connects to #2):

  1. The community has an impact on helping the business acquire new revenue via acquisition

  2. The community has an impact on retention, i.e. it helps the business keep recurring revenue; OR

  3. The community has an impact on reducing costs within the business, i.e. it makes it cheaper to provide support, do user research, or acquire talent

However, when community builders consider “tangible” goals for their community members as a stakeholder, they often struggle. It’s a common refrain in the industry that community is inherently difficult to measure because it deals so much in intangibles like “connection.” I’ve talked quite a bit in the past about how I don’t think this is really true—I actually think community is uniquely positioned to be measured effectively because of the way community enables cohort comparison and small-group experiments. But, I understand the kernel of truth that community builders are getting at here—what members themselves want out of communities (connection, friendship, etc) may feel extremely difficult to measure.

The key shift here is recognizing that goals are motivating factors. They are often more about identifying what the strongest, most likely, or most controllable outcome of a certain action might be, rather than trying to predict all the good that might come of that action. For example, people tend to go to the grocery with the explicit, tangible goal of buying food. If that’s all that happens, it’s a success. But, there could be other great things that come of going to the grocery store: you could run into a local friend, you could find you have time to call your mom while you browse the aisles, or you may find that on the way to the grocery store you come across a farm stand that has way fresher produce.

Community objectives for the “member stakeholder” should feel something like this—we want to place the motivating, tangible factor at the top, but understand that intangibles may follow. This type of design is also generally going to help you create a program that is more appealing to community members, since most prospective members are not likely to undergo the friction it takes to join a community program (create a login, learn a new platform, etc) without some kind of tangible motivator—even if it ends up being the friends they make in the space that gets them to stay.

3. Ensure goals are existential—"need to have" vs. "nice to have."

The third element to setting effective goals for online community projects is that each stakeholder goal should ideally be as existential as possible. What I mean by this is is that whether or not the goal is met should feel relevant to the very existence of that stakeholder—it should feel like a need-to-have, and not a nice-to-have. The closer you can get to goals that feel existential, the more resilient your project will be as a whole.

Like the last point we explored, tangibility, this is generally going to be easier to establish for the business as a stakeholder than for the member as a stakeholder. This is the case for two reasons: first, although businesses are complex entities, most of their goals boil down to something very simple, tangible, and existential: making money. When a community program has a measurable impact on the solvency of a business, it will feel existentially important for the business to continue to serve that community. Second, though—figuring out what goal is existential to the business is usually easier simply because community builders typically have daily access to those stakeholders to discuss their goals.

On the member side, things can be a bit more difficult. Figuring out what members feel they “need to have” from a community vs. what is a “nice to have” from a community generally requires lots of ongoing user research and testing to validate if what members are reporting is truly playing out in practice. I’ve shared a bit in the past about how to phrase questions in user interviews to get to the heart of this a bit more quickly in my lean community launch framework guide, which you can read more about here. However, it’s just as important that member goals feel existential to them because without this factor, your community runs the risk of losing the attention of your members very easily.


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—I truly believe that projects who keep these three core factors—symbiosis, tangibility, and existential-ness—in mind are set up to have the most resilient and effective community programs.

That said, these are certainly complex topics with a lot of nuance. If you 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 areas of strategy like this every day. You can learn more about working with me and get started booking a call here.

For folks who want to deepen their community work but don't have the budget to work with me 1:1, I also offer an online program called the On-Demand Coaching Core Bundle—it distills the most common topics I work with my 1:1 clients on into a self-paced format with videos, my most in-depth templates, coaching scenarios, and a client community with bi-weekly group coaching. All of that comes for a one-time purchase of $500 USD, less than the cost of 2 1:1 coaching sessions with me. You can learn more about that here or enroll now below:

Lastly, you can get free resources on community building straight to your inbox —like a templatized guide to a community launch, a cheat sheet for community management job postings, and more—by clicking below:

Thank you for reading!

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