Do you want to build a community where users search or hang?

Everyone wants to build community, especially developer focused companies.

A community helps your customers and users succeed, creates content that your team doesn’t have the time to do, and builds a competitive moat.

But what type of community are you building, or looking to build? Every community is different. Which should be no surprise.

After all, offline communities aren’t identical. Neighbors are one type of offline community characterized by certain expectations and interactions. Maybe you watch their dog, wave when you see them, and get their mail for them on vacation.

Friends and family are another. You invite them for parties and see them during the holidays, discuss politics, and stay in touch through the years. Depending on family bonds, you might even lend them money or donate a kidney.

Similarly, developer communities have different levels of engagement and commitment. These can serve different audiences and needs.

A community is not a community is not a community.

One easy way to think about the community is to ask the question: are you a “Facebook” or a “Google”?

No, I’m not talking about whether you should “move fast and break democracy” or “don’t be evil” and set up a panopticon.

What I mean is: “what does your typical user want to do: hang out or get a question answered and move on?”

Facebook is where people go to hang out. It’s the dominant social media site, even if the kids are moving on to something else these days. In this type of community people chat, hang out, and get to know each other better. The technology or software solution is often the original impetus and the source of much discussion, but there are other aspects to the community. Topics range widely. In some cases, people remain members through job and role changes.

The community may even have a real life component, such as a conference or members meeting up if they are in the same area.

In contrast, Google (the search engine) is where people go to get answers. This involves searching, then leaving Google as quickly as possible. Community on Google is tenuous. It really means “people there at the same time” or perhaps “people asking the same questions”. Anonymity is fine and even valued.

The point of search engines is to send people on their way as fast as possible so they can focus on solving the problem that they are faced with. When you are looking up an error string, you don’t want to chat with someone about their hobbies, you want to get your answer and go fix the bug.

This is also a crucial, often ignored, purpose of a developer community.

What are some examples of these two types of community?

Examples of developer communities that are “Facebooks”:

  • The Rands Engineering Slack
  • The Ruby community
  • Orbit.love’s discord

Examples which are “Googles”:

  • StackOverflow (for almost all participants)
  • The Elasticsearch forum
  • Almost any other forum, for that matter

What makes a community more likely to be a Facebook or a Google?

There are many reasons why a community might tend toward a hangout or a search engine. Consider:

  • How self contained is the technology? Components or tools snapped into an existing system, such as a security framework or logging library, are more likely to be a Google-type community. Frameworks and other solutions that are bigger and more self contained lend themselves to a Facebook approach. Few folks want to hang out and discuss the intricate details of logging, but a bigger project like Haskell or Rust will have more to discuss.
  • Are there events that happen in real life around the community, such as conferences? These are likely to make the community more of a “Facebook”. There’s a feedback loop; when I meet someone in real life, I want to hang out more with them online.
  • Is the community open source? Does it have a unifying philosophy? Or is there a strong common interest such as gaming? These all make a community more likely to be a Facebook, since there’s already more to discuss than simply problem solving.
  • How do members interact with the software supporting the community? If often, there’s incentive to invest in getting to know other members. If, instead, the tool is used once in a while, then there’s less incentive. This correlates to the tool vs framework point above.
  • How big is the community? The smaller the pool of members, the more likely any interaction will be personal, and hence similar to Facebook. This is especially true if combined with a philosophy, as mentioned above.
  • How long has the community been around? Longer lived communities have, by definition, more chances for members to interact.

All other things being equal, a community where people want to stick around and chat is more valuable. It’s also harder to build, and may be impossible. And it’s only part of the picture. People hear the word “developer community” and think of IRC or discords where developers hang out, but community is so much bigger than that.

What are the ramifications of this characterization?

As a community builder, when you are starting out, you are likely building a “Google” type of community. To help it succeed, provide the most help you can in the time you have.

Help builds trust. It shows you care about your community and their success. Offering help shows you value your users time and is foundational for any other type of community endeavor. Few community members will volunteer time to help answer questions on your forum/chat if the company doesn’t seem to care enough to provide good docs about the tool or software solution.

So, your job is to help developers using your software get the answers as quickly as they can. How?

  • Well structured documentation. If possible, allow users to suggest changes to it.
  • Publicly searchable question and answer archives. I like forums, myself.
  • A clear roadmap for the product. Yes, it’ll change, sometimes rapidly, but offer as much guidance as you can.
  • Multiple channels for community feedback. GitHub, StackOverflow, hosted forum, Twitter, email, Slack, Discord, conferences. Pick some to focus on, but support as much as you can. There are plenty of tools to consolidate these disparate sources.
  • Share the changes the community has suggested that are implemented. This can be as simple as a shout out in release notes.

You can help work towards a deeper community by helping members get to know one another. This can be done in a variety of ways, including:

  • Virtual or in-person meetups
  • Profiles of community members
  • Encouraging direct communication between members, if you see people with similar interests or problems
  • Synchronous chat platforms like slack or discord

Just like it takes time for a sports team or company department to gel, it will take time for a community to do so. In fact, it will take more time, since members spend less time in your developer community than they do in others. Prepare for a long journey with missteps along the way.

Why not both?

Of course, a community can be good for hanging out and getting answers. Different users can have varying expectations and experiences within a single community.

Stackoverflow is a good example. Most people arrive there via search engines, ask or answer a question, and then leave. But there is also a lively community, meta.stackexchange.com, where users get to know each other, hang out and argue over the rules and culture of the Stack sites. It is important to design and be aware of these different needs, including lurkers.

But, in general, most communities have a clear tilt toward one mode or the other. Either you are a watering hole where folks hang out or an encyclopedia where developers come for answers. When you are helping foster a community, you’ll want to have a clear understanding of which type of community you can realistically achieve.

Thanks to Rosie Sherry for her review of this post.


Online community power outside of devrel

I’ve been working in devrel for while and one of the key components is community–you want to support the developer community around your product or the larger ecosystem. I witnessed this same focus work outside of the developer community and still feel an online curated community is an under appreciated asset. Like all assets, you have to work to attain it, but then after you have it, it pays dividends.

The setting: a little startup in a decidedly nontechnical niche. I’m not going to be too specific because of agreements I made with the company after I left. They did the following:

  • Built up deep expertise in the field before they even started the community. This can’t be rushed, but if you spend a year or two focusing, that’s a a good start. (They’d spent 5 or 10, which is of course better.) This is a critical step that can’t be short cut. If you don’t have this, you’ll have a more difficult time with everything, because you won’t have foundational knowledge about the community for which you are trying to build an online presence.
  • Started an invite only Facebook group. The actual group software matters less than going to where people are. In this case, the target market already hung out on Facebook.
  • Invited people to the group. Not just clients, but anyone who was affiliated with the community.
  • Had a clear code of conduct, especially in relation to commercial activities (aka spam). Discussion of business related issues was encouraged, but unrelated commercial links were removed.
  • Seeded discussions with questions heard elsewhere. Answers were highlighted in blog posts and newsletters as well as shared with the group.
  • Spent time encouraging group members to share their experiences.
  • Promoted the online community to other offline communities with similar interests.

In time (years!, not months), this Facebook group became extremely valuable to the company, in a number of ways:

  • The questions people were asking in the forum could be turned into blog posts, which were helpful for SEO. That is, the company learned from the forum what kinds of questions people the company wanted to target were asking. (Ask if you can do this before you publish what community members may consider to be private! Just ask, sometimes people want their wisdom shared.)
  • The company could see if members were looking for the solution the company was selling. They could then reach out outside of the group and do a gentle ask. Member demand for services could be monitored over time, as group members shifted employers and/or situations.
  • When talking to prospective customers who were not in the group, a membership was an easy, free offer of value. The answers in the group provided insight and many prospects were happy to join, even if they didn’t want to purchase anything from the company.
  • People found the online community and then learned about the company supporting the community. A definite halo effect.
  • If the company has a new offering, they can do market research easily. They know where to find their target customer.

This onlinecommunity definitely isn’t free, even if you use a solution like Facebook groups with no hosting costs. (Facebook groups is not the best option, in my opinion, in terms of long term flexibility, because Facebook owns the user and you don’t have access to information like their email. But at the same time you have to go where the prospective members of your online community are, and anything you can do to reduce friction is crucial.) Moderation and content seeding are also crucial to getting the online community going.

But now that the community is up and running, it is a sustainable moat.

If you run an non-technical business, do you have an online community that you participate in? Do you know of one? If you don’t and can’t find one with a little bit of googling, think about setting one up. It can be a long term sustainable advantage for your business. Like any other assets, you have to invest, but it’ll pay dividends.


Tips for meetup speaker wranglers

Ruby pendantSo I’ve been a speaker wrangler for the Boulder Ruby Meetup for the past year. This means I screen, find and schedule speakers for the meetup. It’s been a lot of fun. You get to meet new people and often help push people past their comfort zone. For many developers, public speaking is a hardship, but a meetup is the perfect place to start. At the Boulder Ruby Meetup, we have between 10 and 40 friendly people, and talks can range from 10 minutes to 60+.

I wanted to capture some tips around doing the speaker wrangling for technical meetups.

Think about what your audience wants to hear, and how they want to hear it.

  • You need to want to attend (not every night, but most nights). This is substantially easier if you work in the technology, because you’ll be motivated to attend as well.
  • It also helps to hang out at the meetup for a few months. You learn who the regulars are, which people are really knowledgable, and what kind of talks the community likes and is used to.
  • Think of alternatives to the traditional 30-40 minute talks. Panels, social nights and lightning talks are all alternate ways to have people share their knowledge.
  • Tap your personal network, but not just your network.
  • If you see something work in a different meetup, steal it!
  • Leverage external events. We move our meeting every year to happen during Boulder Startup Week, which is good for BSW (more sessions) and good for us (more attendees and visibility).
  • Don’t be afraid to stray outside of your core technology. We focus on ruby, but have had popular talks on
    • Interviewing
    • AI and ML
    • User experience
    • General software design
    • CDNs
  • If you have facilities for it, remote presentations are great. This opens up who can speak at your talk to a lot more people. We’ve had guests from Google and AWS and the founder/owner of SideKiq come, at zero additional cost.
  • Recording talks is something that I think has a lot of value, but we’ve had a hard time getting that done. If you do record the talk, make sure to get permission (some folks are ok with it, some speakers are not).

Actually finding the speakers is of course crucial.

  • Whenever possible, schedule the talks as far ahead of time as you can. I just use a google spreadsheet to keep track of speakers and follow up a month or two ahead of time.
    • Sometimes people cancel (travel and personal events happen) and it’s nice to know about it ahead of time.
  • Since you know who the experts are in your group, you can often ask them to fill in if a speaker has to bail. (It’s extra nice if one of the meetup organizers has a talk in their back pocket.)
  • To find speakers, put the call out where people are:
    • Slack workspaces and channels around the technology
    • On a website (this is super low effort once you have a website up). A website is a great place to put topic ideas, audience size, expected length, etc.
    • At the meetup. At every meetup I put a plug in for speaking.
    • Twitter is full of people that might be good speakers.
    • Anyone you have coffee with.
  • I also always ask people that I meet. You know those “so what do you do” conversations you have? Always be on the lookout for someone who is doing something that might be interesting to your meetup.
  • Ask folks new to development as well as experienced developers. Newer folks may feel more comfortable with a shorter timeslot, but they also deserve the chance to speak.
    • Remember that the chance to speak professionally is a benefit. By asking people to speak you are actually doing them a favor.
    • Reach out to heroes or other big names that you want to build some kind of relationship with. They may ignore you, but so what.
  • Some meetups have a form on their website where people can submit. I haven’t seen much luck with that.
  • You can even do outreach. If you see a company in your area posting on slacks, StackOverflow or HackerNews with either articles or job postings, reach out and ask if they have anyone that would be interested in speaking.

Don’t forget to run through the finish. Make sure your speakers have a great time speaking and that you set them up for success.

  • Reach out to them a few months ahead of time to make sure they are still interested and available. Get their email address, and talk description (so you can have it posted ahead of time).
  • The week of:
    • tweet about them speaking.
      • reach out to them about recording or anything else. If you have another volunteer who handles that, this is a great time to hand off. I always hand off via email because everyone has that.
  • The day of:
    • make sure you greet them when they come to the meeting and thank them for their time.
    • have a good question or two up your sleeve if no one else does.
  • The day after, tweet thanking them for their time.

Getting good speakers is a key part of any meetup. There’s a lot else that goes into a successful meetup (a good space, sponsors for food and drink, publicity) but finding and scheduling speakers is important. Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful to you.



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