How to Grow a Customer Community

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Many years ago I was Community Director for a .com startup in San Francisco. We hosted a community for ‘baby boomers’. Net Gain wrote the rules that we tried to follow.

The site became an aggregation of sub-communities of topical interests. Each topic was started by a few mavens, and we could not predict which ones would really grow. In hindsight, they were the topics that were really ‘passions’.

These popular topics, including forums and chats, were rigorously self-managed – even protected — by the ‘founders’ of these sub-communities, who took pride they were in it from the beginning.

This experience is similar to the growth of Craig’s List — a classifieds site started pre-.com craze in San Francisco, populated by the people who created the craze.

Apartments and jobs were two very hot topics for the “Wired” culture in San Francisco in the mid to late 90’s. And the city seemed very small for those in the industry. The reader expected he was only one degree separated from the advertiser, and perhaps could assume they shared perspectives. The site…nay, Brand…produced a feeling it was an underdog in a world of Yahoo and Excite classifieds. Perhaps a ‘secret site’ only for ‘those in the know’. Or those who knew Craig personally. As such, Craig’s List was built on word of mouth starting in this San Francisco .com community.

In a recent Fast Company article, Craig Newmark, founder of Craig’s List, was asked, “How do you know a community when you see one?”

One phrase stood out in his answer: “There’s a sense of connection, intimacy, a feeling that we’re in this together.”

Today Craig’s list is partly owned by eBay and enjoying more PR than ever before. Craig’s List may continue to grow, but the brand will evolve…mature. Perhaps the early adopters may not evangelize the site as strongly…doesn’t mean they won’t use the site. The site is still useful, simple to use, and 1996-unpretty. And Craig continues to focus on customer service.

Any CEO starting a company or product can learn something from Craig’s List. This kind of enviable growth business that happens when you create something with ‘a feeling that we’re in this together.’

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