Notes & Observations on Online Communities

This is a distillation of my experience in community building for Domino, a startup I co-founded that operated for nearly three years. It was a referral-driven job marketplace that let freelancers find work through their friends. As such, our community was an integral component for seeding the two-sided marketplace.

Community building is more art than science. It is highly subjective and so your mileage may vary.


1. Start immediately
Because communities are fuzzy spaces, it’s very hard to will them into being: they simply take time. There are certain things you may be able to do to expedite the process (ads, hiring community managers to recruit people / generate constant activity, partnerships) but these will be temporary effects and they may ultimately fail.

We started Domino’s community before we wrote a single line of code. Back in early 2015, we were one of the first to adopt Slack as a community platform.

2. Choose your space wisely
Where you establish your community has major implications for:

-The speed of community growth.
-The minimum engagement activity/energy required to sustain it.
-The level of community belonging/connection
-The required community management infrastructure.

We adopted Slack without thinking about it and found ourselves holding a double-edged sword. The chat medium enables a fast pace of community growth, high level of community belonging and can scale reasonably well. Unfortunately, it requires a substantial amount of time and energy to engage the community because the medium is real-time chat.

I spent every waking hour on our Slack in the early days. When I was taking a break from code/design work I would be attempting to facilitate discussions amongst community members. It was brutal. There is a critical mass of community membership in chat apps that requires less direct involvement, especially if you can promote community members into moderator roles, but it’s still higher than other community spaces.

3. A quick list of possible community spaces
Just so we’re clear on the alternatives, community spaces can also be created via:

-Real world meetups.
-Email newsletters
-Twitch streams
-Blogs
-Social media (Twitter, FB)

4. How do I get people to join?
There’s no right answer. A good practice is to find where the people that you want to appeal to are already hanging out & interacting. Seek out existing communities. Reach out to their members, or partner with them directly. For us, that meant freelancers on /r/freelance, Twitter, Facebook, and digital nomad communities online.

Be clear on your value proposition. What’s the community for? Why is it worth the time to join and participate?

5. So how’s my community going?
There are three big metrics: Community growth, engagement & belonging. Growth refers to the number of new community members you add each month, engagement refers to how many times your members interact with the community, and belonging is a fuzzy one relating to how connected they feel / how much they personally identify with the community.

80% of the time you want to focus on engagement. An engaged community is a living community. The more they interact, the stronger their connection and sense of belonging. Growth can be deceiving. Beyond a certain limit, large communities become more complex to manage, can fracture and split.

Domino’s community grew to just over 1000 people. Within that was a core group of 40-60 highly engaged members that helped keep it alive. Numerous community members met, worked together and provided educational and emotional support to one another. That is far greater success signal than a vanity number of total sign-ups.

6. Community-led moderation
Even if you can afford to hire a full-time community manager, you should endeavor to hand off community moderation to the community itself. Doing so empowers the community, further engages the chosen moderators, and gives your CM bandwidth to invest their time into deeper work.

We never formalized this at Domino and I believe it was to our detriment.

7. Maybe you shouldn’t create a community at all
Community creation, engagement & management takes significant time and energy. Unless you can identify how your own community is a core part of your business/product strategy, you’re probably better off engaging with existing communities.

8. Examples of great communities
Here are my two favorite: [Learning Gardens](www.learning-gardens.co) & Are.na(www.are.na). Why? Because both have introduced me to interesting, like-minded people that have expanded my thinking, self-understanding, and comprehension of the world.

[Lot](www.lot2046.com) has been very successful in attracting a membership with a high degree of association/belonging despite limited engagement (consisting of a weekly Twitch stream/hangout).

More to come.

 
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