User Communities for Web Apps: 15 Amazing Examples

How to Build User Communities for Curation, Sharing and Helping


GrabCAD is a niche web app that helps engineers share CAD files with clients and colleagues online. It has one extremely successful marketing machine: GrabCAD lets its users share CAD files with its community. Engineers share their projects and create online portfolios. The social aspects of GrabCAD has ignited their growth. Their userbase has grown from 250K engineers to 1 million engineers last year.

Social apps have amazing growth numbers. Can non-social web app developers learn anything from their growth? That’s the question I have been asking myself.

Two years ago, we started letting JotForm users share forms they create. As it turns out, people were happy to contribute to the community. 5,000 forms were shared in our form template gallery and these forms were used 600,000 times by other people.

What is common among LayerVault, HubSpot and Moz? LayerVault is a version control system for web designers, HubSpot is a marketing tracking app and Moz is a collection of SEO tools. What they all have in common was that they all created reddit style user communities for their target users.

  • LayerVault created Designer News, a reddit for web designers
  • HubSpot created OnStartups, a startup advice community
  • Moz created Inbound.org, a reddit for marketers

There is a pattern. And, it is not a well known pattern. We, web app developers, are spending all of our time making our products great. But, we might be missing opportunities to cultivate great communities for our target markets and build an audience around our products.

That’s why I decided to do a research and find out about web apps that were able to use communities to curate user generated content, increase growth and make their apps more useful for their users. Before I started my search I had never heard of GrabCAD. So, I believe I’ve found some hidden gems. Read on to find out yourself.


1. Tumblr: Blog Themes

Tumblr is a popular microblogging platform focused on making it extremely easy to post any kind of content.

Tumblr is highly customizable. They even let you edit the HTML/CSS code of your blog. Each blog has unique look and feel.

They have accomplished this by letting users share or sell blog themes with other users. Today, Tumblr has hundreds of beautiful blog themes all contributed by their users.

Tumblr Themes — Contributed by Users

Lessons Learned: Is it important for your users to have great looking presentations? Then, you should consider making your app extremely customizable and then let users share themes with each other.

2. GrabCAD: 3D Models Library

GrabCAD is a sharing and collaboration tool for 3D model files. It solves a real pain for engineers: Sharing AutoCAD or SolidWorks files with colleagues and clients. GrabCAD not only allows you to share files online but also makes it possible to collaboratively edit them online.

GrabCAD is a great product but to understand the reasons for its exponential growth, we need to look deeper. GrabCAD has grown to 1 million engineers thanks to its community that shared almost 400,000 files with each other.

GrabCAD — 1 million users shared 400,000 3D models

Lessons Learned: You can own a niche by facilitating sharing between people in that niche.

3. JotForm: Form Templates

JotForm is an online form builder with 1.4 million users. We host 5 million online forms. JotForm’s primary growth channel has always been word of mouth generated by our happy users.

Two years ago, we have decided to let users share their forms with other users. I was pretty sure that there would not be any hard adoption. Why would anyone choose to share her their work with people they don’t know?

Our insecurity about adoption pushed us to spend months creating the first 500 forms. We wanted to make sure that even if no one shares their forms we would still have some useful templates.

We were pleasantly surprised when people started using form templates in large quantities and when they started sharing their forms. You can read more about form templates here and here.

JotForm — 5,000 Form Templates

Lessons Learned: Don’t assume that people will not share. Give them a chance and you might be pleasantly surprised.

4. LayerVault: Designer News

LayerVault is a version control system for designers. Tens of thousands of designers use LayerVault to organize, version, present and collaborate on design.

LayerVault is a tool for designers. So, they have done something incredibly smart. They have created a reddit for their target audience: designers. Designer News is a collaborative news site where users can submit news, vote for the stories they like and post comments.

Designer News: A social news site for web designers

Lessons Learned: Build a news site for your target user audience. These things work. Here is a great tool: Telescope.

5. Hubspot: OnStartups

HubSpot is a web app that helps marketers optimize their website to get found by more prospects and convert more of them into leads and paying customers.

HubSpot founder Dharmesh Shah founded OnStartup as a resource for startups. Just like the old days of Hacker News, it is a community around startup news and discussion.

OnStartups provides a constant stream of users to get exposed to the HubSpot brand.

OnStartups

Lessons Learned: If you can’t be where your audience is, build a place for your audience yourself.

6. Moz: Inbound.org

Moz, formerly known as SEOmoz, is a collection of SEO and inbound marketing tools for marketers.

Inbound marketing is a type of marketing that focuses on content creation about your company and your product. Instead of buying ads or cold calling, you write blog posts, make videos and share things on social media.

HubSpot and Moz joined together to create Inbound.org: A community site for inbound marketers. The social news site gained adoption pretty quickly, and today, it is the best resource for inbound marketers.

Inbound.org — Social News for Inbound Marketers

Lessons Learned: Is your community interested in learning and growing in a particular profession or topic? Then, you should build resources and social news sites for them. Help them and they will help you back.

7. Adobe Creative Cloud: Adobe Kuler

Adobe has an online service called Creative Cloud that allows you to signup for all of their popular products such as Photoshop with a single monthly fee.

Designers waste a lot of time have deciding how to combine colors. Adobe Kuler is an online tool that let’s people create and save various color schemes, each of which consists of a set of five colors.

Adobe Kuler lets you browse color combinations other designers created. A community is build around finding and sharing good color combinations.

Adobe Kuler — Most Popular Themes

Lessons Learned: How can you help your target audience? If they are spending too much time with a creative task you may be able to facilitate sharing among them.

8. Evernote: Evernote Ambassadors

Evernote is an online note-taking and archiving app. You can send anything to Evernote and it will keep track of it and index it so that you can find it in the future.

Evernote is an incredibly horizontal app just like JotForm. It is used by diverse set of people from different industries. Evernote came up with an amazing idea called Evernote Ambassadors. They have found people in 65 different niches such as parenting, teaching and productivity, and they gave users a platform to communicate with others users.

Evernote Ambassadors

Lessons Learned: Do you have users in diverse industries or niches? Give them platforms to communicate with each other. Some users will lead the way and help other users in their niche.

9. Google Docs: Document Templates

Google Docs is a set of online authoring tools. Their most popular products are SpreadSheets, Documents and Presentations.

Google Docs lets users share their files in Google Docs Templates. Many people have shared hundreds of documents with other users. They share their resume designs, budget planners and training logs. It is a cool set of documents.

Google Docs — Templates

Lessons Learned: Let them share their work.

10. Airbnb: Neighborhoods

Airbnb is an amazing service that lets you rent your home with others. When we travelled Europe two summers ago we stayed in amazing places we found on Airbnb.

Airbnb worked closely with its community of home owners to create Airbnb Neighborhoods. Although the neighborhoods are edited by Airbnb employees they are created with active collaboration of home owners and site visitors.

Lessons Learned: Collaborate with your users to create detailed guides. This works well if you have a double-sided marketplace where one side may lack necessary information.

11. Shopify: Themes

Shopify is a simple e-commerce platform to create online stores. Similar to Tumblr, Shopify is highly customizable.

Shopify Theme Store is a marketplace for free and paid themes for stores. Since the customers are e-commerce stores, many of the themes are over $100. This makes the Theme Store very attractive to web designers. The amazing beauty of many of the themes also makes Shopify a very good place for e-commerce sites.

Shopify Theme Store

Lessons Learned: Product marketplaces are win-win-win for everyone involved. Users are happy to find a diverse set of options, sellers are happy to access customers easily and you are happy since the feedback loop makes the product more attractive for new users and useful for existing users.

12. Medium: Collections

Medium is an amazing writing platform. The goal of Medium is to be a place for best long form content. In addition to the great tools they provide for writing, they also do something no other service has: They give you readers.

To reach readers, you need to submit your stories to Collections. Collections are created and curated by editors. They are like magazines in the analog world. If you buy Men’s Fitness, you expect to read articles about how to pump up or lose weight. That’s exactly how collections work. The collections are about a narrow topic.

Medium Collections

Lessons Learned: The best way to scale curation is to let your community do it.

13. Ride With GPS: Bike Maps

Ride with GPS is a web and mobile app for bikers. It makes it easy to drag and draw bike routes on a map.

Ride with GPS lets its users share their ride maps with other users: Find a Ride. Similar to JotForm Templates, Ride with GPS allows users to share their work with others.

Ride with GPS: Find a Ride

Lessons Learned: If you have an online authoring tool, you should definitely consider allowing sharing among users. Even if just a small percentage of your users takes you up on the offer, they will be creating useful materials for other users.

14. Goodreads: Book Lists

Goodreads is a social cataloging and reviewing site for books. It is a reliable way to find good books.

Similar to Medium’s collections, Goodreads lets its users curate lists of books.

Goodreads Listopia

Lessons Learned: Let your users do the curation for you. They probably know how to do it better anyways.

15. Github: Open Source Repos

Github is an online code hosting service for software development. It is basically a hosting provider for the Git source control system.

Github’s amazing growth is thanks to its idea of letting open source projects host for free. Github has become de facto hosting platform for open source projects and in turn, all those popular open source projects made Github very popular. One example is the ingenious “Fork me on Github” ribbons. You can’t browse sites of open source projects without seeing one of those ribbons.

Github: World’s Largest Open Source Hosting Platform

Lessons Learned: Make your services free to a vocal part of your users.


Conclusions

Three distinct patterns emerge from these examples.

1. Sharing: Users share their work with the community. The examples in this category are:

  • Tumblr Themes
  • GrabCAD Models Library
  • JotForm Form Templates
  • Adobe Kuler
  • Google Docs Templates
  • Shopify: Themes
  • Ride with GPS Bike Maps
  • Github Open Source Repos

2. Curation: Users find and collect good content for the community. The examples in this category are:

  • LayerVault’s Designer News
  • HubPost’s OnStartups
  • Moz’s Inbound.org
  • Medium Collections
  • Goodreads Book Lists

3. Helping: Users help each others by creating content. The communities in this category are:

  • Evernote Ambassadors
  • Airbnb Neighborhoods

Social apps may have explosive growth via network effects, but this does not mean non-social apps cannot use similar tactics. We, non-social app developers, may never reach their level of growth but we have an opportunity here to follow their examples and create communities for our users.

These examples prove that it is possible. We just need to be little creative.