I am a big fan of “Saturday Night Live” and, as I thought about it, I realized that the cast of SNL has a lot in common with the members of an online community.
The show is now on it’s 38th season and, according to Wikipedia, the program has had a total of 132 cast members. If you look through the list of cast members, you’ll notice a lot of names that you know, but also many that you don’t.
The changes that occur with the SNL mirror the changes that your online community experiences with membership.
Everyone is New at First
Before someone is “hey! that’s my favorite SNL cast member!” they are always, “wait, who is that?” Before you can like someone, you have to have no idea who they are. Then later some people will act like they always liked them but, of course, they didn’t.
All veteran members on your community must first be new members that no one knows. They don’t know what to expect from them or what they might contribute. Some people might bring a certain group of supporters with them (for example, current cast member Jay Pharoah had posted popular impression videos online prior to joining SNL). But even those people will have not know the new member at some point and he or she will still be new to the community at large.
Before someone can be the next great member, they are always the latest new member.
Some Members Are Popular, Some Less So
Though SNL is best known for it’s most popular cast members, the show’s list of current and former cast is littered with people who were not exceptionally popular on the show or after leaving it.
However, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t popular with some of the audience. There are varying levels of popularity. Some performers simply provide a different brand of humor that is appreciated by different people.
Similarly, you’ll have members who are widely popular and you’ll have members who are only popular with select groups due to their perspective, experience and/or humor. This speaks to diversity.
Not Every Cast is the Strongest
Just because you are a success over a long period of time does not mean that there aren’t peaks and valleys. There can be big ones. There are SNL cast years that are generally regarded as being better than others. Even on the weakest casts, there was usually a performer or two who went on to be a big star.
You also had casts that were packed with names that we would now recognize. Like in the 1990s when Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Chris Farley, David Spade and Adam Sandler were all on the same cast. I felt the cast a couple of years ago, with Seth Meyers, Will Forte, Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson, Jason Sudeikis, Andy Samberg, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Bobby Moynihan was really strong. It’s all a matter of taste.
The same is true for the ebb and flow of online communities: you’ll have times when your membership is strong and you’ll have times when it is less strong. You have to roll with that and continue to invite and welcome new people to work through those periods.
Some Members Will Go on to Accomplish Great Things
Some of the members of your community will go on to accomplish great things, while they are a member of your community and after they have left it or are no longer active. This reflects well on you and your community. Part of the reason why SNL is such an attractive venue for comics is because of the track record the show has with recognizing star talent.
Even when that talent leaves, it is still something to be celebrated and to be welcomed back. Many former SNL cast members return to the show to host or just pop up randomly from time to time. They are a part of the legacy of the show, just like formerly active members are a part of the legacy of your community.
Eventually, Everyone Must Move On
It can be a sad part of life, but eventually everything must come to an end. People move on from the show and from your community. Some may go on to greater things. Some may stop by once in a while. Some you’ll never hear from again. Some may even be lost in a tragedy.
You can’t stop this certainty of life. You can only decide how you will respond. As a community manager, your job isn’t to keep someone forever. Yes, I know the word “retention.” And that’s fine. Have member retention efforts, just like SNL sometimes manages to hold onto hot cast members, even while they are filming movies and growing in popularity. But eventually, all will leave, including you.
This is why it is important to always be adding new members and, if you can help it, to always maintain a mix of new and established members, just like SNL blends veteran cast members with new additions. It helps the new additions to grow into the role and helps the established players to maintain their audience. By the time those established players want to exit the show, the new additions are the established ones.
It is a cycle, it is a process and it does repeat. SNL is a solid example of managing the cycle, a program with a cast that changes from year to year that has managed to maintain a solid presence for 40 years.