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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
10 best practices for building an online community on Circle. This post was last updated on 5/4/22, so please keep that in mind for any features released after this point.
Hi! No intro for this post — let’s just get into it! Thanks to Zac Novak for inspiring this post.
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Some articles for context:
- How to choose your online community platform
- 9 reasons I chose Circle for my membership community
- My community tech stack
FYI: There’s a good chance that all your questions will be answered by Circle’s knowledge base and the posts in their membership community. This article is more about how my own learnings have surfaced some best practices; some are technical, some are behavioral, and all of them are rooted in what real humans have taught me. I recommend reading this article once you’ve already decided you’re building on Circle and figured out basics of your setup, like branding, values, and member segmentation.
- Have a separate Space for community values
← writing this article made me realize I was obscuring our community values. In fact, I didn’t even know what they were, to be completely honest. How bizarre, for an impact-driven community like ours! Now, our values are unobscured. See how I did it here!What do you actually use community values for?
- Start with only one conversation Space If you have more than one conversation Space, especially when starting out, you have too many. That’s it. I’m usually very uncomfortable sharing advice, because community isn’t a one-size-fits-all project, but in this case, I am SURE that you should only start with one Space to discuss topics in your community. Why? Because the community members you’re welcoming don’t know the infrastructure as well as you do! They don’t share your eyes and brain on where to post stuff and when. So if you’re not seeing enough engagement in the community you’re building, it might be because people are interested in sharing, but they don’t know when to post. I realized this when I kept getting DMs / emails from members asking if they should share stuff, and if so, where. It hurt a little to destroy all my beautiful many Spaces, but it was worth it. Now, we only have one discussion Space for the main group, and the only people who get more than one discussion Space are people who participate in our cohort-based courses.
- Use the card layout for resources and static sections... and develop some initial design assets Circle’s card layout is lit for things like knowledge basis, book rec libraries, event recordings, etc. When I see the card layout in a community I’m a member of, it signals to me that it’s not geared towards commenting/engaging on the post beyond checking out what’s going on with it. Circle has an Unsplash integration that allows you to put in stock photos as the post’s card cover (you go to the individual post settings → add a card preview image), but I recommend developing some simple design assets that reflect your brand and what you’re trying to communicate. Here are two examples of how I’ve done this — one from our Values space, and one from our event recaps — both in the Soapbox Project membership community.
- Make it VERY clear what is publicly visible Our community is private so we can have authentic discussions, but our events calendar and announcements are public. I’ve reiterated this in our community orientation space, and I also call this out in the name of the space itself. People come to community to find belonging and share parts of them that they might not be sharing anywhere else, so our architecture should reflect this.
- Have pinned posts at the top of each Space that describes the expected behavior Since Circle is so customizable, it can be a double-edged sword — too much novelty can be really distracting especially for less tech-savvy members. Here’s an example from our services + products library. “services + products” can be a bit ambiguous — what are you supposed to do? So I’ve added a couple steps on what members can do. To set this look up, you can go into the post settings and toggle everything on except for “Pin post to sidebar” as the image shows below.
- Beware of beta features Circle operates quickly, and their team launches new features on the regular. It’s one of my favorite things about the platform, but it’s also tricky sometimes when a new feature ends up being much buggier than I’d expected. For example, I’ve had some serious time zone issues through their new Events Space where the AMs and PMs were flipped randomly. I think it’s solved now, but I’m glad I had a Google Calendar contingency so that members would still know when our events were happening.
- Take advantage of integrations and custom code... but also watch out xo
Integrations are probably one of the reasons you’re considering Circle in the first place!
You’ll want to use these very intentionally — it’s tempting to make the swankiest looking community ever — because you don’t want things to break and be unable to fix them (Circle doesn’t offer support for custom code, so proceed at your own risk).
Integrations can sometimes be slow to load, too. I use Mixily and Airtable as detailed in my post, and it’s great and functional overall, but has some snags. Based on my experience building with Circle, I’d use integrations for non-essential things and/or use cases where you can have other ways to achieve the same goal. For example, we have an Airtable integration for our leaderboard (which is fun, but not essential), and I regularly integrate Google Forms and/or Airtable Forms to collect feedback and/or interest in opportunities. I’ll also email these forms out to people, though, so if anything goes wrong with the integration, we’ve got options.My community tech stack
- Make time for Circle-hosted events The best thing about using Circle, in my opinion, is the support from other community members. Spending an hour a week in the community can level-up the amount of inspiration you get for your own work. They have office hours, show & tell events (where you can see other Circle users’ setups), expert workshops, and more. One recent highlight was their Community Design Contest, where we could see creative ways users had set up specific Spaces and vote on our faves. If Circle hadn’t prioritized their community as highly as the product itself, I honestly don’t know if I would still be an online community builder today, let alone a professional speaker, consultant, writer, and workshop host on these topics. I was pretty close to giving up before I attended a few expert workshops and learned that the engagement I was “lacking” wasn’t really a problem.
- If you’re using an external paywall, make sure people can manage their account easily I use Outseta to manage subscriptions for our Soapbox community. As much of a pain in the butt it is to have different tools for different things, I try to have some sort of decentralization (see below). People would have to email me to cancel or change their subscription, which isn’t ideal. I used custom code to have an “account” button visible at the top, because this isn’t part of Circle’s built-in profile widget.
- YOUR ONLINE PLATFORM ≠ YOUR COMMUNITY!!!!!!
I’ll die a million times on this hill! Circle, with all its wonders, is still new. It’s been around for two years, whereas community building has been around for... millennia?
I personally have some reservations on the longevity of the platform based on some interactions I’ve had with leadership, specifically with the way they’ve responded to customer feedback in their semi-public beta channels with tone policing (). Witnessing this tone policing was a good reminder that as much of a fangirl I am of certain community platforms and tools like Circle, nothing lasts forever 💀☠️ other than the bonds between people. (Or at least, til death do us part.) These issues and tricky power dynamics can affect any tech platform ever, so I try to keep in mind that ALL my best practices should include a contingency for: what if this tool stops existing tomorrow? What would happen to the community we’re building?What is tone policing?
@ me on Twitter @niviachanta to share your thoughts and more Circle best practices!