How I built a community of engaged users with minimum resources

Dean Ifrach
May 23, 2017 · 9 min read
An engaged community

In 2015 I joined ‘hoop’, a startup company that developed a “video playground” — a gamified mobile video platform in which content creators can team-up to create video collaborations, challenges and movements. You could either start a new video thread by posting a short video for other to respond to, or respond to an existing video thread. Think of it as the bastard child of Vine and Reddit.

Kicking it off and getting it from just an idea to an actual working product was a bumpy ride, as for any startup or venture, full of experiences, good and bad. Managing to build and retain a community of engaged users was, by far, the most humbling and inspiring one.

Why community is important

Community is everything. It validates a product’s reason of being and helps navigate it through its development.

If the human body is a product, then community is the beating heart that makes it come alive. Without it it’s just a corpse. A pretty one perhaps, but useless nevertheless.

This is especially true for User Generated Content (“UGC”) platforms, such as social networks or marketplaces. In order to get users you need (interesting, engaging) content, but in order to get content you need (interesting, engaging) users. You want your users to find a “full fridge” when they open it for the first time. Having a community of “early birds” for a beta stage, as we did for that matter, is a great way to address the this paradox.

Step 1: Research

The first step was to define our niche and target audience, and identify existing relevant communities.


We had a rather broad “niche” to tackle — video content, which is not ideal as it’s harder to target than specific niches such as DIY or vegan cooking for that matter. To make things even harder, we aimed to be a holistic platform with a verity of video categories such as Sports, Fashion, Comedy, Food and so on. What do you do? Divide and conquer of course.

We decided to invest 75% of our efforts in what makes the world go round— comedy. The other 25% went on testing a different category each month, to see if we can identify any low hanging fruits that can generate good traction with minimum hassle.

Target audience

Our target audience was a lot more specific — Americans, ages 15 to 25 (ish), who create *good* original video content but are not well known, and want to get more followers to expend their reach. Basically, people who create great content and want to be Viners (RIP) or Youtubers, but don’t have a large followers base yet.

Existing communities

Other than the obvious ones — Vine and Youtube — we did additional research to find more specific communities that fit our target audience profile. We found a handful of communities on Facebook, Google+ (yep) and Reddit where video creators discuss, share knowledge and help promote one another. Although laser-targeted, those were mostly small and the content quality was debatable.

This forced us to go back to the deep side of the pool — Vine and Youtube.

Step 2: Composing a list of content creators

Finding creators who fit our target audience profile by scouting Vine or Youtube wasn’t an option. It’s too time-consuming, not scalable nor time-efficient and I just didn’t have the resources. So I got other people to do it for me.

The secret weapon

If you’re not already familiar with Upwork, I’m about to change you life. Upwork is a freelance marketplace where you can hire freelancers of all tiers from all over the world to help you with almost any professional service you can think of. You can hire, for example, a top programmer for >$100 an hour or a beginner data miner for ~$5 an hour. It’s awesome.

Rob knows what I’m talking about

I hired a few data miners for about $5 an hour each to scout Vine and Youtube in order to find relevant creators according to criteria I gave them:

  • English speaking Americans located in the US.
  • < 40 years old
  • Have ~3K — ~50K followers
  • Create original comedy videos
  • Active (last upload up to 2 weeks ago)

Whenever they found someone, they had to also find their email address (which is not to be taken for granted if it’s not displayed on Vine), and insert all the data to a Spreadsheet.

Eventually we managed to get a list of about ~2,000 super relevant, high-quality leads for about ~$0.5 each, without wasting more than an hour of our time. High-fives all around.

Step 3: Reaching out

Reaching out to ~2,000 leads manually was also not part of the plan. Instead I set up a very simple mechanism of drip emails.

We used Mailshake, which is an excellent, lean product that costs just $9 a month. They also released a handy Outreach Playbook with best practices and insights, which is a great read.

Our kickass community manager Danielle (here’s what she’s doing now) and I wrote a personalized email, signed by her, that briefly introduced hoop and invited the recipients to check it out and join in.

The main incentive was to be a part of a community of great video creators like themselves. However, we wanted to give them something extra. “hoop” had a gamification mechanism that enabled users to earn points according to their contribution and rank up to unlock additional features, so we also offered them a rank bump and a “verified” badge in recognition of their content and trust.

One (sweaty) click of a button and hundreds of video creators were sent a personalized email.

Personalization tags make all the difference

Recipients who responded to the initial email were followed-up manually by Danielle, who answered any questions they might have had, onboarded them and began a personal relationship with them.

Recipients who didn’t respond to the initial email within 3 days automatically received another email, gently nudging them. If they still didn’t respond after 7 days, Danielle tried to reach out to them manually on social media (it wasn’t creepy than it sounds. We allowed ourselves to do so after learning that the vast majority of non-responders didn’t see our emails because they just don’t use their email often, if at all. Millennials. *sigh*).

To keep track on the outreach effectiveness I’ve made a spreadsheet detailing each step of the acquisition funnel.

Every time Danielle updated a lead’s status to Declined or Onboarded the tracking spreadsheet was automatically updated. Keeping track on each step of the funnel allowed me to see where I should concentrate my efforts and what needs polishing, and optimize accordingly.

The bottom line

Eventually we ended up with about ~300 high-quality, active content creators for our community. That translates to ~10% CTR of the total funnel, which is not bad, and ~$3.3 CPI, which is, if I may, pretty dope.

I could’ve gotten a lot more users for cheaper through, for example, an PPC campaign, but they wouldn’t come close to the users I got in terms of quality. For UGC platforms, especially early on, quality of users (and therefore content) is vital. Bad content is probably the quickest way to sink a good product.

Considering these ~300 users were the cream of the crop and that we were targeting a very expensive demographic (young American iOS users) — this campaign was a big win.

We managed to kickstart an active community of passionate content creators who identified with our mission, were willing to give us a chance and ended up loving our product — not because it was that great (it wasn’t at the time), but because of the relationships we (= Danielle) formed with them, and the relationships they formed with one another. They didn’t know each other before, but their shared interest and passion turned them into a ridiculously cohesive group very quickly. Heck, two of them even became a couple.

They kept us focused and helped us test versions, examine and prioritize features, brainstorm ideas, kickstart marketing experiments and more. I can’t emphasize enough how helpful they were in improving our product and messaging. In exchange, we listened to them, empowered them, made sure they felt appreciated and worked very hard to produce a better product and experience for them.

If we were scientologists they would totally be broke by now.

Step 4: The extra mile

Good cooks use every part of theirs ingredients without throwing away anything. Chicken bones can be used for soup stock and today’s orange peel is tomorrow’s jam. Or something like that.

After we’ve reached out to all 2,000 leads and managed to form a great core community, it was time to make soup. Or jam. Whatever you prefer.

A database of targeted, relevant emails is awfully helpful. Aside from reaching out, it can also be used for re-marketing, or even more exciting — customized audience building.

A less subtle man might even say that —

Bania knows how to appreciate something good when he sees it

Audience building

There are a bunch of platforms where you can use an email database to amplify your marketing efforts, but I focused solely on Facebook (and Instagram).

Being the world’s most enthusiastic hoarder of personal data, Facebook has some very powerful audience building features. I used them to create 3 main custom audiences:

  1. The content creators themselves (re-marketing)
    Uploading the CSV file of the emails database enabled Facebook to match my leads’ emails with their Facebook accounts. This allowed me to target my leads — whether we’ve converted them into community members or not — also on Facebook. I had no need for this specific targeting, but it was the base for the two following audiences.
  2. Community members’ friends
    Pretty obvious. This audience was useful when I ran campaigns that displayed actual videos created by our community members.
  3. Content creators lookalike audience
    This is the most exciting one. In case you’re not familiar with this feature, Facebook can analyzes your custom audience (in our case the video creators database) and create a new audience of other Facebook users who share common or similar characteristics.
I’d say I’m getting pretty good at taking screen shots

The size of Facebook’s lookalike audience is based on a 1% — 10% percentage of the total population in your targeted location, with 1% being the most accurate. It can still results in millions but that’s okay as you can (and should) refine it further when creating your campaigns.

When refined properly, and with good creative, lookalike audiences can generate amazing results.

After some tweaking and testing, my refined lookalike audiences generate a ridiculous 3.4% unique CTR, while meeting my target CPI of < $3. While I’d like to take all the credit to the creative I cam up with, these stats are mostly a result of Facebook’s lookalike audience I’ve created based on our database.

To sum up, emails can be used for a lot more than just, well, emailing. Leads are literally leads that can lead you to the rest of your audience. Or if to paraphrase Hemingway —

“One email just leads to another.”

(He originally wrote it about cats ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

Final takeaway

Community is crucial. Without it a product (or marketing) is just a bunch of assumptions. A strong, genuine community not only validates, it also guides, motivates and serves as a constant reminder of our purpose. It’s the starting point for any venture to grow from, literally and figuratively.

Dean Ifrach

Written by

Marketing, creative, copywriting, and the interwebs.

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