How to Scale a Community

Photo cred: Ray Hennessy

There’s only one way to truly scale communities, and that’s to distribute control to members of the community.

Every successful CEO knows this truth. The only way to scale a company is to hire great people who can own specific roles. The longer you try to do everything yourself, the longer you’ll struggle to grow.

Communities are the same. As long as you, the organizer, are the only person who can drive value, connect people and create experiences, you are the bottle neck preventing your community from scaling.

I’m constantly relearning this lesson at CMX. As an example, for a long time, I have welcomed every new member to our group. Our team has been the only ones making introductions between members with similar interests and for a long time we were the only ones hosting events. We were the only ones creating value. That means that the amount of value created was limited by our time, knowledge and resources.

In order to scale we needed to give up control. We now have events being hosted in 15 cities around the world every month by members of the CMX community. We recently started a “welcome committee” so some of our existing members could help welcome new members to the group.

If you build a school, you’re not going to teach all the classes, you’re going to find teachers with expertise in specific topics. When you start a community, you might create most of the content yourself, but your goal should be to encourage members to create content as soon as possible.

The concept of distributing control to scale a community is as old as civilization. In the agricultural revolution, instead of each of us gathering and hunting down our own food, we created farms that would specialized in growing specific crops. Every empire or nation has a system of distributed authority to local powers (some more than others).

Some more recent examples…

TED wanted to expand their programming, so they empowered TEDx organizers all over the world.

LuluLemon wanted to create experiences for their community all over the world, so they created an ambassador program where members could own the responsibility of creating those experiences

Google wanted to engage their developer community in person, so they empowered their community members to host local events, now featuring 562 chapters around the world.

Reddit started as one page, but when their members expressed interest in using that page in unique ways, the subreddit was born. There are now over 1 million subreddits where admins own the responsibility of creating, engaging and moderating their communities.

Yelp decided to hire community managers for each local Yelp Elite community, and they give those community managers a lot of flexibility in how they can engage their members, with a consistent high level structure they all use.

Even in highly regimented systems like the crew of a nuclear submarine, in his book Turn the Ship Around!, Captain David Marquet proved that distribution of control and ownership is the most efficient method for improving execution and developing leaders.

Businesses still struggle with this notion. Since the days of the assembly line, we’ve been taught that we have to control everything and that it’s too risky to give up control. What if they misrepresent our brand? What about the quality of our product? What if something bad happens? What about our IP?

These are all solvable problems.

You can create playbooks that will guide your members in how to contribute in the right way. TED has an 80+ page playbook laying out exactly how to host a TEDx event.

You can have your members sign agreements to handle concerns around IP and ownership. TED does this too. So do we with CMX Series events.

You can create “guiderails” so that members can only contribute in very specific ways. Duolingo created an incubator where members contribute to language courses in a very structured way.

To scale community, you have to hand over power to the community. In fact, if you don’t do that, your members will feel “powerless”, your content will get stale, and your community will eventually fade and die.

The only way forward is to empower your people.


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