How Brands Can Build Online Communities That Aren’t Lame

“We just really need to build a community around ____.”

This is the fill-in-the-blank cliché that marketers and entrepreneurs bandy around at every tech and marketing conference. That includes Web Summit, which brought 70,000 tech folks around the globe to Lisbon to pitch, drink, and wonder just what the hell happened in America on Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, the PandaConf stage was the de facto home to those who had actually built communities. After Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian gave an electrifying talk on the past, present, and future of Reddit, I was joined on stage by two of the social media world’s sharpest minds: Sarah Leary, the founder of Nextdoor, a neighborhood-specific social network that’s spread across America and Europe; and Josh Elman, the famed Greylock VC who’s worked at Facebook and Twitter and invested in community-based platforms like Medium,, NextDoor, Airbnb.

During our discussion, they revealed some secrets that could help marketers and entrepreneurs develop online communities in 2017 and beyond.

Find your hero

Nextdoor wants to empower the people who use the site. Individual users, not Nextdoor employees, are the ones tasked with starting each neighborhood community. It’s up to them to launch a group and get people living close by to sign up. To succeed with a model like that, you need to identify the people willing to put in that special effort and empower them to work on your behalf.

“You have to find people who are really motivated, and then give them the tools [to succeed],” Leary said, emphasizing that the needs of those early users should drive your product roadmap. “Based on the needs to that hero, you build a product that scales to hundreds of thousands or millions. […] The biggest mistake I see is people saying, ‘I’m going to build something and then hold off on the community for later.’ That almost never works.”

Don’t go broad—go deep

A lot of newer social networks focus on a few metrics, like users or daily active users. But in the early days, the relationships between those users almost matters just as much.

Elman knows. He played a central role in growing many of today’s major social networks. On stage, he said that the key is to find a cluster of people who want to coordinate and communicate in one place with a specific purpose.

According to Elman, you need that critical mass if you want to scale. As a result, community builders should try to measure depth of engagement instead of only looking at how many people use the platform.

“Don’t go broad, go deep,” he said.

Specifically, Elman looks at the rate people engage. He also warned others to watch out for an unbalanced community. If there are a few very loud users and a bunch of passive users, it may create the illusion of activity, but it could also be a sign that the community isn’t healthy.

“Role-model” the behavior you want to see

When building an online community, there’s a decent chance you don’t just want people to use your site or app. In all likelihood, you want them to use it in a specific way that fits a larger vision. Elman asserted that you need to influence users by “role-modeling” the right behavior.

“When you start a community like Reddit, you had a lot of negative trolling and fostered that in the early days, and that became a big use of the overall community,” he said. “Versus when you start something like Nextdoor, and it’s about neighbors helping people who need help. Or on Facebook, where people were sharing what’s going on in their lives.”

This dynamic extends to how businesses use your community. If you don’t model the right behavior for them, brands will often spam users. But if you show them a specific way to use the platform—such as responding to customer service complaints on Twitter, or engaging with the community on Nextdoor—you’ll reduce the chance of brand abuse.

“Model the behavior [you want], and you’ll see everyone start to follow,” Elman said.

Start small

Over and over, we see large corporations attempt to launch online communities and fail miserably. In Leary’s view, those large-scale efforts are destined to be duds.

“One of the reasons why we see larger companies really struggle to create any kind of community-based platform is because you have too many people rushing into the community too fast before the decisions have been made about what the community wants or how it should scale,” she explained.

While you may want to make a huge splash if you’re a Pepsi, Coca-Cola, or Nike by launching to the masses, it’s actually smarter to start with a small beta test for your hero users and slowly expand the community as momentum builds.

Image by Unsplash / CC Zero

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