The
Passion
Pod

Ep. 17
Benji Vaughan
Todd Nilson
Nick De La Torre

What’s next for my thriving community?

In This Episode

In this episode of The Passion Pod, Disciple founder and CEO, Benji Vaughan, sits down with Todd Nilson, the owner and digital strategist at Clocktower Advisors, and Disciple customer Nick De La Torre from Awaken Catholic to talk about what comes next for your thriving community.

Podcast contents

00:28 Introductions

02:44 Hear Todd  talk about how he defines a thriving community

07:04 Benji explains some of the benefits to steady and sustainable community growth

09:06 Nick talks about his launch strategy for the Awaken Catholic community

10:56 Todd talks through how to empower active members of your community to start conversations

12:29 Benji and Nick discuss balance and managing imposter syndrome as community founders

17:24 Todd explains why focusing on your active members is the best way of increasing community activity

19:46 Todd explains the benefits of community to people who are known as ‘lurkers’ or ‘readers’

20:18 Nick discusses how his own use of other platforms has informed his understanding of his own community

Who’s on this episode

About Todd

Todd has worked in online communities and digital workplaces for most of his professional career. His earliest experiences with online communities were in discussion forums for multi-player games. Since then, he has worked with dozens of companies to help them devise a successful strategy for the online communities they want to build. He starts from scratch and focuses on the business goals you are trying to achieve. From there, he helps leaders understand the factors that influence whether your online community platform will succeed or fail.

About Nick

Nick has served around the United States as a musician and speaker for Dynamic Catholic, Renewal Ministries, Extraordinary Mission and Life Teen retreats, conferences, and events. Nick and his wife, Alina, are recording artists and you can discover their music at nickandalina.com. Nick is also a music producer and mixing/mastering engineer which you can learn more about at dltstudios.com. Most importantly, Nick is just a dude 😎

About The Passion Pod

The Passion pod is a podcast by The Collective, Powered by Disciple. In this show, we interview community enthusiasts from all industries to discuss building and scaling communities. Tune in to learn all about the creator economy, how you can create your own private community and much more.

Intro: Valentina Ruffoni, community experience lead at Disciple

Welcome to the Passion Pod, a podcast by Disciple. In this show, we interview community experts and hosts from all industries, as we discuss building and scaling communities. 

In today’s episode, Disciple founder and CEO Benji Vaughan sits down with Todd Nilson, owner and digital strategist at Clocktower Advisors, and Disciple customer Nick De La Torre from Awaken Catholic, as they talk about what’s next for your thriving community. Let’s get to it.

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple

Hello, and welcome to the Passion Pod. I’m really excited to have joining us Todd, one of the most informative, influential and wise people in the world of community, and Nick from Awaken Catholic – an example of just one of the wonderful communities we work with here Disciple – a community that’s doing what communities are supposed to do, bringing people together around a point of real passion and purpose in people’s lives. Before we kick things off, I’d love it if each of you could just say a brief intro about yourselves and then we can kick into the questions. Nick, go for it.

 

Nick De La Torre, Awaken Catholic

Greetings, everyone. I am Nick De La Torre, and I am the president of Awaken Catholic and we host the community app called The Awaken App. We are super thrilled to be Disciple customers. We really love the community that’s kind of surrounding the Disciple product. 

 

Todd Nilson, Clocktower Advisors 

Hello, Benji. Hello, Nick. There’s no way I could possibly live up to your praise in my introduction, but my name is Todd Nilson, I run a consultancy called Clocktower Advisors, which specialises in helping organisations build thriving, sustainable, active online community presences, whether it’s for external customers, stakeholders, or employees, and you’re looking to build a thriving digital workplace. That’s work that I’ve been involved with for over 10 years. I’ve been interested in collaboration and how the tools that we use online can better connect people and give them happier, more productive lives.

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple

Amazing. Thank you. So the topic for today is advancing and enhancing a thriving community. So we’ll be talking about exactly what it says on the tin, trying to really help our listeners understand how once you’ve got a community to that initial point of it being a genuine community – and we’ll go into what a genuine community is in a second – how do you take it to the next level? 

So you’ve got a bunch of people who are together, they’re sharing, they’re building relationships with each other, they’ve got a joined together purpose, how do we take it to the next stage? 

The first question that I’d like to ask is to you, Todd. So, how does somebody know when they’re at that stage? They’re at the point of advancing and enhancing an existing community. When can you define a group of people as the community? When can you define it as thriving? Give us some feedback on that.

 

Todd Nilson, Clocktower Advisors   

Yeah, I mean, it’s a big question and one that I tend to look at in terms of a lifecycle for the community. When you are first getting a community off the ground, when you’re first trying to get people connected, it’s that hard work of having one-on-one conversations, bringing them into the space, helping them understand your vision, what that reason for them to come together is, and, you know, what are they gonna get out of it. So much of the early work that I do with customers is helping them think about what is their core concept for that community. 

And I think of it in terms of whether it is a community that can be established swiftly or one which is slower burn. Slow burn communities are not as connected to your identity, or your existential self – who you are or what you care about – it may be as a community about software, or something like that. That’s not to say you can’t have a thriving community around it, but you need to find ways to connect it more directly to what people care about.

And so what you’ll often find is that communities get to that point where they are really starting to thrive, and plugging along at a good pace, when you have at least 15 to 25 active members who are logging in every day and having conversations with each other. It’s when they’re the ones who are suddenly carrying the conversation a little bit more, and you’re just there as a facilitator. For me, that is the tipping point for a lot of these community experiences. People can cavil about how many people that actually is, but I think that bare minimum is that you’ve got that core group who are active and they start to push things over the top. 

If you’re going to put it to hard metrics, I’m going to say that at least half of the posts that are happening in the community are happening due to people that have come in as community members, they’re not your community managers. They’re not your founders. They’re actually people that are just there because they care about the topic, and they want to talk to each other about it, and they’re trying to solve problems or change the world in some significant way.

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple  

I love you mentioned that in some communities it’s the community host that creates this spark and bang, it’s off. And for others it’s this much slower build, and it’s certainly something we see a lot here at Disciple when we’re talking to hosts who come to us looking to build a community-led business or community around a passion point. They want to know how long does this take before I really feel like I’m getting somewhere. And as you say that period of time can be massively different between different communities. In terms of what you’ve seen, what are those early indicators a host can look at when they’re just thinking about getting a community started? Maybe they have an audience, they’ve got something out there already. What are the indicators telling them? Is this is going to be a community that’s going to form and get moving fast, or something that may need more of a marathon rather than a sprint mindset?

 

Todd Nilson, Clocktower Advisors 

Yeah, you know, I think it’s an important question that anybody finding a community – whether it’s a startup or a really large enterprise organisation – needs to address. They need to think about what they’re doing and if they’re okay with it being a slow burn, or if it has to be fast growth. I think that where organisations get into trouble and where they falter with their commitment to online communities, is when they are believing that it can be something that takes off quickly, and then it doesn’t. And so it’s a matter of confronting reality about just how much people are into you and whether they really care about what you’re selling. 

The only way that you can make that determination early on is to go through the validation process, talk to the potential customers, and have one-on-one qualitative conversations with them. Forget about the quantitative interviews, I’m actually not a big fan of quantitative – you know, sending out surveys – you’re not going to get the real insights there. You only get those by having live one-on-one interviews with 15-20 of the members that you think are going to be most committed to the community. 

And you’re probably going to be surprised by some of the things they care about, and things that they don’t care about. The other part of the validation process is also looking at others who are in your space, are they running any communities? Are there Reddits related to what you’re doing? Or other kinds of online forums that are maybe in your industry space or your sector? And are they thriving? Are they doing well? Or are they struggling? And why? So go through that process – it’s just a matter of being honest with yourself and understanding what you need to do to move the needle for the kind of community concept that you’re hoping to build.

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple 

Absolutely. Something I realised recently is that just because a community starts quickly doesn’t mean it’s going to be in a better place than the slow-start community in say, two, three years down the line. Before Disciple was a software platform, we were an agency building communities for music artists. Some music artists would announce they’re launching a community on Facebook from day one, and we’d get 100,000 people join up on day one. They would create the spark and bang, but it kind of would go bang and then peter out because there wasn’t enough substance and connection. You’d have 100,000 people come into a space  and not know each other so they would get totally lost and disappear. And actually, when we look at the communities we serve now – which are not all big names like The Rolling Stones or Luke Bryan – they start slowly and these things build up and they snowball, which over time is so much more valuable than rewarding for the members.

 

Todd Nilson, Clocktower Advisors  

I love that! There needs to be a plan for sustainability and that comes with knowing how you’re going to onboard people and helping them to see what they can do and what you’re hoping for them to do within that community space. You’re absolutely right, Benji. I’ve seen communities who have crashed the server when they launch, even for software as a service. But then nobody comes back. And you know, that’s for me a huge blinking sign in neon that says this community hasn’t shown people how they can participate. It hasn’t given them other things to do once they’ve come in and they’ve downloaded the lead magnet or whatever it was that brought them there in the first place. And they said, ‘Hmm, I guess that’s it, I’m out of here.’ I’m, for that reason, very wary of big launches. I’m a much bigger fan of successive, you know, increasingly large releases. For example, where you have your backstage founders group in there first, you get them talking to each other, and then you have successive waves of people that you start bringing into the fold. That’s a lot more sustainable in the long run.

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple

Absolutely, and Nick, does what Todd has just gone through reflect the journey you’ve had since launching Awaken?

 

Nick De La Torre, Awaken Catholic

Yeah, that’s super relevant to our journey, because we did not do some massive launch. Just a couple months ago, we reached our one year anniversary with our Disciple platform, and it’s been a very gradual release. Some of that was because practically as an organisation, we don’t have the infrastructure or budget for big marketing campaigns. So just by virtue of that pragmatic reality we didn’t get to do a big launch and we still don’t do a lot of proactive marketing. We just lean into hoping that the organic reach is there. But yeah, I mean, we’ve definitely seen a lot of what Todd described playing out. One of the things that is still a pain point is that a lot of the content generation and posting is still either from myself or different members of our team. There is some activity once the posts are there but I’d really love to see more proactive engagement from the community itself. 

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple

For sure. That’s one of the key bridges across from community stage A to B. It’s when you start to get that feeling that the weight is starting to get lifted from you as the host, and the community itself is starting to run with it. And so, Todd, what could you offer in terms of advice or thoughts on this because it’s a story we hear across the hosts that we work with… you’ve got a community there, it’s got to that first stage, it’s thriving, but you really want to see the community start doing more of the heavy lifting. It’s not just because you don’t want to do it yourself, but because it’s going to create more value and more meaning for the members of the community. How do you start getting the community members to start becoming not just readers and commenters on content, but actually creators themselves?

 

Todd Nilson, Clocktower Advisors

It’s a really common experience for new community builds. And that one year mark is often a crucial one. And to make that transition – I mean, Nick, I haven’t been in your community or looked around – but I would be looking for advocates and allies within the space. So maybe not necessarily doing a formalised advocate or fan or Ambassador programme – sometimes people do call them that. But having a group of dedicated volunteers starts with forming those relationships, having some one-on-one or offline conversations with some of the most active people in the community, and really working to help them feel empowered. 

You could start by guiding them, for example by saying ‘Hey, I’m was gonna post on this topic but I know you’ve talked about this before, so it’d be really great if you initiated this and started it. I want you to feel free to start making these contributions, to start leading the conversation. We want to make that possible for you because that’s part of our vision for this community. People need to hear your voice because you’ve clearly demonstrated expertise and interest in this area. And this may make a difference in someone’s life today.’ It’s useful to put things in those terms to help your community members understand that they’re valued, and that their voice is something that you appreciate and want to move forward. Sometimes they just need that nudge to get over the top. 

 

Nick De La Torre, Awaken Catholic 

Yeah, that makes all the sense in the world. There are those people that I can think of right off the top of my head too, that I’ve seen, even if their heightened degree of engagement was in the comments and stuff. There are those people that I think are approachable for something like that, absolutely.

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple

Something we think a lot about here at Disciple, on the product development side of things, is how can we make it easier for a host like you to discover the key influencers within the community. Who are the people who have the most potential to generate engagement if they start moving from simply being an influencer through comments to creating content? Because it’s such an important part of building something that’s both meaningful to members and sustainable for a host like yourself. Getting into that sustainability point, Nick, you’ve got a business to run and I know that you’re an active musician. As an active musician myself, I know how much time that can take up. How have you found the first year in terms of managing to make time to run a business, make awesome music and build a community?

 

Nick De La Torre, Awaken Catholic 

That’s a really funny question, because my wife and I are actually musicians together. And music has been so deeply part of our relationship. We met in High School at a Junior High talent show on the main stage after the talent show was over and we had both performed in it. The reason I say that, contextually, is because when we are not able to do our music, it’s very painful to us. And ever since we launched Awaken as a nonprofit, which is super important to us, it’s also been kind of taxing in that it isn’t our music. So that question of juggling, that has been a source of challenge for us, because we haven’t been able to juggle it very well. But that’s just kind of, I think, a season in life right now that I’m hoping is nearing an end, because we’ve been able to grow our team enough that I’m starting to be able to delegate more and more things. You know, whether you’re a CEO or president, when you’re running a smaller organisation, that means you’re doing pretty much everything. And so, yeah, that has been hard. And I’m not executing it in the ideal way at the moment. But I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, fortunately!

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple 

Good! That brings me to another point actually, we hear that some of the hosts at Disciple have actually built awesome communities, but they kind of ended up becoming hosts-stroke-figureheads of these communities by accident. And they’ve talked about having impostor syndrome: ‘Who am I to be the figurehead and the host of this amazing group of people?’ Have you ever experienced this on your journey setting up Awaken?

 

Nick De La Torre, Awaken Catholic

I think that when I’ve experienced that the most is when I’m fundraising, because we’re a nonprofit. What it takes to run Awaken – whether it’s specifically the community app or any other component – is not a small endeavour. But at the same time, it’s really, really blessing people’s lives. We have people all over the world. There’s a growing population in Australia that is following our stuff. In the last few days, I’ve seen so many people from Great Britain, in fact, where you’re at Benji, joining us. It’s so interesting to me. And so, as I’m talking about these things, it’s hard because there’s that separation that’s created by the virtual dynamic that I’m not in person with these people. So it’s like, are people in Australia really logging into our community and enjoying this stuff? Like, is this a real thing? But then when I sit down with fundraising, sit down one-on-one with a donor, and I see that there’s people in Australia that we are blessing. I think that those are the moments when it’s very surreal, the global component of this, and I realise I guess we’re actually doing some amazing stuff!

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple  

It’s funny that you’re talking about this subject sitting in front of a bunch of music instruments. It’s a similar process and similar sense of possible imposter syndrome as you get when you’re a musician. You see that you have this audience out there, but as soon as you can speak to a record label it’s like, is this real? Are these people really out there? So yeah, it’s a similar kind of mentality, leading a community and having that belief in yourself and in your members, and leading a band, say, and trying to really believe in both the band members and the community built around your music.

 

Nick De La Torre, Awaken Catholic

It’s totally true. I just thought I’d mentioned also, since you were asking me about having time to do our music and stuff, even though we haven’t had time to produce new music, we wrote a bunch of music over the course of the pandemic that we haven’t released yet. But I do kind of exploit the fact that I run our app, and I have a music library in our app for our members where they can find our music pretty easily. 

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple 

Great. Moving to a kind of completely different subject now, Todd, in a live stream back in 2020, you mentioned that 90% of community members are typically lurkers. I’ve now been told not to call them lurkers, but to call them readers. Is this something a host should be worried about? Because when we talk of taking our community to the next stage, you’ve got that foundational community there, you’re looking to take it to the next level where there’s more user-generated content, and deeper engagement from the members. Should that movement of members from being readers-stroke-lurkers into contributors be a kind of North Star? Or can it be misleading?

 

Todd Nilson, Clocktower Advisors 

It’s interesting. So, first of all, lurkers is becoming a less favourite term. I think it’s got a bit of a bad reputation, but I’m comfortable calling a spade a spade. I’m a lurker in some communities, and I take no offence to being called one. 

So the terminology aside, let’s talk about active and non-active community members. There’s an old rule called the 99/1 rule, you can look it up on Wikipedia. But I think the most recent research I saw shows that the numbers are probably a little closer to 80% in the lurker space, which is still high. And I’m basing this on a paper that came out in 2020, called ‘From lurkers to workers’ by Kokkidos, Lappas and Ransbotham in Information Systems Research. They did a study, and I think it was largely on Reddit, so take that for what it’s worth, looking at the lurker audiences. They divided them into lurkers who can be engaged and lurkers who can never be engaged. And it’s really a lot closer to maybe one in 10 of those lurkers who might be occasionally engaged or enticed to produce something, if it’s something that’s squarely in their interest. So really you’re better off focusing on those 20% who are active. And I think those numbers are pretty much borne out by what’s in the latest CMX 2022 industry report. And CMX does, benchmarking reports going back a number of years right now. They’ve published some numbers for engagement based upon the size of the community that’s out there. And I would say there’s a sweet spot of communities that are between one and four years old, and maybe between 1,000 and 10,000 members, who see engagement rates of between 22 and 27%. So those rates are a little better than I think what we’ve been led to believe with the 99/1 rule, but I would spend my time focusing on those occasional contributors and your super contributors within the community setup.

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple 

It’s something I find kind of eerie when I look through the metrics coming off the communities we power here at Disciple, there’s now hundreds, maybe thousands of them. And it’s weird how similar that lurker to contributor number is. This weird thing is that humans are more similar than we think – it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, you kind of gravitate over time towards the same number. 

 

Todd Nilson, Clocktower Advisors  

I’ll just say that there’s been research to show that people who are lurkers still report that they gain benefit from being a part of those communities. And they feel kinship with the people that do post even though they may never have posted anything themselves. They feel that they’ve learned and that they’ve benefited from being a part of it.

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple 

Sure. So Nick, is this something you think about when trying to evolve Awaken into more of a user-generated community, where there’s more contribution by your members? Is it a metric or a number that you want to be able to dig down into and kind of treat as a North star?

 

Nick De La Torre, Awaken Catholic 

Yeah, when I think about this in our community and when I think about the way that I use other apps. I think about how, for example, I’m on TikTok and I am 100% a lurker, I don’t contribute anything, I’ve never made a single post to TikTok, but I know myself, and I’m not gonna be like, ‘Screw TikTok!’ I’m just going to watch it and not make stuff. I’m just enjoying the platform, but I don’t feel compelled to provide any value myself. I actually treat Facebook the same way. You know, I’m not someone that’s making a post on my mom’s birthday but my siblings do. And my mom’s like, ‘Nick, why do you hate me?’ But, I just don’t do that, you know. 

And so I try to put myself in the shoes of other users by thinking of how I handle myself on other platforms. And I know that a lot of times people struggle to step outside of the way that they’re used to living their daily lives. And so even if they are content creators, by just simply making little posts on Facebook, the act of opening a different app to do that, even if it’s one that they like may not work for them. I’ll see them make a post on Facebook that they didn’t also make in our community. And I’m like, ‘Guys, come on!’ But I think a lot of it is just like this kind of psychological muscle memory: ‘This is where I make a post.’ So we have to help by trying to usher people into a new protocol, a new default action. That’s hard, but I think it’s just part of the game.

 

Benji Vaughan, Disciple

Absolutely. Now, this has been absolutely brilliant, Nick and Todd, thank you very, very much for your time. These kinds of insights that you let our listeners get are absolutely vital, whether they’re listening to it thinking, ‘Brilliant, I’m on the right track’, then it’s company to know that you’re on the right track, or whether your sage advice is helping them change courses is equally important. So thank you very, very much for joining us. And, Nick, I look forward to seeing Awaken continue to thrive. 

 

Nick De La Torre, Awaken Catholic

Thank you, Benji. Thank you, Todd.

 

Todd Nilson, Clocktower Advisors 

Thanks, Benji. Thanks, Nick.

 

Outro: Valentina Ruffoni, community experience lead at Disciple 

That’s it for this episode. To find out more about how Disciple can help you build your own dedicated community, visit disciplemedia.com