Vertical Communities as Proprietary Distribution Channels

How startups are using communities to build brand awareness.


Lately, a lot of communities have popped up around certain industries or niches. Behind a few of these communities are startups.

  • LayerVault, a version control tool for designers, built Designer News, a Hacker News like site for designers.
  • Inbound.org, an inbound marketing community, is run by Hubspot Labs and Moz.
  • FundersClub recently started their own community, Venture News, a community for the venture capital industry.
  • Sean Ellis, founder of Qualaroo, built GrowthHackers.com, a community on growth hacking and general startup growth that I am proud to be a part of.

Community First

With each of these respective communities, it’s clear that the main goal is to build an engaged community, and not just another distribution channel to push products to.

Having these communities gives the startups I mentioned a chance to become industry leaders by bringing people together.

You would have to go to the about page to find any mention of Hubspot or Moz on Inbound.org, making it clear that the focus is on the community and not their products. For Hubspot and Moz, Inbound.org is an opportunity to evangelize the inbound marketing concept they pioneered.

The same goes for each of the other communities.

Having hundreds or even thousands of people in your target market posting and commenting on a community you run is a valuable asset for any company, big or small, but for new startups especially, niche communities are a great way to build brand awareness among those who matter most: your target market.

Proprietary Distribution Channels

Tomas Tunguz recently published a blog post called “How to Grow Huge”. He argues that “To grow really large, startups have to create proprietary distribution channels”.

For startups looking to grow really large , especially those in big industries with large incumbents, building a vertical community can be one way to achieve massive growth.

Two Simple Tests

Looking at a few of the communities I mentioned before, I came up with two simple litmus tests to gauge whether a community focused on a single interest or industry can be viable: events and job titles.

If there are already medium or large scale events being organized around the industry or interest, then bringing that same level of engagement and interaction to an online community isn’t such a daunting task.

With job titles, having a group of people whose primary job revolves around the specific interest or topic means that it’s large enough to sustain a community. It‘s also easier to find initial community members using Twitter and LinkedIn searches.

With tools like Telescope taking care of the technical aspects of building a community, vertical communities are only going to get more popular.

What else? What are your thoughts on vertical communities?