Guides Book review: The Indispensable Community by Richard Millington

Book review: The Indispensable Community by Richard Millington

Last updatedJune 3, 2024
AuthorKai Forsyth

Richard Millington is no stranger to the world of online community building. As the founder of FeverBee, a leading community consultancy, and author of previously reviewed books Buzzing Communities and Build Your Community, he has established himself as a go-to expert for organizations looking to cultivate thriving online communities. In his 2018 title, The Indispensable Community: Why Some Brand Communities Thrive When Others Perish, Millington tackles the challenge of creating brand communities that aren’t just lively, but truly indispensable to both the organizations that create them and the members who participate.

Building on the themes explored in earlier work, Millington promises to deliver a pragmatic framework for building communities that generate real business results, not just engagement for engagement’s sake. As someone who has worked with many organizations trying to grow their online communities, I was intrigued to see how Millington’s thinking has evolved since Buzzing Communities, and eager to dive into the strategic insights and practical advice promised in "The Indispensable Community".

The engagement trap

Far too many brand communities fall into what Millington calls the “engagement trap” – driving vanity metrics like posts, likes, and shares, but struggling to prove their value to the bottom line. I’ve seen this play out firsthand, with organizations investing significant resources into their communities, only to find themselves frustrated when all that activity doesn’t move the needle on the metrics that matter most to the business.

Millington’s solution is to focus relentlessly on getting members to make contributions that deliver concrete value, like generating high-quality leads, reducing support costs, sourcing ideas for product improvements, providing valuable market insights, and more. He argues that by systematically encouraging these high-impact behaviors, a community can evolve from a mere “casino” of unproductive chatter to an indispensable strategic asset. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that Millington backs up with a wealth of real-world examples and actionable advice.

Expertise from the trenches

One of the key strengths of the book is Millington’s unique voice of experience. Through his work at FeverBee, he has helped over 250 organizations build successful communities. This hands-on expertise shines through in the book, which is packed with case studies and examples from major brands. Millington grounds his advice in the realities of what has actually worked (and what hasn’t) across a wide range of industries and community types. There’s a refreshing lack of fluff or untested theory here – just battle-tested strategies and tactics from someone who has been in the trenches.

Another aspect of the book I appreciated was Millington’s empathetic yet no-nonsense tone. Clearly drawing upon the challenges he has helped his clients navigate, he demonstrates a keen understanding of the common pain points faced by community professionals – the struggle to prove the value of their work, secure adequate resources and support, and win over skeptical stakeholders. But rather than just commiserating, he offers up road-tested solutions. He’s not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom or point out where common practices fall short. At the same time, his writing style is engaging and down-to-earth, making even the more strategic discussions easy to relate to.

A framework for indispensability

Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the overarching strategic framework Millington lays out for designing an indispensable community. He walks through the process of zeroing in on a community’s unique value-driving purpose, translating that into specific member-behavior objectives, crafting a plan to achieve those objectives, and rallying both members and internal stakeholders to the cause. The action steps are clear, the examples are enlightening, and the whole approach feels eminently doable. It’s a masterclass in tying community strategy to concrete business results.

That said, one area where I wished Millington had gone even deeper was measurement. He rightly points out the limitations and potential pitfalls of commonly used vanity metrics. But I would have loved to see a bit more detail on alternative measurement frameworks and techniques that are better suited to capturing the true value communities can deliver. To be fair, this may be beyond the scope of the book, but it’s a critical piece of the puzzle for any community professional looking to implement Millington’s advice.

The core message of the book is one that really resonates with me – in an age of ubiquitous online interactions, brand communities need to aim higher than just driving surface-level engagement. By focusing on cultivating specific member behaviors that create outsize value for both the business and the members themselves, communities can become truly indispensable assets. Millington not only makes a compelling case for this strategic shift, but provides a clear and actionable roadmap for bringing it to life.

I would wholeheartedly recommend The Indispensable Community to anyone involved in creating or managing brand communities, from the front-line community manager trying to level up their skills, to the senior executive looking to make their community a strategic priority. Millington has a knack for balancing high-level strategy with in-the-trenches tactics, making the book relevant for a wide range of roles and situations.

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