Start Your Community With Role Models, Not Influencers

I just finished reading this article in last month’s Fast Company where the CEO of Pinterest, Ben Silbermann, discusses how Pinterest got started, where it’s at today, and what its future may hold. In it, they highlight some of the ways in which Pinterest defied best practices when they first started – they didn’t include any leaderboards, they didn’t highlight the most popular pinners, they used an infinite scroll layout instead of pushing for more clicks and pageviews, and most interesting to me, their first community members weren’t “influencers” with high Klout scores. They were role models who would care for the community as if it were their own.

“In Pinterest’s early days, Silbermann gave out his cell-phone number, attended blogger meet-ups, and personally composed weekly emails that were sent out to Pinterest’s tiny, but growing, community. “It’s like you’ve built this little city with nobody inside of it yet,” he says. “And you want to fill it up with the right kinds of people who are going to teach future people what they should be doing when they move in.” Most Silicon Valley types look at early users as viral marketers; Silbermann saw them as role models. (Until recently, Pinterest’s welcome email advised users to “pin carefully” because “your pins set the tone for the community.” The site bans nudity and discourages users from posting images of too-skinny models, otherwise known as “thinspiration,” after the phenomenon became a problem.)”

What if PR and social media community managers stopped worrying about targeting the influencers with the most Klout, the highest PeerIndex score, or the highest Empire Avenue share price, and instead worried about identifying the people who are best equipped to create and maintain a healthy community? What if we looked for qualities like good taste, helpfulness, and compassion instead of followers, pageviews, and likes? What if we focused our efforts on the people who will become the community leaders, rather than simply the people with the loudest mouths?

If what we’re doing is truly building online communities, shouldn’t we first recruit the people who will actually be you know, building that sense of community and modeling the behaviors you want to see from all members?

Silbermann’s tactic of starting his community with role models isn’t new. This is a tactic that I’ve used when building online communities behind corporate firewalls. In those closed communities, the first members weren’t the VPs or the corporate comms people – the people with the most influence – they were the people who were most passionate about the community. These individuals felt a deep sense of responsibility for the success of the community. They shared the same goals and philosophies. They were the ones who modeled the behaviors that we wanted the rest of the community to emulate. They were the ones who would tell the boss he was wrongso that it would be ok for others to do the same. They may have only brought in 50 new people, but that wasn’t their purpose. They were recruited because they were the ones to create that strong sense of community among the current members so that when new members joined, they joined a community with an established culture and purpose.

Now, if your goal is to simply get a million Facebook likes or sign up two million users to your branded community, then by all means, pay Lil Wayne to Tweet your URL to his 8 million followers and watch the numbers stack up. You can trot out your pageviews and member numbers to your boss all you want. Just don’t expect those thousands of people to actually do what you want them to do. On the other hand, if you’re looking to build a vibrant community of brand advocates who will buy your products, share your messages with their networks, give you honest, constructive feedback and build other brand advocates, then you should instead look for people who will model those behaviors. These people may not have the biggest names or the most “influence,” but they’re the ones who will create the foundation for what your community will be.


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