Field Guide

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Beachheads and Vertical Expansion

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.  

Have a Hook

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. 

  • Instagram - photo filters, discovery feed
  • Reddit - Subreddits, Ask Me Anything, limited moderation 
  • Quora - long-form, expert knowledge direct from the source and not found elsewhere
  • Facebook - newsfeed, photos and tagging, platform features
  • Twitter - short-form communications, perfect for mobile at the rise of smartphones
  • TikTok - easy video editing, easy audio overlays, democratization of “celebrity”
  • Discord - built specifically for games, private invite-only groups
  • Snap - disappearing messages, highly-engaging photo filters, image-first messaging
  • Tinder - swiping 
  • Bumble - swiping + putting women in control
  • Tumblr - short-form blogging, anonymity model, minimal content moderation
  • Pinterest - image-based boards for inspiration, novel “pinning” functionality
  • LinkedIn - professional identity, enforcement of true identity
  • Foursquare - social + local emphasis, “check-ins” and unique local metadata 
  • Myspace - fully customizable profiles, photos
  • ReverbNation - toolset designed entirely for people in the music industry
  • Flixster - toolset for movie reviews and notes entirely for movie buffs
  • Cafemom - community, tools, and support specifically for mothers
  • Nextdoor - private social network, neighborhood-level geofencing
  • Youtube - easier and faster online videos hosting, embeddable videos (e.g. on Myspace)  
  • Vine - novel 6-second video clip, easy and fun audio overlays

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. 

Key Takeaways 

  • The biggest online communities are those that artfully construct a series of flywheels, including a basic flywheel for acquiring users, a consumption flywheel for ratcheting up content consumption, and a creation flywheel for leaning on users to create a vast library of content for you. The end result is a flywheel that produces nearly unstoppable organic growth for years or decades.
  • The basic flywheel (flywheel 1.0) has four main components: acquire, consume, create, and harvest. This is the first flywheel to design and understand and lays the foundation for additional flywheels to be built on top of it. 
  • The consumption flywheel (flywheel 2.0) also has four main components: consumption driver, verbs, personalization, and notifications. The consumption driver is a novel mechanism for “taking users down the rabbit hole” of discovering a lot of new content to consume. Verbs are how users engage with content and innovation with the verbs your product uses can lead to differentiation. With users consuming more content, personalization of future content is enhanced and occasional use of high-quality notifications can bring them back for more. 
  • The creation flywheel (flywheel 3.0) also has four main components: detect, distribute, feedback, and streak. You must become very good at detecting when great content is created and have mechanisms you can use to promote great content for maximum distribution. Once the distribution has been provided, feedback needs to be given to the user to “excite them” into a state that I call “streaking”. Once in that mode, users go on to be hyper-creators and they serve as the driving force behind the creation flywheel.
  • With all three flywheels in place and working well, the potential and kinetic energy of the flywheel is so great that it will go on for years or decades, driving predictable organic growth for you along the way. 
  • To establish initial momentum in the flywheel, you must solve the “cold start” problem. You can do this by hand-picking your early adopters, setting expectations for how they should use the product, and lean on them to ensure they create high quality content that’s consistent with the vision you have for your product. Be willing to remove or reject users unwilling to follow the quality guidelines you define. 
  • When traction kicks in and you’re thinking about expanding into content verticals, this can sometimes happen organically and will be led by your users. Often, especially in the early days, you’ll have to foster new vertical expansion similar to how you solve the cold start problem; by picking early adopters and setting clear expectations. 
  • For a community to stand out, especially with today’s abundance of online communities, you must have a unique “hook” that pulls curious users into your product. With a good enough hook, people will ditch other communities for yours because they find so much value in the hook. A unique feature or functionality must exist as part of solving the cold start problem and when it comes to putting momentum into your flywheels. 
Written by
Andy Johns
Andy Johns
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Beacheads and Vertical Expansion

Learn how to identify a beachhead and grow a strong initial community for vertical expansion.

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