This past weekend I was moderating a panel at CommunityNext, a smart event focused on everything about online communities coordinated by Noah Kagan.  The event was a fun gathering of extremely smart folks from some of the hottest online communities today – and panelists/speakers shared many great thoughts on topics ranging from how to be more awesome, to the genesis behind  Through the day, I took several notes and during the flight back to the east coast, started to aggregate the day into some central lessons about online communities gained from listening to many of the speakers, as well as looking at what is making many of the sites from attendees stand out.  Here’s my list of 10 lessons that I took away from the event, as well as a few great sites that are worth visiting for further exploration:

  1. Avoid being just "niche" – Over and over from founders of online communities was the desire to do away with the word "niche."  It seems to stem mostly from the assumption that niches are small things, whereas each of these online communities is spent bringing together anyone with the same passion – not just people from "niche" groups.  The lesson here seems to be – don’t think small.
  2. Listen to your users – If there was one thread heard over and over throughout the day, it was the power of listening to your users.  Each of the featured sites had amassed significant numbers of passionate individuals who provide their time and energy to the site and the community.  They are highly likely to share their opinions, and most likely to appreciate and publicize it if you actually listen to their opinions.
  3. Use accidental marketing – An interesting panel question Guy Kawasaki asked at the end of the day focused on the fact that members of companies on the founding panel didn’t seem to need or value marketing very much.  In a telling response, Max Levchin of Slide shared that they didn’t do any marketing because "the service already was viral."  Well, I would argue that viral has to do with word of mouth, which some would consider marketing – but the interesting thing was that most founders didn’t seem to feel there was a way to plan marketing, it just happens.  Not sure I agree with this view, as I think smart marketing has a lot less to do with ad buys and a lot more to do with doing things that are noteworthy … but it was interesting to hear their experiences nonetheless.
  4. Get smart on recruiting – Everyone is recruiting, and many of them are seeking the same types of people … but the theme of the event seemed to be positioning your community as a great team to join.  It was an interesting angle on "sales" – as usually these events are focused on sites recruiting either members or advertisers.  Here, I think any of the online communities would have been happy to find the right person to join their team out of the event.
  5. Foresake VC funding – I felt a little bad for Guy in the last panel as he heard from company after company that each had avoided taking venture capital funding.  Of course, there is still a big place for VC and leveraged correctly, it can really mean the difference between success and failure.  But there was a vibe running through the event that most folks starting online communities would do anything they could to avoid taking VC funding.  It seems to have become a last resort.
  6. Have a passion – This was one of the points made very early on by Josh Spear and Aaron Dignan in their opening presentation about Brand Utopia – and repeated throughout the event.  Passion in what you are doing may come from different places as founders of online communities shared.  For some, it’s a personal passion.  For others it comes from seeing the way that users embrace a service and feeling connected/responsible to those users.  Either way, passion is a prerequisite.
  7. Master the emotional return – One of the best points made by Premal Shah as he talked about Kiva was that the model and concept of the site had mastered the art of providing people with an emotional return as an incentive that was far more important than a financial one.  For those unfamiliar, Kiva is a site that allows people to provide microloans to entrepreneurs in developing countries.  Of course, everyone needs to make some money.  But a successful online community is one that can consistently provide that emotional return to users.  That’s the most important ingredient – and if you don’t have that, then the financial aspect will not last that long. 
  8. Don’t lose the fun – James Hong of was the chief brand ambassador of fun on the final panel of the day, and his site reflects it.  In an entertaining way of describing the mission of this site, he noted that it was to "waste as much of corporate America’s time as possible."  It’s a classic rebel mission, and one focused on fun as a paramount concept.  The fun factor can be the toughest element to keep as a site grows.  James has a lesson for any online community worth heeding.
  9. Keep it real – From using error messages with personality, to not being afraid to have a voice as part of the community – keeping it real is a big deal.  Part of the appeal of many communities is the personal story behind it and the founders.  That’s what gets people engaged to start with, and that’s what keeps them engaged throughout.  Communities are made up of real people.  To succeed you have to start real, and stay that way.
  10. Be better than you – I kept this point last because I thought it spoke well to the future of online communities and how they must always be evolving.  The guys from Threadless were probably received as the most popular of the day (aside from Guy Kawasaki, of course) – and one of the most entertaining of their slides was the growth chart which plotted time on one axis, and awesomeness on the other.  Over time, they have basically gotten more awesome.  But a key ingredient in that is always improving – because any competitor gunning for you is aiming to be better than you.  So you have to aim for the same thing. 

Hopefully, these lessons are useful for those of you who weren’t able to attend the event.  For those who were there, I’d love to hear if you think I captured the essence of the event or there are other lessons that stood out for you.  As requested by Noah, I am tagging this post "communitynext2007" and request any others who write follow up posts to do the same.

And a Few Sites/Ideas That Stood Out …

  • – Speaking to Premal about this site, it’s tough not to get caught up in the idea and promise of Kiva.  Not many online communities can truly have the power to change the world.  This is one of them.
  • – Surprised to find another attendee from DC, I shared a drink with Dan and talked about the great concept behind his site … helping pet owners to meet one another through their shared passion.  A brilliant idea that is theme
    d after interactions that already happen in real life – if you’re single and have a pet, you need to visit this site.
  • – This is quite possibly the most useful site I have ever visited, from the creative folks at Skinny Corp (also behind  For anyone who has felt the wrath of not being able to park in a spot due to someone else’s stupidity, just order a set of 20 of these (low-tack) stickers and slap one onto the offending car for the ultimate revenge.  Love it!
  • Loopt – Taking the concept I just wrote about in my post on "Beaconvertising" even further, Loopt has a cool concept for helping friends to find one another in the same space using principles from IM.  The service lets you find a friend that is within a set distance, locate a place nearby to meet, send IMs and lots more.  I wish I had this when I was in college (and had 100+ people to add to my list) … but even now (when my list is much shorter) there is still great potential in this.
  • – Probably the most mentioned favourite site of people at the event, aside from Flickr, DeviantArt is worth a visit for this reason alone.  The site has artists of all types uploading some very high quality stuff and offer an almost addictive experience once you get there.  They couldn’t have gotten better buzz from the event if they had been a sponsor …
  • – Joe Suh had this great idea to connect some of the 300,000 Christian churches nationwide into an online community and created a comprehensive set of faith-based tools to help churches connect with one another and share knowledge and community events.  As he starts to recruit more parishes and get more members – this will be a force to watch.