The Delicate Balance of Building an Online Community Business

Just under two years ago I launched an online community business called Traffic Think Tank with two other co-founders, Nick Eubanks and Ian Howells.

As a Traffic Think Tank customer you (currently) pay $119 a month to get access to our online community, which is run through Slack.

The community is focused on helping you learn various aspects of marketing, with a particular focus on search engine optimization (SEO). Alongside access to the Slack community, we publish new educational video content from outside experts every week that all customers have access to.

At the time of writing, Traffic Think Tank has around 650 members spanning across 17 of the 24 different global time zones.

I was on a business trip over in Sydney recently, and during my time there I met up with some of our Australia-based community members. During dinner I was asked by several of them how the idea for Traffic Think Tank came about and what steps we took to validate that the idea was worth pursuing. 

This is what I told them…

How it all began

It all started with a personal need. Nick, an already successful entrepreneur and owner of a marketing agency, had tested out an early version Traffic Think Tank in early 2017. He offered real-time consulting for around ten customers that he ran from Slack. He would publish some educational videos and offer his advice on projects that the members were running.

The initial test went well, but it was tough to maintain on his own and he had to charge a fairly high price to make it worth his time. That’s when he spoke to me and Ian about turning this idea into something much bigger.

Both Ian and I offered something slightly different to Nick. We’ve both spent time in senior positions at marketing agencies, but currently hold senior director positions in 2,000+ public employee companies (HubSpot and LendingTree). Alongside this, as a trio we could really ramp up the quality and quantity of content within the community, spread out the administrative workload and just generally have more resources to throw at getting this thing off the ground.

Admittedly, Nick was much more optimistic about the potential of Traffic Think Tank – something I’m very thankful for now – whereas Ian and I were in the camp of “you’re out of your mind if you think hundreds of people are going to pay us to be a part of a Slack channel”.

To validate the idea at scale, we decided that we’d get an initial MVP of the community up and running with a goal of reaching 100 paying customers in the first six months. If we achieved that, we’d validated that it was a viable business and we would continue to pursue it. If not, we’d kill it.

We spent the next month building out the initial tech stack that enabled us to accept payments, do basic user management to the Slack channel, and get a one-page website up and running with information on what Traffic Think Tank was all about. 

After this was ready, we doubled down on getting some initial content created for members – I mean, we couldn’t have people just land in an empty Slack channel, could we?

We created around ten initial videos, 20 or so articles and then some long threads full of useful information within the Slack channel so that members would have some content to pour into right from the beginning. 

Then, it was time to go live.

The first 100 customers

Fortunately, both Nick and I had built a somewhat substantial following in the SEO space over the previous 5-10 years, so we at least had a large email list to tap into (a total of around 40,000 people). We queued up some launch emails, set an initial price of $99 per month and pressed send.

Traffic Think Tank Opening Email

The launch email I sent to my subscribers announcing Traffic Think Tank

What we didn’t expect was to sell all of the initial 100 membership spots in the first 72 hours.

“Shit. What do we do now? Are we ready for this many people? Are we providing them with enough value? What if something breaks in our tech stack? What if they don’t like the content? What if everyone hates Slack?”

All of these were thoughts running through my head.

This brings me to the first great decision we made: we closed down new membership intake for 3 months so that we could focus completely on adding value to the first cohort of users.

The right thing at the right time

SEO is somewhat of a dark art to many people that are trying to learn about it for the first time. There’s hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of articles and videos online that talk about how to do SEO. 

Some of it’s good advice; a lot of it is very bad advice. 

Add to this that the barrier to entry of claiming to be an “expert” in SEO is practically non-existent and you have a recipe for disaster.

This is why, for a long time, individuals involved in SEO have flocked in their masses to online communities for information and to bounce ideas off of others in the space. Forums like SEObook, Black Hat World, WickedFire, Inbound.org, /r/BigSEO, and many more have, at one time, been called home by many SEOs. 

In recent times, these communities have either been closed down or just simply haven’t adapted to the changing needs of the community – one of those needs being real-time feedback on real-world problems. 

The other big need that we all spotted and personally had was the ability to openly share the things that are working – and the things that aren’t – in SEO within a private forum. Not everyone wanted to share their secret sauce with the world.

One of the main reasons we chose Slack as the platform to run our community on was the fact that it solved these two core needs. It gave the ability to communicate in real-time across multiple devices, and all of the information shared within it was outside of the public domain.

The other problem that plagued a lot of these early communities was spam. Most of them were web-based forums that were free to access. That meant they became a breeding ground for people trying to either sell their services or promote their own content – neither of which is conducive to building a thriving community. This was our main motivation for charging a monthly fee to access Traffic Think Tank.

We spent a lot of time thinking through pricing. It needed to be enough money that people would be motivated to really make use of their membership and act in a way that’s beneficial to the community, but not too much money that it became cost prohibitive to the people that would benefit from it the most. Considering that most of our members would typically spend between $200-800 per month on SEO software, $99 initially felt like the perfect balance.

Growing pains

The first three months of running the community went by without any major hiccups. Members were incredibly patient with us, gave us great feedback and were incredibly helpful and accommodating to other members.

Messages were being posted every day, with Nick, Ian and myself seeding most of the engagement at this stage. 

With everything going smoothly, we decided that it was time to open the doors to another intake of new members.

At this point we’d accumulated a backlog of people on our waiting list, so we knew that simply opening our doors would result in another large intake.

Adding more members to a community has a direct impact on the value that each member receives. For Traffic Think Tank in particular, the value for members comes from three areas:

  1. The ability to have your questions answered by me, Nick and Ian, as well as other members of the community.
  2. The access to a large library of exclusive content.
  3. The ability to build connections with the wider community.

In the early stages of membership growth, there was a big emphasis on the first of those three points. We didn’t have an enormous content library, nor did we have a particularly large community of members, so a lot of the value came from getting a lot of one-to-one time with the community founders.

Community Engagement inside Traffic Think Tank

Engagement within the Traffic Think Tank Slack community

The good thing about having 100 members was that it was just about feasible to give each and every member some one-to-one time within the month, which really helped us to deliver those moments of delight that the community needed early on.

Two-and-a-half months after we launched Traffic Think Tank, we opened the doors to another 250 people, taking our total number of members to 350.

This is where we experienced our first growing pains. 

Our original members had become used to being able to drop us direct messages and expect an almost instant response, but this wasn’t feasible anymore. There were too many people, and we needed to create a shift in behavior. We needed more value to come from the community engaging with one another or we’d never be able to scale beyond this level.

We started to really pay attention to engagement metrics; how many people were logging in every day, and of those, how many were actually posting messages within public channels. 

We asked members that were logging in a lot but weren’t posting (the “lurkers”) why that was the case. We also asked the members that engaged in the community the most what motivated them to post regularly.

We learned a lot from doing this. We found that the large majority of highly-engaged members had much more experience in SEO, whereas most of the “lurkers” were beginners. This meant that most of the information being shared in the community was very advanced, with a lot of feedback from the beginners in the group being that they “didn’t want to ask a stupid question”. 

As managers of the community, we needed to facilitate conversations that catered to all of our members, not just those at a certain level of skill.

To tackle this problem, we created a number of new channels that had a much deeper focus on beginner topics so novice members had a safe place to ask questions without judgment. 

We also started running live video Q&As each month where we’d answer questions submitted by the community. This gave our members one-on-one time with me, Nick and Ian, but spread the value of these conversations across the whole community rather than them being hidden within private messages.

As a result of these changes, we found that the more experienced members in the community were really enjoying sharing their knowledge with those with less experience. The number of replies within each question thread was really starting to increase, and the community started to shift away from just being a bunch of threads created by me, Nick and Ian to a thriving forum of diverse topics compiled by a diverse set of individuals.

This is what we’d always wanted. A true community. It was starting to happen.

Community Engagement Balance Graph

At the same time, we started to realize that we’ll eventually reach a tipping point where there’ll be too much content for us to manage and our members to engage with. When we reach this point, the community will be tough to follow and the quality of any given post will go down. Not only that, but the community will become increasingly difficult to moderate. We’re not there yet, but we recognize that this will come, and we’ll have to adjust our model again.

Advocating advocacy

As we started to feel more comfortable about the value that members were receiving, we made the decision to indefinitely open for new members. At the same time, we increased the price of membership (from $99 a month to $119) in a bid to strike the right balance between profitability as a business and to slow down the rate at which we were reaching the tipping point of community size.

We also made the decision to repay all of our early adopters by grandfathering them in to the original pricing – and committing to always do this in the future.

Despite the price increase, we saw a continued flow of new members come into the community. The craziest part about this was that we were doing practically no marketing activities to encourage new members– this was all coming from word of mouth. Our members were getting enough value from the community that they were recommending it to their friends, colleagues and business partners. 

The scale at which this was happening really took us by surprise and it told us one thing very clearly: delivering more value to members resulted in more value being delivered to the business.

This is a wonderful dynamic to have because it perfectly aligns the incentives on both sides. We’d said from the start that we wouldn’t sacrifice value to members for more revenue – this is something that all three of us felt very strongly about. First and foremost, we wanted to create a community that delivered value to its members and was run in a way that aligned with our values as people.

If we could find a way to stimulate brand advocacy, while also tightening the bonds between all of our individual community members, we’d be boosting both customer retention and customer acquisition in the same motion.

This became our next big focus.

Adam, one of our members wore his Traffic Think Tank t-shirt in the Sahara desert

We started with some simple things:

  • We shipped out Traffic Think Tank branded T-shirts to all new members.
  • We’d call out each of the individuals that would submit questions to our live Q&A sessions and thank them live on air.
  • We set up a new channel that was dedicated to sharing a quick introduction to who you are, what you do and where you’re based for all new members.
  • We’d created a jobs channel and a marketplace for selling, buying and trading services with other members.
  • Our monthly “blind dates” calls were started where you’d be randomly grouped with 3-4 other community members so that you could hop on a call to get to know each other better.
  • The Traffic Think Tank In Real Life (IRL) channel was born, which enabled members to facilitate in-person meetups with each other.

In particular, we saw that as members started to meet in person or via calls the community itself was feeling more and more like a family. It became much closer knit and some members started to build up a really positive reputation for being particularly helpful to other members, or for having really strong knowledge in a specific area.

Nick, Ian and I would go out of our way to try and meet with members in real life wherever we could. I was taken aback by how appreciative people were for us doing this, and it also served as an invaluable way to gain honest feedback from members.

There was another trend that we’d observed that we didn’t really expect to happen. More and more members were doing business with each another. We’ve had people find new jobs through the community, sell businesses to other members, launch joint ventures together and bring members in as consultants to their business. This has probably been the most rewarding thing to watch, and it was clear that the deeper relationships that our members were forming were resulting in an increased level of trust to work with each other.

We wanted to harness this and take it to a new level. This brought us to arguably the best decision we’ve made so far running Traffic Think Tank… we were going to run a big live event for our members.

I have no idea what I’m doing

It’s the first week of January 2019 and we’re less than three weeks away from Traffic Think Tank LIVE, our first ever in-person event hosting 150 people, most of which are Traffic Think Tank members.

It's like an ongoing nightmare I can’t wake up from.

That was Nick’s response in our private admin channel to myself and Ian when I asked if they were finding the run-up to the event as stressful as I was.

I think that all three of us were riding on such a high from how the community was growing that we felt like we could do anything. Running an event? How hard can it be?

Well, turns out it’s really hard.

We had seven different speakers flying over from around the world to speak at the event, there was a pre- and after event party, and we’d planned a charity dinner where we would take ten attendees (picked at random via a raffle) out for a fancy meal. Oh, and Nick, Ian and I were hosting a live Q&A session on stage.

It wasn’t until precisely 48 hours before the event that we’d realized we didn’t have any microphones, nor had a large amount of the swag we’d ordered arrived. Plus, a giant storm had hit Philly causing a TON of flight cancellations. Perfect. Just perfect.

This was honestly the tip of the iceberg.

We hadn’t thought about who was going to run the registration desk, who would be taking photos during the event and who would actually field questions from the audience while all three of us sat on stage for our live Q&A panel. Turns out that the answer to all of those questions were my wife, Laura, and Nick’s wife, Kelley. Thankfully, they were on hand to save our asses.

The weeks running up to the event were honestly some of the most stressful of my life. We sold around 50% of our ticket allocation within the final two weeks before the event. All of the event organizers told us this would happen, but did we believe them? Hell no! 

Imagine having two weeks until the big day and as it stood half of the room would be completely empty. I was ready to fly most of my extended family over just to make it look remotely busy.

Traffic Think Tank LIVE - Ryan Presenting

One of our speakers, Ryan Stewart, presenting at Traffic Think Tank LIVE

Thankfully, if all came together. We managed to acquire some microphones, the swag arrived on the morning of the event, all of our speakers were able to make it on time and the weather just about held up so that our entire allocation of ticket holders was able to make it to the event. We pooled together and I’m proud to say that the event was a huge success.

While we made a substantial financial loss on the event itself, January saw a huge spike in new members, which more than recouped our losses. Not only that, but we got to hang out with a load of our members all day while they said really nice things about the thing we’d built. It was both exhausting and incredibly rewarding.

Bring on Traffic Think Tank LIVE 2020! (This time we’re hiring an event manager...)  

The road ahead

Fast forward to today (August 2019) and Traffic Think Tank has over 650 members. The biggest challenges that we’re tackling right now include making sure the most interesting conversations and best content surfaces to the top of the community, making Slack more searchable (this is ultimately one of its flaws as a platform) and giving members a quicker way to find the exclusive content that we create. You’ll notice there’s a pretty clear theme here.

In the past 30 days, 4,566 messages were posted in public channels inside Traffic Think Tank. If you add on any messages posted inside private direct messages, this number rises to 21,612. That’s a lot of messages.

To solve these challenges and enable further scale in the future, we’ve invested a bunch of cash and our time into building out a full learning management system (LMS) that all members will get access to alongside the Slack community. The LMS will be a web-based portal that houses all of the video content we produce. It will also  provide an account admin section where users can update or change their billing information (they have to email us to do this right now, which isn’t ideal), a list of membership perks and discounts with our partners, and a list of links to some of the best threads within Slack – when clicked, these will drop you directly into Slack.

Traffic Think Tank LMS

Designs for the new learning management system (LMS)

It’s not been easy, but we’re 95% of the way through this and I’m certain that it will have a hugely positive impact on the experience for our members.

Alongside this we hired a community manager, Liz, who supports with any questions that our members have, coordinates with external experts to arrange webinars for the community, helps with new member onboarding, and has tightened up some of our processes around billing and general accounts admin. This was a great decision.

Finally, we’ve started planning next year’s live event, which we plan to more than double in size to 350 attendees, and we decided to pick a slightly warmer location in Miami this time out. Stay tuned for me to have a complete meltdown 3 weeks from the event.

Final thoughts

When I look back on the journey we’ve had so far building Traffic Think Tank, there’s one very important piece to this puzzle that’s made all of this work that I’ve failed to mention so far: co-founder alignment.

Building a community is a balancing act that relies heavily on those in charge being completely aligned. Nick, Ian and I completely trust each other and more importantly, are philosophically aligned on how we want to run and grow the community. If we didn’t have this, the friction between us could tear apart the entire community.

Picking the right people to work with is important in any company, but when your business is literally about bringing people together, there’s no margin for error here. 

While I’m sure there will be many more challenges ahead, knowing that we all trust each other to make decisions that fall in line with each of our core values makes these challenges dramatically easier to overcome.

Finally, I’d like to thank all of our members for making the community what it is today – it’d be nothing without you and I promise that we’ll never take that for granted.