As you might have observed by now, building an online community is strenuous. If you want to make it even more difficult than it already is, you’ll try to boil the ocean by encouraging users to create content and engage in a wide range of topics. This is a mistake. As I mentioned above, you can’t try to sack Paris right out of the gates. You must first find your Normandy/your beachhead. That’s not only true with the specific type of early adopter you pursue, but it’s often true with the category of content you want the early adopter to create and engage with.
Many online communities need to grow like Amazon. Pick one product line, make it exceptional, and then use the momentum from that product line to expand into adjacencies. Amazon started with books and eventually moved into jewelry, DVDs, and so on. What content will you have your users focus on at the birth of your community?
At Quora, we started with content that was familiar to us: technology. After we grew to the low tens of thousands of users, we picked the next content verticals to go after. Thankfully, the playbook for expanding into new categories of content closely resembles the playbook for solving the cold start problem. It entails hand-picking your early adopters, building a personal relationship with them that allows you to exert pressure on them such that they engage in your community in a productive way, and then giving them distribution to encourage them to create more great content and help build out the new category of content.
The most common mistake I see made when attempting vertical expansion is skipping the part where you hand-select early adopters. Not all categories will require this approach. A bit of good luck and serendipity sometimes drops vertical expansion on your doorstep. That’s especially true once the platform is large and established.
How is it that YouTube’s content library continues to expand into an increasingly large long-tail of content categories? Well, it helps that YouTube is a household name and that it offers the potential for enormous distribution to any new creator that shows up with something special. For example, there are tens of millions of views for standup reaction videos. That’s right. People post videos of themselves reacting to stand up comedians. YouTube certainly didn’t have this as part of their planned vertical expansion.
These anomalous behaviors happen without YouTube’s orchestration. But you’re not YouTube, so you can’t rely purely on serendipity. In the early days of an online community, vertical expansion may need to be driven through the good ol’ process of handpicking early adopters, rolling up your sleeves, and nurturing the first creators for a new content category until it’s clear that the seeds have started to sprout. That’s what we did in the early days of Quora and that’s what I see fascinating new startups like Golden attempting to do within various technical fields.
Creating an online community that thrives is brutally difficult. But, when you get it right, they’re a juggernaut.
Doing so requires the artful construction of a core flywheel, a consumption flywheel, and a creation flywheel. It also requires masterful selection and execution on an early-adopter effort to crack the chicken-and-egg problem, not only for the initial beachhead, but also for subsequent content categories you may want to expand into.
Along the way, you can’t sacrifice user experience. Content and engagement quality has to be maintained despite the community growing. It’s like stuffing your thumb into the dam wall only to find that each hole you plug reveals a new crack in the foundation.
To top it all off, you have to figure out what your “hook” is going to be. What is it that people will come to your community for that they can’t find at others? Is it innovations like AMAs (Ask Me Anything) that platforms like Reddit and Quora helped popularize? Is it an incredible database of content that you can’t find elsewhere? If so, how do you compel people to share with you what they haven’t shared with others? That requires innovation as well. In the early days of Quora, several employees built relationships with inmates at San Quentin Prison to give them a voice and megaphone. Beautiful prose came out of the cellblock and made its way onto Quora’s pages.
The above strategies are fruitless without a hook. That’s why most online communities never take flight. They simply don’t offer a 10x better experience relative to the alternatives. Of all of the questions I outlined in this essay, this question remains the most important: What unique value am I going to provide that other communities do not?
You must begin with a strong hook. Then you can follow the playbook outlined in this essay to help it grow. For inspiration, here are examples of product hooks that helped establish some of the world’s most successful online communities.
Without a hook, you won’t have a carrot you can dangle in front of early users to entice them away from a myriad of other online communities that they have at their disposal. This is the “secret sauce” that only you, the founder, can be responsible for.