Expanding community organically

Over on LinkedIn, I got into, let’s call it, a disagreement with Richard Millington about the phrase “community everywhere”, which was the topic of a previous post: Don't let "community everywhere" distract you. Like Twitter, LinkedIn turns out to be a poor venue for this sort of conversation. It’s a discussion that requires nuance that’s hard to fit into 1,250 characters. So here we are.

I guess I should start by stating my bias. I have scars from being a community manager at Stack Overflow when a few people with a lot of Twitter followers somehow gained more influence over the company than anyone in the community or, indeed, the community team itself. Social media sites have tremendous value connecting people around the world, but they tend to create the illusion of human connection.[1] So I might be overly skeptical of the idea that we should redefine “community” to include Twitter in particular.

There’s a business parable drawn from The Hedgehog and the Fox that classifies strategies into flexible foxes who pursue many paths and highly focused hedgehogs who know just one way. In this analogy, constructing community platform[2] is the hedgehog. As Richard explains it, community everywhere is more like a fox:

To me [community everywhere] means uncovering where people prefer to satisfy needs which are relevant to an organisation’s goals - and making sure you satisfy those needs on that channel.

Before I make a case for a single platform, I’d like to steel man the other option. I spent a year as a developer advocate at EDB. We didn’t have an online community, but we did have a lot of employees active the PostgreSQL community.[3] We made moves toward getting community contributions to our documentation, but our contributions mostly came from employees. I had ambitions of setting up a community forum for EDB that never even reached the proposal stage.

Maybe for EDB a centralized community doesn’t make much sense. The closest we had were customers who used our documentation. It’s easy to show there wasn’t much of a community there: when we made changes, nobody objected. Our audience didn’t engage with us beyond taking site surveys and coming to conferences that EDB sponsored. Building our own community platform would have required substantially more investment than we could afford with no guarantee of success. We were much better off integrating with the PostgreSQL community. In any case, the close connection between the company and the open source project has always been a selling point.

One way to look at the community landscape is to imagine all the organizations in the world and divide them into those that would clearly benefit from a centralized community and those that probably would not benefit. Some examples:

Organization Could an online community work?
Towing company No
Neighborhood association Yes
Empanada restaurant No
Newspaper Yes
Dog trainer Yes
General Contractor No

Feel free to mentally fill in more examples. Optimistically half my examples could use their own community space. The other half aren’t regularly interacting with enough people (beyond simple transactions) to build a viable community. Likely the actual rate is much lower because it was easier for me to think of organizations that fit the bill. It’s probably lower still when accounting for people who don’t have an interest in online communities.[4]

Even among those that could benefit, the cost of investing in a community might never be recouped. Communities can be expensive and it’s not always easy to value them. If a random organization asked me to advise them on a community strategy, “community everywhere” seems a pretty good default. For most companies, it’s better to find community than to build it.

People in community interact

As a community consultant who specializes in Discourse, I’m predisposed to build rather than find community. My universe of clients encompasses those that have already started a centralized community and rarely anything beyond that. I left EDB, in part, because communities such as College Confidential and Stack Exchange better fit my strengths and preferences. Summarizing to a single adjective, I’m looking for organic communities.

Here’s a statement from the “Community Everywhere” article that I agree with:

We shouldn’t be trying to drive all engagement to a single website, we should be trying to nurture and support the entire ecosystem regardless of where it takes place.

The catch is that ecosystems are, by definition, interconnected. The article’s takeaway chart suggests tools such as:

  • newsletters
  • CRM systems
  • learning systems
  • social media
  • blogs
  • private groups
  • community platforms

Defining the community/ecosystem broadly requires this variety of systems. Prospects, satisfied customers and superfans simply interact with a company in different ways. One might even say that as a rule these constituencies[5] connect with each other only by happenstance. Frequently they don’t even know that the other groups exist. Their connection is to the brand, not each other. No interaction? Not a community nor, strictly speaking, an ecosystem.

Expanding a community organically

What annoys me about this whole thing is that at least some of these groups could benefit from rubbing shoulders. Instead of sequestering learners in online courses, why not empower your superfans to create tutorials? Creating content for newsletters can be labor-intensive, so why not send out a summary of popular discussions from the forum? Make your community a selling point for prospects and leads. Hard to beat the return on investment of leveraging the talents of volunteers.

Finding where your people congregate and meeting them there doesn’t end the process. If you are going to have a community, you need to pull them together. As Alex Komoroske puts it, you platform must coevolve with the ecosystem:

You might still use several tools of interaction, but they must bring diverse people together in order to get the most out of a community.

At College Confidential, we invested in a school directory. Our community barely looked at it—other sites had better tools. Ideally we’d have used our community to build a better product that they would be excited to use. Instead of relying on expensive data sources that anyone can build a site around, we should have found ways for our members to contribute to our database. That would have been a unique product that nobody else could duplicate.[6]

Platforms that respond to their ecosystem create a unique moat for the companies that own them. That’s how Stack Overflow became a billion dollar company. Creating a community of developers takes years and that means it can retain value even when mismanaged.

Barriers to organic communities

On my first visit to Stack Overflow HQ as a new community manager, I was shown the sales floor. “We don’t bother them,” my tour guide told me, “They are too busy making money.” It seemed a little odd at the time since the product they were selling was the Stack Overflow community[7] but I figured they had been properly trained in how to sell the product. Years later I got a chance to do a training session with sales people and I discovered they had almost no idea of the value of the community. It was little more than the key to open the door for their sales pitch.

Think about how the incentives line up. Every moment a sales person spends interacting with the community is a moment they aren’t on the phone drumming up business. If your job is sending out a newsletter every week, what will your manager think if they find out you outsourced the job to volunteers? Few companies have vital communities, so most people don’t know how to interact with a community as a part of their job. They go about business the way they would at pervious companies without a community. Unless the entire organization values their community, it will quickly cease to be a priority.

Leadership also fears losing control over a community that pushes back. It’s much easier to market to a passive audience than to interact with people who expect their input to be heard. That’s why executives tend to dismiss critics in their community as “freeloaders” or “entitled” rather than listen and risk changing their way of doing business.

An alternative view of the trends in community platforms

I said above that “community everywhere” is a fox-type strategy when considering the variety of places it takes practitioners. Over time, however, specialization turn the strategy into a collection of hedgehogs. Nobody can stay abreast of all those places where people congregate, much less excel at the wide range of interactions those platforms demand. So you find someone we enjoys social media and assign them to reach your community on social media. Someone else takes the newsletter and the blog. Obviously sales takes over the CRM. Initially there is crossover between these teams, but as people gain experience, there’s no real need to interact with each other. Pretty soon you don’t have “community everywhere”. You have a fairly traditional organization that pretends to focus on “community”.

If you thinking “That won’t happen to us! We have a community-focused culture.” I’m afraid Conway’s law says otherwise. Each division will adopt their own definition of “community” to emphasize their domain. That’s great way to transform “community everywhere” into “community nowhere”. Or, less uncharitably, maintain silos between constituencies rather than building up an ecosystem.

Gartner reports “a 74% jump from 2022 to 2023 in client inquiries about customer communities”. It’s fair to say community professionals have sold corporations on the value of community. What I worry about is that we’ve failed to explain the cost. Like all true magic, community-building requires sacrifice. In order to make the most of a customer community, businesses need to respond to their creation. It doesn’t mean that the community may dictate how a company operates. Rather companies that claim to care about community must build that value into their whole culture from CEO to management to contributors. If they fail to do that, their constituencies will detect hypocrisy and fade away.

  1. I did a whole talk on the psychological tricks used by Stack Overflow for what it’s worth. ↩︎

  2. See my analysis of Board Game Geek, for instance. ↩︎

  3. Almost entirely consisting of mailing lists, which are sometimes overlooked as a platform for communities. ↩︎

  4. The pandemic created an excellent natural experiment. Some organizations built lasting online communities, but many reverted to pre-pandemic behavior as soon as possible. ↩︎

  5. I’m grateful to Ana Hevesi’s article " Stop wasting time on ‘community’ for using this word that neatly defines the sort of groups I’m talking about. ↩︎

  6. It’s not too late, by the way! I’m working as a consultant with College Confidential and that’s one of the ideas we’re tossing around. ↩︎

  7. This was during the Careers 2.0 era when Stack Overflow though they would make money by connecting Stack Overflow contributors with hiring managers. ↩︎

A couple of months ago, I wrote a bit about creating community on the CM reddit. The question was about the best community software options in 2024 and the asker opines about how the usage of social media platforms means that someone else has your data:

Years ago we were using a mix’n match of PHP products like Vbulletin for forum and some gallery software(s)… then Social media took off and everyone was their own influencer… NOW… there is a push back to creating communities.

I have seen good things about Mighty Networks, HIVE and Circles… with the latter even offering a branded IOS/Android app which is impressive… However, I feel that people are moving from FBOOK to simply another company with your data.

In my response, I start by talking about why social media platforms are so commonly used to create “community”:

Using social media platforms for community took off because it’s where people were already gathered. It’s the difference between holding a monthly group meeting in a library or someone’s home - with the former, they know where it is and may go there frequently and there’s some amount of familiarity and comfort.

For me, this leads to why I think the idea of managed (owned) community spaces is more complicated than it might seem on the surface. There’s a question that’s central to deciding where to start a community that I’ve noticed more and more as I’ve been in the market looking for work and it focuses on the product itself that the community is for - How much is the platform part of the community’s day-to-day life?

Using some of the examples you gave

  • Neighborhood Association - While the person may live and breathe their neighborhood, they’re unlikely to check in on a community platform, particularly if there’s not much going on. It becomes important to figure out where residents go already and meet them there - are they on Facebook? on Nextdoor?
  • Newspaper - Because people interested in the news may be actively viewing the site on a regular basis, it makes sense for news organizations to rely on comments sections below articles for discussion and, by further expanding that to a built-in discussion space on the website, they can allow for more personal connections to form.
  • Dog Trainer - Your local dog trainer may want to create community between their clients and encourage them to share stories, tricks, or set up doggie play-dates for meeting up. But, like with the neighborhood association, I’d find it unlikely that they would have enough clients locally to have a particularly-active community without relying on an existing platform. That said, if we’re thinking of the training version of Girl With the Dogs, a YouTuber who shares her grooming sessions with the world, she’s building community on YouTube and other social sites far beyond her Canadian clients.

Jon, you know probably better than I, why Meta and Chat exist on Stack Overflow - community members naturally sought out ways to communicate and discuss site policy and built spaces on UserVoice (among others). Bringing people back to the site meant giving them a space for these activities and, for the most part, I think it worked because people were on SO frequently anyway. Seeing sites struggle with meta engagement and low usage of chat is a symptom of poor community building practices there… and… well… at least to some extent, an “effective” echo-chamber.

I’ve spent a ton of time working with users on MSE, MSO, and chat over the years and one of my most consistent frustrations is how clearly tired community members are of people using meta to complain - but that means anyone who does so tends to be downvoted and ends up discouraged. Why would anyone go back to meta after that? That’s not the fault of the existing community - but, in my mind, a healthy community that’s properly supported should share that support with the people struggling. Since there’s no support from the company, the community on the whole doesn’t have the energy to spare for the people complaining on meta.

Sure - and considering the situation at the time, people look for other places to complain where they can capture other ears. Meta has little staff engagement, so they try Twitter or LinkedIn to reach out and get their frustrations addressed. The emphasis in your quote, though, needs to be on the company’s response to the complaints, not the practice of taking in complaints from Twitter. A company with a reasonable social media strategy would know how to handle these messages thoughtfully. SO responded with a shotgun blast, knee-jerk reaction that wasn’t clearly thought through - and then they didn’t even re-evaluate the decision in a reasonable amount of time.

That said, I don’t think Twitter is much of anything any more, so maybe it’s better to focus on other platforms. :wink:

One of the reasons I struggle with Discourse is kinda visible in Civitas itself - unless people make an effort to visit regularly or have lots of notifications turned on, it may struggle to retain engagement over time. A Discourse that acts as a built-in forum for an existing product (e.g. video game) is much more likely to see usage since someone playing that game will want to refer to it regularly.

Note - Neighborhood associations are a weird one for me - they tend to be mostly one-way communication (e.g. newsletters). I was at my dad’s neighborhood Easter celebration a few weeks ago and took a bunch of photos but they have nowhere I could put them so the members could see.


This is such an important question! At College Confidential we have people who visit throughout the day and others notice when they are gone for more than a day or two. Many of these community members have no personal stake in the college admissions process since their children have graduated and are having children o their own. This sort of community is what I had in mind when I wrote “Building Civitas” to introduce my business. In many ways it doesn’t matter what platform they use as long as they can interact with each other daily (or more often).

Richard Millington[1] posted this chart:

The captions are tiny, but the blue lines are “Posts in a community” and the red lines are “Combined Posts on Reddit/X”. The conclusion seems to be that there is some point at which a company should consider investing more in a third-party platform and less in the hosted platform. When I look at that chart, all I see is a comparison between apples and popcorn. If you have people going directly to a hosted community (with all the potential problems therein) and generating over a thousand (presumably on-topic) posts a month, that’s a good sign of an engaged core who come daily.

The posts on Reddit or Twitter might be valuable or interesting. Or they could be the product of people who are invested in Reddit or Twitter mentioning your topic in passing. The barrier to entry, especially for Twitter, is so low there’s almost no signal there. We saw this at Stack Overflow when people expressed deep concerns about the site, but didn’t actually seem to know how it works. As you mention, there’s a responsibility to engage on those platforms (especially if people have nowhere else to complain), but it’s not your community. Or at least the signals require more interpretation to categorize feedback one way or another.

It’s true. Facebook, Twitter, Discord and Reddit have huge advantages there because you are already likely to go to these sites regularly if you go at all. I have a local gardening group on Facebook that I would have long ago forgotten about if I didn’t visit Facebook to share stuff my children are doing with extended family. I try to share that stuff here (or on my other Discourse instance, which is not helping, I suppose), but it’s not easy to get people to visit so I just post links on Facebook.

I mentioned neighborhood associations because my parent neighborhood has a mailing list that’s been active for decades. It’s mostly people complaining about teenagers, but there are real connections made. Since it goes to email, it sidesteps some of the problems with a site like this. I’m thinking that’s probably a better model for online community than a hosted forum. Of course Discourse supports that way of running a community, if you configure things right. One tip that I’ve implemented is:

Maker Forums has seen occasional visitors who are gone for long stretches before returning. By default, Discourse stops sending digest emails after a year. Consider setting the suppress_digest_email_after_days to something longer than the default 365 days if you want to encourage occasional visitors to come back when they see something new and interesting. I made it substantially longer for Maker Forums to support occasional visitors keeping up to date. Reading digest emails is a valid way to “lurk” on a forum, and you never know when something is going to spark someone’s interest in contributing.

I guess part of the issue is that I like to have a much longer horizon than a few months.

  1. I probably should stop picking on this guy, but we disagree about so many things! ↩︎

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Absolutely! People posting about your company on Twitter (in particular) doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re “community”. Good companies grow and, as they do, they get more attention and people talk about them more. I mean… how many people on Twitter are complaining about Twitter or Elon Musk… and then he frequently blocks such critical people - so equating things like @ mentions, retweets (particularly quote retweets), and hashtags to “engagement” is flawed - as you imply. Let’s also not forget how prone Twitter is to manipulation. Twitter is a place to plop throw-away commentary about things, not necessarily a place to engage about the product.

Now, some companies do use Twitter as a source of customer feedback/funnel for customer service. Many websites are so difficult to wade through, it’s often easier to check how active they are on Twitter and use it to complain about something their company did, as it’s more likely to get quicker support than your standard support forms. But these often seem to be gigantic companies (think airlines or fast food) - or, conversely, really tiny ones that only do support through social media - this one actually is really fascinating to me but outside the scope of this.

That said, I’d be reluctant to group Twitter and reddit in the same category, so I’d argue that Richard’s plopping them together is problematic on its own. Posts on reddit are limited in some ways but they have long character counts, easy options for adding media and links, threaded replies… etc. While maybe not truly a “forum”, reddit is not anything like Twitter. And, as an avid mobile gamer, reddit is often integral to the community conversation.

Now, this may not apply as much since he’s focused on companies with hosted engagement platforms but the ecosystem of many communities that live on Discord necessitates long-term, publicly-searchable resource storage, which frequently is reddit. Users are frequently seen in both places and can specialize as they wish - people who want to do more live chat and answer questions as they come can do so in Discord while people who want to create resources, often long-form or with lots of images, post that on reddit.

In my mind, the issue with reddit comes in when there’s potentially several subreddits your company can be referenced. To use SO as an example, for all that Stack Overflow is sometimes mentioned on r/programmerhumor, it’s somewhat unreasonable to classify those mentions as “community” or “engagement”. That’s kinda what RSS alerts are for - monitoring things but expecting there to not be much that needs your attention.

I don’t know how big the neighborhood is but I’d posit that it’s a bit difficult to compare communities that could be in person with purely online ones and I’ll bet there’s a ton of back-channeling that happens through phone calls and texts in reaction to those complaints about teens. I remember a very amusing interchange in my dad’s neighborhood when his memorial tree disappeared shortly after it was planted.

While the fact the tree was missing appeared in an email to the neighborhood, along with one announcing the resolution of a new tree being acquired and placed in a new spot, there was clearly some discussion going around in texts, too.

When it comes to notifications, I think they’re a double-edged sword. Because they’re frequently abused for things I don’t care about, I disable app notifications almost entirely and opt out of emails to most platforms pretty consistently. If they were used more conservatively, I’d be less likely to opt out but - seriously Guitar Center - who wants a DAILY email about your stores? Why is that 1 - an option, and 2 - the default? Congratulations, you’ve now been marked spam.