Kate Rushton Interview

Community Builders: An Interview with Kate Rushton

8 min read

Kate Rushton is a freelance community strategist, researcher and UX designer. For the past four years she has been building and managing communities for social good and for brands. This includes a community of competitive foodies for a global food brand, an internal marketing community for a telecoms company and a “micro learning” community for Red Bull Mind Gamers. In her previous life, Kate was an energy and environmental analyst and teacher. She is passionate about sustainability and education. Currently, she is based in the North of England, but pre-covid she was living in Stockholm and Barcelona. 



Panion: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? How did you end up in community building?


Kate Rushton: I was working from home as an energy analyst and started to enter online innovation challenges. What started as a minor hobby just grew and grew. Some of these challenges had prizes for people who offered the best feedback on the submitted entries. So, I started doing that then I was asked to be a volunteer community manager for online challenges for OpenIDEO. This then led to paid work for them which led to work for other companies, agencies and brands. 


Panion: What is the purpose of a brand community?


Kate Rushton: The purpose can vary depending upon the brand and the community. In the case of branded customer communities, it is usually to create an on-demand group of brand ambassadors. These ambassadors can help create additional buzz and content around a brand’s marketing efforts; provide reviews and feedback; and give ideas and insights. By bringing loyal/top customers closer to a brand, you gain a better understanding of what they really want so a brand can build better products and services. It is kind of like a “on-tap” customer market research/creative agency. 


Panion: When you have a strong brand community, do you still need paid influencers?


Kate Rushton: Ideally, you would use both. Paid influencers would help you tap into new markets and new customer bases then you could “funnel” these new customers into your brand community. Your brand community would then help you develop a stronger connection with your new and existing customer base.
I would, however, recommend that your paid influencers come from people who use your brand or - at the very least - like your brand. I think people can recognise what content is authentic and really shows brand love. It is obvious when an influencer isn’t a fan of the brand. People can see right through it. 


Panion: How does a community assist with content generation? 


Kate RushtonContent can be anything from reviews to videos advertising the product. Generally, you need to give some sort of reward for content in the form of points, vouchers or whatever it is that the community members value. 


It could be the case of asking for reviews in return for free products. If you want video ads, you could hold a contest with a brief. It all depends on what type of content you want; how soon; and how much control the brand wants over the content and style of the final output. 


Panion: How do you drive engagement in a brand community? 


Kate Rushton: In the beginning, I recommend using rewards and incentives to motivate certain behaviours like collaboration, producing content etc. 


Then, as the community grows and the expectations are set, you can start delegating more and more decisions to the community. This could be by “badging” or giving key members specific roles and responsibilities, or it could be through polling the community to crowdsource ideas for activities they would like to do. 


I think a key activity is to constantly be asking for feedback from the community about what they like, what they don’t like, what they want to change.

Analytics are clearly important for brand communities since you are working with a marketing team.


Panion: How important are analytics for other types of communities? 


Kate Rushton: For brand communities, analytics are key to understanding what type of topics engage the community and with what types of people, what are their concerns etc. 

For non-brand communities, I would say that analytics are equally as important because you need to know when your community members are active, what content they are engaging with, what is working and what is not working, in order to keep driving activity in the community and to create a community that is growing.


If you don’t use analytics to track this, you are relying too much on the subjective judgement of the admins and when things go wrong with a community you won’t know why or what you could do to change things. 


Panion: What kinds of analytics are important for community managers to track? 


Kate Rushton: I do think you need to create personas for members of your community and routinely review them. If your brand is wanting to grow in a certain country and there are people in your community from that country or with a strong connection to it, you might want to identify them and involve them in your growth plans. 


Then you need to track how many people are joining and leaving the community at any one time, and who these people are according to the personas you have created. 
If too many people of one type are leaving your community, you will really need to start asking yourself “why?"


I also think it is important to track what topics and type of content your community is finding engaging and what they aren’t. Then try to adapt your planned activities accordingly. 


Within every community, there are  some people that naturally gravitate towards each other through shared interests or passions, or their personalities just mesh. It is worth noting this because you might want to do an activity with a group of community members that get on well together. 


Then it is worth tracking who in your community has a business, blog or other relevant or interesting interests and talents e.g. TikTok video creation. At a later date, you might want to collaborate with them in some way that is mutually beneficial. 


Outside of your community, it is worth looking into what your community members are engaging with and what they are not engaging with in relation to topics relevant to the community and generally. 


Some of these things can be tracked within the existing tech in community platforms and some of it can’t be tracked. I don’t know any communities that allow you to create personas and assign people to these personas, or do any tracking of group dynamics within a community. I could be wrong though. 


Panion: What are some of the challenges people face when building a community? 


Kate Rushton: I think there are three major challenges when building a community


  1. Communicating “why” people should join your community
  2. Getting your first members to trust you enough to join your community
  3. Getting your first members to share information within the community

Apart from that, once your community is growing, it is managing this growth so it stays close to its core goals or it moves in a direction that you are happy with and the community is happy with. 


Panion: What are your 3 top tips for people trying to build a community?


Kate Rushton:

  1. Do you research and identify a niche for your community
  2. Establish a clear goal for your community and steps to get there
  3. Be clear on what success will be for your community and how you will measure success then measure it


Kate Rushton on brand community engagement

Panion: How do you see the future of community building in the context of changing technology and the “new normal”? 


Kate Rushton: I think communities will be smaller. I think more people want to connect more deeply with fewer people than  have a more superficial connection with a larger group.

I think more communities will use video and audio content to create a more intimate feel that is more human than people writing in forums. 

I think more communities will be closed because of concerns around privacy and people wanting to feel part of a more “safe space”.


I think there will be more gamification and badging that is a bit more personalised and meaningful that recognise community members as being experts at something than “top member” badges which are vague and ambiguous. 

I think communities are going to get more creative in how they are financed. It takes a lot of time and effort to run a hobby community unpaid. So, I think people will look into partnerships and other ways to monetise them. 


I think you are going to see more brands wanting to back and support communities that align to their purpose. I also see more brands using communities to help them achieve their brand purpose goals. 

I think some brands might create communities of customers to sell and market their products and services. Instead of using your money on Facebook ads, you could use a community of your customers to create content and share this with their network using peer-to-peer recommendation to promote your brand. 


Panion: Apart from your work, can you tell me about your passions and interests?


Kate Rushton: I love kayaking and being on the water. I just have ordered a new kayak. So, I am waiting for that to arrive.

I do yoga almost every day. I also like making perfumes. 

Up until Covid-19 struck, I was a digital nomad and travelling was my main hobby. I expect

that to continue but at a slower pace and in a more sustainable way. 


Connect with Kate Rushton here.


Erika Tepler
Erika Tepler
Erika was an ESL teacher for 13 years before she became a marketer. She loves traveling and spending lots of time with old and new friends.