Mixing Board Studio Session: Bailey Richardson on building communities with intention

Mixing Board Community Member Bailey Richardson, with her partners at People & Company, helps organizations like Substack, Nike, Porsche, and Thinx make their community-building efforts strategic and tailored to their own unique needs and opportunities. She’s also published a book on how to build communities and interviews inspiring community leaders that the world should know about on her podcast, Get Together. Before all this, she grew the early community around Instagram, where she was one of the first employees.

Here are excerpts from Bailey’s live Studio Session interview with Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett.

SG: For someone who has a community building business, why do you suggest that we should stop using the word community?

BR: The big reason why I push back on the term is that I think it is so ambiguous. I think the primary relationship people have with the word community is maybe a feeling — it’s a group of people who really care about something — and that often trickles down to people feeling like their community is the squeaky wheels, or the people who are really active in the forums, or have been long-term brand evangelists, or tweet at them a lot.

What we force people to do when we go in and work with them on a community strategy is to align on their “who”. Who is the key stakeholder? Who is someone that has an outsized impact on the future of their business or organization that they want to supercharge? They want those people to be able to do more and contribute in some way.

Then what can we do to do that? And oftentimes people use the term community as a way to keep serving just their most passionate people, even if they don’t have a very big impact on the business. And the strategy behind a community strategy ends up being weak and strategically insufficient.

I try to get people to really understand that strategic side and the way to do that is to be specific about the type of people that you either want desperately to retain or to grow more of, who are a key part of your business organization.

The word community is not a bad word. It’s simply more ambiguous now than it’s ever been. Therefore you need to move from ambiguity to specificity very quickly about what it means to you.

SG: Community is a two-sided sword in that it’s this living organism, and you feed it, but you don’t control it. A connection between the company and community can start off really strong, but as companies evolve and change, sometimes people in the early community felt betrayed. As a company, how do you continue to foster that early energy, when the relationship to your community might change?

BR: I interviewed this guy named Evan Hamilton for our podcast who runs community at Reddit. In talking to him, one thing that became very clear to me. In the very beginning of launching these platform companies or companies where people create the content, you will not succeed if you don’t have a rabid group of people that see this new space as so interesting and so valuable to them that they are going to make it into something before it already is something. They’re going to spend their time, building up a space before anyone else is in it. And if you don’t have something like that, you don’t have a connection to those users. If you don’t treat them with a certain standard of care or listen to them and take their feedback, you probably won’t even get your ship out of the harbor.

Then the ship gets out into the harbor and all of a sudden it’s scale time, and those people don’t matter as much anymore to whether or not the platform succeeds. Often in that moment is when companies drop their touchpoints with users, period. They just throw them out the window, and the only thing they do is user research. They just decide, we can’t scale these interactions. And Reddit has basically said, that’s bullshit. It’s possible to create systems and touchpoints throughout a company that is community driven. We just have to actually stick them in place and stick to them.

Your most important stakeholders will evolve and change with your priorities as a business, and that’s important. Build in systems and processes where you keep up a reasonable amount of touchpoints that are human with your users and keep up consistent activity over time. But people just drop it.

SG: What are the first steps that companies can take to build a community right but don’t know where to start?

BR: Once we understand who the stakeholders are going to be that are critical to the company’s future, we begin to get names on paper. So we help them define the criteria around who is the most important to the future of your organization and who brings the energy right now?

And we begin to do what we call “build with” those people. They have ideas run by them and we have them gut check our writing, gut check our ideas, and build them into the process. I think depending on what stage you’re in, we often work with later stage businesses, so companies that are pretty big and maybe just forgot to do this, or forgot how to do this. It’s a pretty intentional act to go out and build relationships with these people they should have already had relationships with.

Alex Zhu, who was the founder of Musical.ly, which is now TikTok, gave an amazing speech where he talks about how he ran a team in China that were building for the American teenager. None of them had any understanding of what that was, and they just like completely invested themselves into getting users on WeChat and messaging with them all the time. Trying to understand them and understand how they perceive their product. They would send wireframes over WeChat before they built to 17-year-olds in Austin, Texas. The way we do it is more structured because we’re dealing with introducing new behaviors into kind of a big ship.

If you’re just getting started, get as many touch points as you possibly can. That’s part of cranking the engine to get the engine started, and you don’t have to be quite so strategic when you don’t have as many stakeholders. But it starts with who. Getting the names down on paper and then figuring out how we can bring these people in? Is their feedback on something immediate we already have, or do we need to get to know them better and do more psychographic conversations with them?

Beyond the “who”, if you, as a company, don’t have a why, if there’s no, passion point, if there’s nothing that resonates with an external stakeholder as to why you exist and what change is happening because of you, or it’s just not that interesting to people, you’re not going to be able to get a community to show up for you.

I always encourage people to be personal and be real in the early stages. And I sometimes think when we get into business mode, we turn our communication into some weird ass strategic emailing stuff, and I think if you don’t have something you really, really care about, that’s step one, and then you’re not expressing it in that way, most likely other people are not going to show up for you.

SG: Does it matter to you where the community function sits within the company?

BR: It’s important for the community owner or owners to sit very close to their partner discipline, where they have the most impact and potency.

We interviewed the man who invented the Instant Pot, which has rabid people who are called Potheads, who love Instant Pot. And it’s part of their big differentiator. A lot of people can make a Crock-Pot at this point like that, but the Instant Pot is the one because people love it. For him the community is really all about product feedback. He’s an engineer. He’s trying to make better features and beat out the opponents in that way, and so he wants this discipline to sit really close to customer support and engineering.

When we worked for Nike on their Run Clubs, we were working with their brand team and that is, outside of actually designing the shoes, that’s the bread and butter at Nike is it’s about being in the streets, being close to the influencer, the right target people, getting that really right and getting all their messaging right.

At Instagram our community team, which was really all about setting the tone on the platform and creating a perspective and encouraging that perspective to differentiate it, and educate users, we sat under product marketing. It depends on which part of the business needs those relationships the most, and you should either sit within that or sit really close to it. It depends on the value you’re bringing to the company, how you design, how it’s baked in.

SG: Do you think communities act as almost an alternative form of corporate governance?

BR: Communities can be bullshit detectors. They will call you out. When stakeholders who really give a shit and really understand your product or your brand, see a company do something that’s out of line and you might be able to strategically talk yourself into doing that internally, but these people will let you know so fast that what you did is unacceptable. And I think in that most basic layer, the experience of that might be painful. You might be like, oh, that really sucked. These people are yelling and complaining, but it will really teach you something that clearly you were blind to and I think that’s valuable.

Going forward, the ante is upping for what it means financially to be a person who is a community member of a business. You see this already in models like Twitch and Substack, YouTube maybe too, the creators, some of them, have a very out-sized impact on the financials of the business. So what does that mean?

I’m fascinated by that. I heard a while back that eBay had tried extremely hard to compensate their early users in their IPO, and the founder Pierre Omidyar did everything in his power to try to figure that out, and basically the lawyers said, “Nope, sorry. This is too complicated. We can’t figure this out.”

And I remember feeling similarly that when we sold Instagram, it was this big number and this big deal that was getting advertised everywhere, and these people who had helped us build it were getting nothing. And it didn’t really even feel right. It felt so off in a sense. Airbnb is putting shares aside for certain Superhosts, and, in terms of governance, that really starts to pull on the power levers in a very different way. Probably for good and for bad. I think there’s a lot of wild recklessness that a big group of people on the internet can decide to do some chaos, but I think that’s the direction we’re headed in more and more. And I’m really curious to see how that plays out and the positive and potentially negative implications will be interesting.

SG: Much of what you just said about community having this governance power over a company and checking it on itself and checking in on its truths, is a lot what you could say for employees as well. So much has changed in the way we treat and interact with employees in the last decade plus. What is then the intersection between community and average employees — engineers, product people, salespeople, biz dev people — versus just the community owners? And how does this evolve?

BR: One of the people I interviewed who was so smart was the first community manager at SoundCloud his name’s David Noël, he’s a Belgian guy. Met the founders early, the first employee to join. And he had, similar to my team at Instagram, two responsibilities: being the conduit between the users and our product team, which means sending all the information out to users that they got from our company, and then absorbing everything back into the business.

David described that behavior as acting like a sponge. So it’s your job to soak up all the water and then squeeze it back into the engineers or into the product people in the right ways and at the right time. Actually, Evan from Reddit said similar things, which is I think it’s part of your responsibility and part of what will determine your efficacy as someone who is a community leader at a company, to get other people involved in the absorbing of insights and the vivid realness of the impact you’re having and meeting those people and understanding them psychologically. And the more you can sprinkle your fairy dust of, hey, here is the strongest product market fit, perhaps for our product. This person knows us in and out. We mean a lot to their life. They’re not the average user, but they know a lot about our product and your day-to-day work significantly impacts them.

Being able to get people to psychologically understand that stakeholder is part of the dual challenge of the role and part of where I think a lot of the ongoing creativity shows up, because you can’t just do the same thing every month and hope that people will continue to hear you. You have to get creative and bring people in.

If these stakeholders are important to you, if you really believe in their impact on the business and also believe in them outside of just that strategic sense, the more you can get people in the company who build things or shift things to understand that person and their psychology, the more likely you are to be successful.

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