Strategies for growing a community: An Interview with Ian Vanagas
Motivated by his love for communities, Ian Vanagas took a deep dive into this world, with the objective of understanding them better and finding new ways towards improvement. This exploration led him to share his knowledge by writing extensively about communities, and today is seen as an expert in the field. Having followed his work closely here at Panion, we are excited to have had the opportunity to chat with him and hear his thoughts on community building, strategies for growing a community, and what the real focus of a community should be.
Tell us about your professional background, and how you first started getting involved in community?
My professional background is a bit unrelated to community. I’m a software developer at a startup. My expertise in community comes from being a long-time active member and writing about them regularly.
I got into community like many people: I grew up on the internet. I became fascinated with the idea that you could talk and learn about things you’re interested in with anyone through communities. It’s fun making friends with people you’ve never met in real life. I enjoy going down rabbit holes and exploring interests I never realized I had. There is a deep satisfaction with ‘figuring out’ a community, learning its culture, developing tastes, and understanding its memes.
At some point, I wanted to figure out why I enjoyed spending time in these communities. What made some good and others bad? What was the role of platforms, content, and structure in communities? How do we improve them? Not enough people were writing about this, so I scratched my itch. I started thinking and writing about it.
What fascinates you about the world of communities?
Communities are weird. They fulfill many roles for people. They can be extremely useful or completely useless. They can be big and small. They can change someone’s life or waste someone’s time. They are constantly growing and changing. I love these dynamics. I want more communities to exist, more people to spend more time in them, and for them to be constantly improving.
There is so much opportunity for communities. Internet communities have a long way to go to reach the impact in-person communities do on a global scale. Every community has the opportunity to be a micro-economy, creating products and services for the good of all members. Every community can give members more responsibility and meaning in their lives, something that many people are lacking. Communities have the potential to change the world, or at least the world of an individual. I think this fact is underappreciated by many people.
There is so much to think about and to do in the community-building world to make these potentials a reality. The people, ideas, and platforms are getting there, we just need to keep progressing.
How do you see the future of community-building in the context of changing technology and the ‘new normal’?
In this ‘new normal’, companies and talent worth trillions of dollars are either working remotely or building for the ‘remote-first’ world. All this holds benefits for communities. Products that are built for people to communicate, create, and collaborate can and will be used to benefit communities. Ideas and strategies created to make sure people work efficiently and effectively can be ‘borrowed’ to help communities grow stronger.
People are going to spend a lot more of their time in internet communities and be more reliant on those communities. They might use them for support, career development, credentialing, or just being social. Remote work has decreased these things which someone might have gotten previously in the physical workplace, and thus, it needs to be replaced.
You’ve spoken about the different speeds of communities on your blog. Could you briefly explain this concept to our readers?
Communities take place at different speeds depending on the medium they use. Chat is faster than forum posts. Forum posts are faster than research papers. Some communities work better at different speeds. Just because a platform offers a default speed, doesn’t mean it is the right one. Communities have more ability to control their speed than they realize. Adding or removing friction to communication can slow down or speed up a community.
For members, it is important to not only pick the right community area, but also the right speed. You might be someone who likes fast back-and-forth, a talk or chat-based speed might be right for you. Maybe you are someone who likes to think more about your answers, then a slower forum or post-based platform may be right for you.
The wrong speed can cause problems for the community and you. It might encourage members to post worse content or less content than they would be at a different speed. It might cause you to be less engaged and interested in the area than the right speed would. The quality of a community can be significantly impacted by its speed.
What are your top three strategies for growing a community?
1. Create artifacts that are sent out into the wider world
Artifacts are pieces of the community that are packaged and sent into the wider world. An example is a screenshot or a photo, an external facing event, or a meme. Artifacts have a community’s DNA on them. They provide people with a taste of the community without having to join fully. By making the community more accessible, they help attract new potential members to be interested in the community.
2. Let people signal they are part of the group
Members will brag about their community if you let them. They will talk about it with people they think are relevant to it. They’ll signal their membership if it provides them with status. Communities should give members tools to help them do this. They want to show other people they are of high status. What does this look like? A hashtag or account they can put in their social media bio. Merch, shirts, stickers they can wear outside and to related events. Artifacts they can reshare. Content and credentials developed as a community.
3. Keep the core strong
As mentioned before, there are core behaviors in every community that keep them ‘ticking’. I refer to this as the ‘Community Clock’. Communities should aim to keep this clock ticking as strong and long as possible. Run experiments on the fringes but try to keep the core value of the community the same or similar. Experiments will attract new members, but the core will keep them around. Never let the ticking fade. Much can distract from the ticking of the clock. New members won’t realize its importance unless it is explained to them.
What do you believe should be at the center of a community: people or content? And why do you believe this?
People. It’s people that will create content. Community is nothing without people. Many communities think they will focus on one type or area of content but realize through the interactions of members that they are something different. It’s people that guide this.
A community is not a community without people. The quality of people and their interactions with each other make up the community. People make the content, rules, entertainment, and ideas in the community. They can change it all if they want. Content is less dynamic.
What advice would you give to Community Managers to ensure their focus remains on people?
Connect people as much as possible. Put faces (or voices) to names. Let people interact and help them improve their interactions. Give them structure if they need it or get out of their way if they don’t. Don’t only listen to what people say they want, but encourage them to tell you what they want.
Provide opportunities for people to bump into each other. Give them places to make connections they didn’t realize they would make. Challenge them to go outside their comfort zone with members doing the same. Help them work towards their individual or shared goals. Show them their progress together and celebrate wins. All these create tighter bonds.
What makes a community unique and special, in your opinion?
The repeated work that goes on. Every community has some “work” that happens there. It is the core of the community, something I like to call the “Community Clock.” Unique and special communities have a strong and unique clock. They help members repeatedly do things and improve at doing things in the long run.
Unique and special communities can get their members to repeatedly do something interesting such as a structured meeting with each other, writing elaborate guides, selling NFTs, having discussions on intellectual subjects, or many more areas. Many communities can sustain idle chatter or low-quality posting, fewer can move beyond. The best communities help their members do something they didn’t realize they could do.
Feeling inspired by Ian’s insights? Make sure to follow him on Twitter, and sign up for his newsletter for more insightful and thought-provoking content. Keep an eye on Panion’s blog page, we interview industry leaders and experts regularly, keeping you up to date with everything you need to know about the world of community.