On Building A Community – Top Down? Bottom Up?

I really like Brad Rourke’s thoughts on community growth, both for views of online communities and for his clever translation of those ideas into place-based communities (ie: towns)


(With thanks to @johncr8on for finding and sharing it via Twitter)

The 90-9-1 rule implies 2 ways of growing communities:

Top down:  If you add more leaders you’ll generate more participants and followers.  In essence, adding leaders helps moving some of the 90 into the 9 and draws outsiders into the 90 from “the buzz” around the community.  Adding a super-star to your team not only makes the team better but she becomes a recruiting magnet.

Bottom up: If you add more people into the community through the 90, some of them will step into the 9 and perhaps into the 1.  A growing community attracts talent and some of them will see and fill voids in the the community’s abilities.

I fundamentally believe both approaches are correct.  But if you want to grow a community, which one do you put your energy into?

<I’m going to talk mostly about on-line communities from here on, but I’m confident you can generalize this to place-based communities just like Brad Rouke did in his post.>

The bottom up approach requires a grass-roots effort that likely will only happen via 2 means.

1) A culture that already embraces communities –  You won’t get anywhere if the culture on the periphery of the community doesn’t believe in participation.  If you’re surrounded by isolationists they aren’t going to just “see the light” and join in the community as participants at any level.  Changing culture requires patience and glacier-like power to wear barriers down over time.  This is not a place you can individually have a lot of influence.

Simply the worst video of all time

Simply the worst video ever

2) “Viral growth”
– Frankly I think this has become the battle-cry of the overconfident and the communication avoiders.  Viral growth does happen – communities spring up overnight from nothingness but as Malcom Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point – capturing lightning in a bottle is amazingly tricky and is almost never happens on purpose.  If you’re counting on viral growth to build your community you may as well buy a lottery ticket and count on it to build your retirement account.  If it happens, count your blessings, but don’t be surprised if you’re still working at 70.  You can put the structures in place so that it might happen, but you can’t make it to happen.

I contend that bottoms-up growth isn’t the place where your effort is going to guarantee results.

Top-down growth on the other hand is a place you may be able to make some headway.  You need to add more leaders (and by extension more editors) to grow your community.  The “easiest” way of doing this is by finding existing leaders outside your community and recruiting them to join.  You need to find the rock stars, the people that others respect and look up to, and you need to get them participating visibly in your community.  I say “easily” because that is no small feat, but it is something you can put energy into and have some success with.

Looking specifically at blogging, you need to get thought-leaders in your space involved in your community.  It is through the writings of these “cool kids” that others will be drawn in.  Some will read, and some of them will respond, and some of them will over time think “you know, I’ve got a lot of passion and energy around this community, I should be writing too”.  You begin to build a buzz around this group and others will be drawn in from outside the community to join the 90.

If you doubt that approach go look at Wil Wheaton’s blog and twitter feed, or Lance Armstrong’s, or Chris Brogan’s.  Each of them is “a cool kid” in their space, and others who care about that space (geek culture, cycling, social media) gather around to see what they’ll say next.  They’ve built massive communities, many of their “followers” contribute to the conversations, and some of those contributors have gone own to start successful communities of their own.

Still not buying it?  Check out The Jim Rome Show sometime.  Here’s a rock star sports commentator – some would argue that he’s grown bigger than many of the athletes he interviews.  He’s built an almost cult-like community of self-proclaimed “clones”.  Millions listen to his radio show and thousands comment via email and SMS to the interactions of hundreds of callers responding to Jim’s thoughts on sports.  Some of those clones now have their own radio shows (a few quite good). (feel that 90-9-1 pyramid?)

This is the essence of building a community from the top down. You don’t have to be a rock star yourself, but you have to be able to recruit the rock stars if you’re going to make headway.  This is where you can direct your individual energies – either in becoming a rock star yourself (good luck with that, it takes time and practice) or in finding others and drawing them in.

When you’re planning ways to grow your community you need to think where your energy can have the most impact.  It’s my contention that top-down is where you can make a difference as an individual.  You can (and should) work to encourage a bottom-up growth pattern too but this is really done by being a cog in the wheel, playing the part that you want others to play more than through direct recruiting – just don’t expend too much of your energy here… and for goodness sake, please don’t sit on your hind end and wait for your community to “go viral”.  Trust me… great ideas and products fail to grab mindshare every single day while crap like “Candy Mountain” goes viral – please don’t bet your community’s success on such astro-aligned alchemy.

In the mean time, I’ll be thinking of you growing, with your top down…

Bottoms Up


~ by brianherman on August 4, 2009.

One Response to “On Building A Community – Top Down? Bottom Up?”

  1. This is a great post. I live in a Built Green Certified community that has a Neighborhood Association, a Home Owner Association and an Open Space Association. Still I see too much “reactive” community interaction instead of proactive activity to build community on positive events, not negative. I also have personally volunteerd to assist the Neighorhood Association on a number of occasions but they have decided to not utilize one of the “rock stars” in their midst.

    I will give props to our Neighborhood Association since they recently started a Leadership Training Program to create more leaders in the community. There is a lot of cultural diversity here, I think I heard a stat of 27 languages spoken in in my neighborhood. Unfortunately many of the home owners seem to be isolationists and do not come out of their houses and get involved with the community. My upbringing created a conscious awareness of my obligation to contribute to my community – a lot of people don’t feel the need to participate. It is a long row to hoe!

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