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3 Models For Building Large Communities

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

We can separate current community efforts into three distinct categories.

These are the host-created model, audience-created model, co-creation model, or support-model.

The Host-Created Model

“We build it for you”

This is the standard organization-driven approach.
An organization builds a community for its target audience. This is usually a
singular community identity, often with sub-groups, as opposed to multiple
communities. Dell, AutoDesk, Mumsnet, Newark, Carnival, and many others took this route.

In this approach, you gradually try to
convert most of your audience into active community participants. This is a long-term
process. This takes years, not months. AutoDesk’s community efforts are 15
years old.

This approach is typically tightly
controlled. Most of the work and rewards accrue to the community hosts, not the
members. In this model, volunteers may eventually be recruited to help run
different areas of the community. However, in practice, this is rare.

In the host-created model, the organization is responsible for setting up and maintaining the platform, inviting members to participate, removing the bad stuff, creating content, and all the activities within the community management framework.

This model offers one terrific benefit, you get to control all the inputs. You decide who, what, when, why, where, and how you build a community. You know exactly what actions to take. You also get to subtly influence the community to support your organization’s goal. You put in all the effort and take all the rewards.

The downside of this approach are the natural constraints. If everything depends upon you, it’s limited solely to your resources. If you’re not willing to hire an increasingly bigger community team, you reach natural growth limits. This leads to rampant participation inequality and the numbers game. Because of this very control organizations crave, it prevents the community from explosive growth.

The Audience-Created Model

“You build it for each other”

An organization will aim to cultivate a passion group of fans who will build communities on their behalf. This is common for hobbies, beliefs, and cult products. Harley-Davidson, for example, has many fan-driven communities.

In this approach, the organization cultivates a group of advocates through strength of the brand i.e. people want to associate themselves with the brand identity and thus create their own, independent, communities.

Each person brings in more people. Some call this the viral feedback loop, others call it growth hacking. For this to work, the organization needs both a cult-like brand name and a HUGE potential target audience. This 1m+ territory.

This approach gives you the maximum possible reward for the minimum possible effort (community-wise, creating a cult-brand is nearly impossible). It is depending upon attracting people to create their own communities because they want the brand-association. Someone living in Oregon, that are interested in the topic, should feel compelled to create an Oregon group for those that love the topic. This approach allows you to reach the maximum possible number of people.

The downside is unpredictability. It IS hard to cult-brand. It involves making hard, expensive, choices. It’s hard to identify and positively motivate brand advocates to build communities for you. You have very little control about what they do. You’re dependent upon volunteers.

The Co-Creation Model 

“We build it for each other”

In the co-creation model, both the organization and the members provide value and split the rewards (tacitly). This means the organization provides a platform and members of the audience do the community development work.

StackExchange, Ning, LinkedIn, and many others have taken this route. They provide a platform that makes it very easy to build a community. They simply the process as much as possible. However, audience members are ultimately responsible for building the community.

There are two variants of this model. The first is the StackExchange approach. Here the platform is standard and the audience builds their community for StackExchange. Like the audience-created model, they are attracted by the strength of the brand. The benefits accrue almost solely to StackExchange.

StackExchange use a pre-launch platform, Area51, to nurture concepts for communities before they’re ready to go live. On this platform, members must get a large number of members committed, give examples of discussion topics, and prove it can succeed before it becomes a ‘real’ community.GetSatisfaction is another example here. Each new member reinforces the strength of the brand identity.

The second is the Ning model. Members
launch communities, customize it as much as they like, pay a fee, and very
often keep the rewards. Each community is allowed its own, unique, identity to
cater to that particular audience. This works when the technology is strong and
people have a desire to create communities within the sector.

Ning isn’t the only example. If you have a
large audience, you can find people within that audience who want a simple, tailored,
solution to building a community for their audience.

The key for this model is the platform must help the individual achieve something that requires a group. Teachers, for example,
might use a single platform to build small groups for each class. is another example.

The success of this platform relies upon three things. First, a popular brand name. If people didn’t like StackExchange/Ning/GetSatisfaction and want to be associated with the site, they wouldn’t build communities upon it. Second, a large audience. Third, a very simple platform to use.

The benefit of this approach is you get both a higher level of control and maximum possible reach than either of the two previous models. The downside is you have additional resources issues.

Which approach to use? 

Any organization can take multiple
approaches. The host-created model is the standard, but only because it is the standard. It’s neither the most successful nor the most reliable. If you have a large, defined, target audience,
it may be better to create a platform or build a reputation that encourages
them to build their own communities – rather than trying to create a single
community yourself.

Imagine if AutoDesk, for example, allows
anyone interested in computer aided design to create their own groups around
any particular niche topic. The community, becomes an entirely new platform for
hundreds of other communities. Each one of these people would bring in multiple
more people.

There is a huge opportunity for those with
a large potential audience to take a different model, a model that attracts
more members taking on more of the work. There is more potential here than we think.

Free Webinar: Ning and I are hosting a free webinar on advanced social sciences today at 5pm BST, 12:00pm EDT, and 9am PST. You can sign up here.

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