We talked with Upstairs Community’s members: here’s what we found out

After running almost 30 interviews with the Upstairs Community members, we gathered insights that heavily impact how we will continue shaping this journey. What follows is an in-depth list of takeaways I put together after going through all the conversations we have had so far.

Oana
August 2, 2021
Reading time 11 – 17 minutes
The conversation setup for Oana

Recently, we celebrated one year of Upstairs Community—a place where you can read stories written by creative people willing to speak the truth about their journeys. The crowning of this event was our first physical book that encompasses all the 27 narratives we wrote in the last year.

Along with this milestone, we felt the need to find out more about our members. We scheduled video calls, and we succeeded in talking with 20+ of them, while others answered in writing.

What we discovered reinforces some of our beliefs and crushes others. We summarized everything in this article, so make yourself comfortable and get ready to nod your head, as well as raise your eyebrows.

Some key messages first:

  1. Creative professionals are keen to meet similar people and learn from their experiences.
  2. Engagement is every’s community secret sauce, and we want to become better at facilitating it.
  3. Email remains the champ of communication channels due to its intimacy and 1:1 feeling.

Quick navigation:

Here we gooo!

Who are our members

Even though we talked only with 30 members out of 321, Andrei and I soon realized that there’s an interesting overlap between random folks who joined us and the customers who chose to come aboard. 

The common ground lies in their interests and background. Both segments are professionals working in the creative industries, such as marketing and communication, design and visual arts, branding, architecture, ceramics, teaching, photography, videography, journalism. 

It felt good to see that even though we did not have a clear strategy when reaching out and bringing members within the community, we somehow attracted like-minded people. That’s also valid when it comes to Pixelgrade’s core segment of customers.

For more details about what this coincidence means to us and how it impacts the community, I encourage you to read this specific section from our community first report. We provided plenty of context and relevant information around the topic, so make sure you take a look if you want to find out how the overlap of interests is a gateway to creating stronger bonds.

Having this comforting sensation that they are in a safe environment is an excellent foundation for building further.

Where are they based

Without any doubt, there’s a chunk of people who are part of the local community in Iași, Romania, the place where Pixelgrade is based. Besides folks from proximity, we have members from other sides of the world, too: 

  • Melbourne
  • Beijing
  • Ermenonville
  • Bali
  • Hildesheim
  • Ramsbottom
  • Caneggio
  • Quebec
  • Rotterdam
  • Brighton
  • Austin
  • Colorado
  • Tokyo
  • Hayward
  • Minnesota

This bunch of creatives joined because they are familiar with Pixelgrade as a brand and resonate with our design, communication, and transparency approach or are connected directly with Oana through various channels, projects, or community workOthers are customers who use our products to create websites for multiple niches. 

During the calls, we found out that members did not acknowledge they’re part of such a broad community, with creatives from all over the world. This happens because their experience feels very intimate and isolated. It’s like someone is having a coffee with them, so it was a bit of a surprise to hear that they are, in fact, in a huge company. This feedback is something we need to sleep on because we aim to facilitate connection without our intervention.

Commenting does not feel like genuine connecting.

We’re happy we succeeded in conveying this friendly yet secure feeling because the stories we publish involve going through a roller-coaster of emotions. Having this comforting sensation that they are in a safe environment is an excellent foundation for building further. At the same time, we should do better in how we communicate around the diversity and scale of our community.

Reasons for sticking around

The reasons why our members gave Upstairs Community a chance are pretty diverse, which is excellent news. On the one hand, a healthy community implies letting people take whatever they need without pushing them to get a specific kind of value. The more diverse the intentions, the better. 

On another note, it reveals the ripples we’ve been creating through our wide range of stories. As Irina, an international journalist who’s also a community member, beautifully said: “It’s one of the most beautiful newsletters I’m reading. Your stories are mirrors and windows at the same time.”

So, long story short, two main motivations popped up via our calls:

  1. Some members are familiar with my community work (I’ve been wearing this hat for ten years, so it makes sense) and were eager to find out what this project is about.
  2. Others are Pixelgrade’s direct customers or people within the WordPress ecosystem who are familiar with what we do, resonate with us, and want to stay in touch with our endeavors.

Here are some direct quotes from a few members:

We work with a few companies in the WordPress industry, I keep very close tabs on what’s happening around this world. I heard about you announcing that you are launching a community and at that time I was interested in launching a community for my company, so I was looking into how you guys are running it, how are you doing it, and how it’s working out for you. 

I thought that it was an interesting concept. What I liked about your community is that it was not overcrowded like joining yet another Facebook group and it was just on email and that meant staying updated it was much more passive then “oh, I have to participate and do this and that.”

Alex

I joined because I love your writing style, your openness & transparency, and the idea of talking directly to the community.

dave

I was in lockdown, I started to think about refreshing my website. I started to browse around for WordPress themes and came across your website. I was like “Wow they have cool themes, this seems like a cool place to find one.” I decided on the Felt theme.
Then I noticed that everything was very professional – the onboarding, the way it integrated into the dashboard, the customer service was good. Then Oana was very helpful—she reached out asking if I want the website to be featured. And I said yes. 

john

We took a step further and asked members to tell us what’s in it for them on a more specific level. What we discovered reinforces there’s a wide range of gestures that contribute to the overall experience. Some highly value the stories we publish because they strike a chord. Others appreciate the lack of promotions and banners. Many are in love with the simple fact that we knock on their doors on Sundays, a more serene day. 

Our initial bet that it’s still relevant today is that we live in a divided world where most of us (creative professionals) are lost, so we need stories to feel less alone and keep our wheels spinning. It’s incredible to see how nuanced yet solid this hypothesis can be one year later.

I want to learn how to better communicate by using a community voice, not advertising, not PR. It’s something special.

To stay in tune with what’s going on in the industry and follow along with the Pixelgrade journey.

I am a big fan of the building in public approach, so you guys sharing stuff like how is the community going, or like your email where you wrote “let’s connect” and you are trying to meet with members of the community—I like to see that.

How members describe themselves

When asking our members how they would describe their involvement (sporadic reader, quiet listener, deeply engaged in each story, etc.), the vast majority told us without hesitations that quiet listener fits best how they think of themselves. They read most of the stories, even though some later on (they take time to go through two-three at once), but avoid other types of interactions.

Starting with the 17th narrative, written by Olga, we enabled a conversation system for each story. Before putting this system in place, members felt more comfortable replying to the newsletter and share their thoughts. Since I was the only one receiving them, it made little sense to continue on this route and keep everything behind the curtains.

We accommodated the conversation system we have within Pixelgrade’s articles. Although 25+ members took a step further and used it to connect with the author and share their own story, the vast majority preferred to stay away—the intensity in the stories made them feel like they don’t have something valuable to add to the conversation.

On top of this, for most, simply commenting does not feel like connecting with other members; in the best case, it’s just a message directed towards the author. Such a valid point! 

We realized that such a channel works to showcase gratitude and appreciation for the author, but nothing more. It cannot facilitate connection and engagement among members because there’s no direct interaction. We intend to make everyone feel welcome to participate and offer a way to unite, so it’s clear we need to do some work in this area.

How members describe the community

We have the exercise of running calls with Pixelgrade’s customers, so we know a thing or two about managing this type of conversation to make the most out of them. 

From our experience, it’s one particular question that has the power to surface loads of valuable insights—If there’s one single word to describe the Upstairs Community, what’s that?

What I enjoyed about the answers is both the spectrum of emotions and the various keywords used. For instance, most of our members named curiosity to describe how they feel when they think of our community. Others, such as John, a member who’s also a photographer and lives in China, went with inspiration. Here’s what he thinks:

Inspirational. When I say that, I don’t mean just the stories, but Pixelgrade as a whole. It might be weird to say that about a theme company, although I know you are not just that, that’s how it’s perceived, but when I see articles that you publish, the ebooks, all the stuff you do in the background—it’s wow.
You are so transparent, open, I can see all of you trying so hard, and for me, it’s inspiring—so not just the stories but the entire company.

John

Others gravitate around openness, which translates as relatedness, intimacy, connection, even adventure. Our members feel such emotions due to the stories’ rawness and how they convey a spectrum of emotions. From joy to disappointment, from frustration to happiness, from loss to gain.

The way members interact with other communities and newsletters

We were keen to find out how our members feel within other online communities and what kind of newsletters they’re keeping in their (crowded) inboxes. 

While the newsletter feels somehow personal due to the 1:1 approach (it depends on how it’s packed, though), it comes with other constraints, such as a lack of profound connection.

As for any other creative professional out there, time is scarce, and commitment eats up plenty of gas. Some compelling insights surfaced rapidly and constantly during the calls:

On a community level:

  1. If they feel they belong or are appreciated and valued, they stick to the community in the long run.
  2. Participating in offline activities increased their contribution to the community.
  3. They enjoy being part of various communities to learn more about relationships.

On a newsletter level:

  1. If it brings real value to their current professional status, they keep the subscription and read almost every issue.
  2. Members enjoy newsletters tailored to one specific topic and avoid those that gather information from all over the place.
  3. They are okay with signing in and signing out, depending on what they’re working on or doing. 

If within a community, the commitment it’s far more solid once the members feel they belong, that’s not valid anymore when referring to newsletters. People are less attached, or, at least, more comfortable to unsubscribe and sign in again later. They don’t have any particular incentive to provide feedback on their decisions, neither they feel to contribute.

While the newsletter feels somehow personal due to the 1:1 approach (it depends on how it’s packed, though), it comes with other constraints, such as a lack of profound connection. As with any one-to-many channel, newsletters, too, aren’t the best option for “gluing” folks.

Future attempts for the community

In the last four months or so, we became aware that there’s a crack we cannot ignore between the initial idea of the Upstairs Community, what’s happening in the tranches, and Pixelgrade’s business goals and expectations. 

The closer and more robust the relationship with Pixelgrade’s activity, the better.

We kicked off an internal document called — [Brainstorming] Upstairs Community Pivoting to throw there everything we felt, discovered, and questioned. It became a vast resource that works like vivid documentation of our evolution. It’s a great reminder of how far we’ve headed but also a handbrake to continue digging. We still need to bridge the gap between these two.

To double-check our feeling in this direction and zoom out before taking a drastic decision, we asked our members: 

We plan to bring the upcoming narratives closer to the interests of creative professionals. This means that we get away from intense past experiences as traumas and focus more on topics tailored to their overcame challenges. Is this something of interest to you?

Needless to say, but all the members we talked with said loud and clear YES. They are curious to read more stories tailored to creative professionals’ interests, but they need them, too. It helps them relate, feel less guilty, find alternatives, get inspiration, and keep their creative projects on the roll. 

Their determination fuels our tanks because it’s more appealing for us and an excellent match for Pixelgrade’s mission, which is to support people who want to make an impact in their communities.

There’s no reason to shy away from giving this project the best chances. The closer and more robust the relationship with Pixelgrade’s activity, the better. We will not change our approach overnight and kick-off promotions, brag about our digital products or create banners with our company’s logo. Not at all. 

We will continue shaping this community in resonance with our core values: slowing down, being transparent, welcoming everyone while also engaging in broader conversations. For instance, we could lend a hand and help creatives better communicate what they do or put together a memorable story on their website’s About page. 

🤓

While we’re still collaborating with writers and working to prepare wonderful stories to hit your inbox, please remember that we paused publishing narratives until the fall. We already covered the reasons in extenso in this article, so please give it a go if you want to find out more.

Meanwhile, we will share our progress and keep you in the loop. We aim to continue involving you in our decisions and making this experience even more meaningful for everyone aboard.

There’s so much value and energy in talking with our members that, in some regards, I regret we did not start earlier. On the other hand, I know that we did not have the clarity nor the ambitions that we acquired once we got our hands dirty at that time.

We’re beyond grateful for the tremendous trust and support we’ve been receiving in the last year because nothing would have made sense without you. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. No community is a real community without people who are willing to invest. It can be time, energy, support, or any other form of contribution. All of them matter and make Upstairs Community by Pixelgrade what it is today.

Thank you, seeker!

Oana
A question by Oana, the gal in charge of Upstairs Community:
How do you keep the conversation going with your community members?

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