When building a community, remember that you're not building it for a certain member, but for the entire network. This is a hard concept to understand for those that aren't familiar with social products.
Let me explain this with an example. If you were building, say, a single player tool, let's say a SaaS tool, you'd build every feature that makes it easy for your users to use the platform. The goal of a social app is different. Here, the strength of the network comes first.
People don't go to Instagram or a Clubhouse for their features. Plenty of apps have those same features. Instead, people go to those apps for other people. The apps become wildly more appealing as the number of people on them increases, especially if those people are famous, friends, or exclusive. This is the main reason people don't buy houses in the middle of nowhere, even though you'd get twice the real estate at half the price — we're social creatures and will move to the coolest spot in town (wherever the career and mating opportunities are). The minute we find people on an app uncool or not worth the effort, we'll move to another one. Clubhouse saw their Daily Active Users drop by 4x after they opened up the Android version — people went there in the first place because it seemed cool, and left when it got boring.
There's a lesson here — to get your community off the ground, you've got to do four things.
- Build for the network (whatever helps people interact and find each other the most)
- Begin by keeping it exclusive
- Spark a network effect via events and topics
- Try to bring on existing network effects
Let’s dive into these four points and understand what they entail -
1) Build for the network
Let me give you an example of what building for the network is like by first showing you the opposite. This is the Discord channel infrastructure of a server I visited today:
Even though this is a very well known project, the server setup has issues. As a new user, where do I go? How do I foster a new connection with another member? This sort of channel structure reduces complexity in the server owner's mind (the owner knows where everything is), but sharply drops interaction among users, especially new users. Topics aren't static either, they're fluid. If I have a support question about the roadmap, does it go in the "Roadmap" channel or the "Support" one?
What tends to happen (because we made this exact same mistake) is that people will just dump all their questions, feedback, and basically any topic into the "General" channel or worse yet, whatever channel they find.
In order to build for the network, you've got to remove the clutter for the end user, even if that's slightly difficult for you as the admin to manage.
2) Start by keeping it exclusive
The allure and mystique of an exclusive community not just drives joins, it also drives referrals. If you have a cool, cult-like community of just 30-50 people, you can get them to refer others. People like referring their friends to exclusive communities, but dislike "advertising" for open communities. Technically, referring someone to an exclusive community is advertising for the community, but the referrer doesn't realize this.
People are also more likely to join an exclusive, behind the scenes community rather than an open one. You need to create a secret that just enough people are in on, and this paradoxically creates more demand and joins.
The NFT world is very used to this. The more secretive and elusive the community is, the more the number of Discord members by the date of their launch.
3) Spark network effects
There's absolutely no point of a community if the managers or moderators don't spark discussion. You need to find a way to constantly keep something or the other happening. In our own Discord, we hosted a fortnightly "admin debate" and a "weekend quiz" that made people compete for roles and prizes. Thanks to the competition, the roles actually derived meaning — people fought each other over Zoom calls for a title, thus the title became valuable.
This is also why communities around education, skilling, finance, and cohort based courses (CBCs) do so well — they have plenty to talk about (engagement peaks), whereas communities around beauty and fashion fare poorly (not much to talk about).
Lighting a spark around such conversation happens best via a voice/video call. Slack and Discord simply can't do video calls with more than 15 and 25 watchers respectively, so you'll need to tack on Zoom (or use Scenes, it has both solutions).
4) Utilize existing network effects
Did you know that almost all social networks started with college kids as the first user base? The reason for this is that college kids already know other college kids, and are more likely to bring their friends and interact with them on the app. After all, all social apps are exactly like college parties. Facebook was smart about this — they first dominated a single college (so that network effects would be maximal, and engagement would be highest among people who knew each other in real life) before moving to the next college.
This is why our positioning for our Discord server was a "Virtual Campus". Hell, our ads said India's first "Virtual Campus" too. Having a college-style positioning online sparked network effects that seeded the initial set of users, who then brought in the next set of users!
People like something that’s exclusively made for them, and that is exactly why they act upon referrals more than advertisements. So, do these four things right to get your community to take off. You can also reach out to us for guidance on growing your community.