“Belonging is a fundamental dictate of the human condition.” - Laura Nestler
The World Has Changed Forever
We live in a world where decentralized communities of volunteers can deliver value that would cost a business millions of dollars to compete with. The power of bottom-up networks has been on full display with the rise of crypto, community-led support services, and even open source intelligence groups.
The best companies do not view these developments as a threat but as a massive opportunity. They’re investing in strategies to turn their users into active contributors, gather invaluable product feedback, and out compete their rivals who are stuck in a traditional “one way” broadcast paradigm.
Community-led growth is our present and future. Almost every startup needs a community strategy and founders are starting to realize that community is a powerful moat.
Read more about how you can create your own personal career moat here.
This likely sounds familiar to you, “communities help companies grow, reduce customer acquisition cost (CAC), and drive retention.” It’s one thing to know this and another to successfully scale an active community to dozens, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of engaged contributors.
In this post, we’ll cover five community building principles that will help you to execute a world class strategy. We learned these from someone who knows a thing or two about community: Laura Nestler, VP Community at Reddit, who spoke at On Deck Community Builders.
It All Starts With Your Story
Your brand is a story and every message and action is a new paragraph. Your story should be ideas focused, not product focused. This storytelling is upstream of community-building, and doesn’t just fall on people with “community” in their title at your org–it’s a company-wide effort.
Your tweets, business decisions, and advertisements can either reinforce this story or interrupt it. Like any good story, there’s a hero on a grand, engaging journey and a villain ready for conflict.
Every active contributor in your community is a potential hero. You have the opportunity to help guide their personal journey by giving them a role to play. Like all authors, you have the ability to set the scene. A problem that your brand or company is facing can become an opportunity for members of your community to rise and meet their destiny. People are looking for opportunities to connect and work towards their personal aspirations. If they weren’t, they would’ve stopped showing up to your events and spaces.
Your villain is the opposite of your hero: it is everything that your brand stands against. If your hero is innovative, then your villain is traditional. Communities will only be successful if they solve a problem. Any growing community has a villain, a dragon for your heroes to slay.
For a community to differentiate itself, its architects need to develop a deep understanding of the role that this story plays in their members’ lives. Your community will give you prompts to respond to and your role is to respond “Yes and…,” like in improv, to keep the story going.
A case study in storytelling: Apple
Apple is best in class for brand storytelling–this is creating identity at scale. I bet you know what it means to be an “Apple person” without me even telling you! But take a look at the ad above: Apple tells you who their customers are by letting us know who their customers aren’t.
Apple customers are invited to “think different” in everything they do. This is present in their ads, their store designs, and their product design. This, in turn, helps create the Apple community.
Intentional choices–whether they appear in your marketing campaigns or otherwise–help connect your customers and create community. You want to signal to people in the “in-group,” so they feel validated and seen, while intriguing people in the “outgroup.”
As for the people who don’t notice your signals? That’s okay: boundaries are a good thing. We’ll get into this in a little more detail below, as we discuss the five major principles of community growth.
Five Principles for Community Growth
1. Own your distinct point of view.
2. Contrast is key.
3. The story is the product.
4. Reinforce group identity.
5. Let your community lead.
Own your distinct point of view.
Your ‘story’ doesn’t have to be completely original; it just needs to be unique. For example, Tesla isn’t successful because Elon Musk invented eco-friendly cars. The brand is successful because their point of view is distinct: luxury environmentalism. Tesla’s point of view combines innovation with social good, creating an identity at the intersection of extravagance and neo-futurism. When you look at a Tesla driver, you know everything this person stands for. That’s Musk’s impact—memes matter.
Once you have a differentiated position, embrace it and be consistent. Without a unique, differentiated, and memorable POV–it’ll be hard to build an enduring, loyal community.
This principle applies for individuals as well. KP, the Program Director of On Deck No Code, is the “‘Build In Public Guy.” By leaning into this brand, he has managed to create a passionate community at the intersection of no code and building in public. If someone who has heard of KP is asked about no code, they will likely refer them to KP. This is the power of having a distinct point of view and a consistent message.
Another example of a leader with a strong POV is ODF alum Madison Campbell of Leda Health. She doesn’t only think big–her vision is uniquely and distinctly woman-first.
Contrast is key.
When you know what you stand for, you also know what you stand against. Once you identify the biggest problem facing your customers, you recognize the antithesis of your brand identity.
At the beginning of this piece, we talked about Apple. The antithesis of Apple’s identity is the status quo. They seek to reinvent everything: phones, computers, how we listen to music. No matter who you are, they are solving a problem that you have—whether you know it or not. Apple has created a world-class brand by reinforcing the contrast between them and would-be competitors. When Google sells cheap phones by monetizing your data, Apples sells expensive phones that secure your data and personal information.
A more unconventional example can be seen through the Wall Street Bets community. They managed to drive the price of GameStop’s stock far above previous highs through world-class story telling. They framed the hedge funds, or “hedgies”, who took out short positions on GameStop as the villain in their story. While many hedge funds were buying up GameStop stock alongside the community, this viral narrative drove retail investors to join in the frenzy. They wanted to be a part of the story, a part of history.
The story is as important as the product.
People don’t buy Gucci purses because they don’t have a way to carry their wallet and they don’t buy a Mercedes because they need a faster car. Yes, great products are important. But it’s because they reinforce the story.
No matter how good the ad is, someone who views themselves as a risk-taker is not going to buy a Prius. They want to buy a product that affirms their role in their story. This is the driving force behind affiliate marketing and celebrity brand partnerships.
Celebrities are main characters in the stories of their fans’ lives. Millions of young Americans want to become an elite Twitch streamer and get paid to play their favorite games all day. When Ninja uses a particular mouse, the brand is selling this dream in the form of a mouse.
This is even true in the broadest sense of the word ‘product’. For example, one can even conceive of Silicon Valley as a product. Here at On Deck we believe that “Silicon Valley is a mindset, and it lives on the internet.”
This informs all of our business operations and messaging. Our entire team and community are bought into this story. We believe that we can bring these key aspects of Silicon Valley to the entire world and accelerate the creation of world-changing technologies and organizations.
Every interaction and detail should reinforce the story and group identity.
The best community architects focus on the details. There should be harmony between all of the elements of your brand: messaging, product design, pricing, values, and rituals.
It’s not about being predictable but about reinforcing your story and everyone’s role in it. The best brands in the world will surprise and delight you but they will never shock you. If you feel shocked by the messaging coming out of an elite brand, someone is probably about to lose their job.
If you want to viscerally experience this principle, there’s no better place than Disney World. All of the experiences are meticulously crafted to reinforce the shared story of every attendee. The entire experience is meant to drive home that you’re on a vacation at the happiest place on earth—from the smiles and positive energy of the staff down to the reasonable pricing on food and souvenirs once you enter a park. Everyone spends more money than they intend to and they love every second of it.
Let your community lead.
It’s called community-led growth for a reason. If you’re doing it right, your community will be co-creating this story with you. You do have power to set the scene and boundaries, for example, denouncing behavior that does not reflect your values. But the best rituals, memes, and jokes will come directly from the community. Your role is to pay attention and amplify these messages and practices when they reinforce group identity and align with your brand’s goals. If your community starts organizing events, reach out to the organizers and offer your support. If your community starts a recurring joke or meme, lean into it.
Slang is one of the key ways that groups differentiate themselves. For example, the Bitcoin community says ‘HODL’ instead of ‘HOLD’. These users refuse to sell any of their Bitcoin, no matter how much the price dips. This meme has progressed to the point that whenever there is an ‘L’ and a ‘D’ next to each other, they will switch the order. Likewise, in crypto more broadly, it is common for the ingroup to tweet ‘gm’ as slang for good morning. Crypto projects and protocols ended up creating specific channels in Discord just for people to post ‘gm’ because their community was spamming their general chat with it. This kind of meme can only emerge organically.
But not every meme is organic, and that’s also okay. It’s all about symbiosis–making sure you’re working with your community. A great example is Subaru. Have you ever heard the stereotype that Subarus are “for lesbians”? Believe it or not, that didn’t come out of thin air: that’s the product of a 25-year-long ad campaign. Subaru knew who their target audience was, and fostered a community around them.
Another example is the Duolingo Owl. The Duolingo Owl became a meme not just with Duolingo users, but with everyone who knew what Duolingo was. Instead of ignoring this, Duolingo leveraged this, and used it as fodder to create an April Fool’s Day joke that spoke directly to their community.
Stories Are A Labor Of Love
Building a community that will drive growth and persist far into the future is tough work. Like companies and organizations, most communities fail to get off the ground. It can be difficult to bring in your founding members, successfully encourage engagement, and keep people interested. No blog post or even book can give you a fool-proof formula to build a world-class community. If you don’t believe and love the story that you’re telling, no one will believe you. If you want anyone to care about your community, you will need to lead by example. These five principles will help you through this process but ultimately community building is a labor of love.