Growing a Community is Like Making Risotto

RachelHappe
Rachel Happe Founder, TheCR

Posted on August 16th 2009

The power of communities is so tantalizing - the idea that a large group of people will all work with you to help make your products better, help other customers, and advocate to all of their friends is too intriguing to pass up. There are enough case studies to show that it is, indeed, possible to do this. A vast number of companies are now looking at some form of community to help with their business and I think that is great. If a company is selling a product and service that does not have some passionate fans, I wonder why they are still in business. However, in the quest to build communities there are a lot of pitfalls.  I shared a number at Social Media Breakfast 15 - The Power & Peril of Online Communities and my slides are here.

I want to cover one peril in particular that I'm seeing more often. People are eager to ramp up their communities quickly. This is completely understandable - large companies cannot even put a dent in their marketing with a 100-person community. They are looking for the promise of community which is a geometric growth and ROI curve that is achieved by some very successful communities and networks, looking something like:

GeoGrowth


In their effort to get there they front load awareness and recruitment into the community and are successful at getting a lot of early views.  A small percent of those who do this strike gold and everyone starts authoring, friending, and discussing things. That typically happens in smaller market niches where participants know a lot of other people already and there is pent up demand for a discussion outlet or a great deal of isolation. Most companies who try this fast scale model end up with curves looking more like this:

BigBangGrowth

Why? Because when everyone comes to the community, no one knows each other and there is no one to introduce them, show them the ropes, and make them feel comfortable - at least not enough other people to help all the new people at the same time. That leads to a very passive experience that can feel like browsing a website. So people don't come back unless they are looking for specific information that is there. The real risk is that once dis-interested, it is even harder to get someone to come back for a second look.

Risotto This is where I get to risotto. Risotto is a rich creamy dish that very few people make at home. Why? Because it requires 30 minutes of dedicated time and attention - you can't do much else while you make it. It seems like it shouldn't be that different from other rice - throw it and some water or chicken stock into a pan and let the heat do the work. But risotto doesn't work that way. The short grain rice cannot absorb a lot of water all at once. You have to add a little at a time, wait until it absorbs and add a little more. Once you've done that for a while, you can start adding more and more water with each cycle but only after you have started small.

It's very much like community. A small community can only absorb a small number of new members at a time. Once it is bigger and there are more people that can welcome and absorb new members in a way that acclimates them, recruitment can ramp up. However, if you overwhelm an emergent community you are very likely to have the activity of the community stall out and it will be much harder to get it going again.


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RachelHappe

Rachel Happe

Founder, TheCR

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Comments

One of the reasons Linkedin and Facebook are doing so well now is because they took a little longer to build more solid communities.  They encouraged their users to make real connections with people they knew.  MySpace was more of a popularity contest. 

Those who are interested in starting a new community should start small, and build strong.  Initial members should have direct and personal access to the founding members.  The usual first layer of a community are friends and family anyway.  Avoid the temptation to spam. 

This is a mistake MySpace made in the beginning.  Made for fast growth, but low integrity connections and community. 

Then demonstrate to your community that you're listening.  Ask them for feedback, and most importantly, act on it.  Make changes.  Screw up, change things back, make more tweaks based on feedback.  Keep your core users awake and active and aware that you're listening. 

Make sure to give your community members something to feed on.  What's the reason they're there.  What's the common trait they share.  Don't try and be a community for the world.  It doesn't work.  You have to focus on something, and that focus will turn some people away.  And thats ok.  Have a focus, and keep the community eating.  Hmm, I'll end there.  I feel like some risotto.  :-) 

Thanks for the post.  It not only got me interested in communities.  It also made me hungry.  I'm currently helping a restaurant chain that is built on giving actual communities a good times around a table instead of keyboard.  I'm going to hopefully help them do it over twitter, facebook, linkedin and their blog.  
Hi Mark & David - Thanks for stopping and leaving a comment - it's an interesting problem since communities cannot exist without relationships and relationships take time to develop. Hard to short cut.