Growth Hacking Community with Vanessa DiMauro

By Caitlin Struhs posted Oct 28, 2015 11:42 PM


The importance of the community builder within an organization has grown tremendously. Community builders are expected to be the shepherds, content creators, marketers and social media experts, help people advance their thinking, answer any tech questions and think up new features – sometimes all in the same day.

Studies show that these “knowledge workers” have a burn out rate that’s 40 times higher than most other white collar professionals. So how should these community builders broaden their success, improve their methods and ultimately keep their online communities thriving? Growth hacking will help.

Growth hacking your online community

Growth hacking is defined as optimizing or creating modifications to help get to an end stage, without cutting corners. This growth isn’t focused on size or how flashy the community’s opening day was – community is a powerful sales tool and membership benefit. It should attract new members, offer smooth onboarding and persistent attention, and ultimately embrace marketing tactics like great content, campaigns and social media outreach.

Growth matters: develop repeatable processes

Every community needs to align with organizational goals and set up a strategy for scale and efficiency. The basics include a welcome program and onboarding process, programmatic outreach, access to support documents and a robust FAQ section. 

One example of a successful community launch that has sustained its momentum is the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), which launched its community in May 2015. NSBE was founded in 1975 and has around 30,000 members. In anticipation of launch, the community project manager covered a lot of ground by establishing a taskforce:

  • Ensure staff awareness
  • Leverage social media outreach
  • Focus on event engagement
  • Reach out to volunteer champions
  • Work on executive involvement

The community’s success hinged on everyone at NSBE getting involved – the team even required every staff member to moderate the community for one day, to better understand the community’s inner workings and how important it was as a member benefit. 

There is a wonderful Swahili saying that fits well into this community team work: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”

Growth matters: five member engagement hacks

Every community’s growth path is different, but here are some member engagement hacks to test out:

  1. The importance of outreach. Try to segment members and engage with them differently (new members, active stars, fallen angels, silent readers, etc.). Behavior change is what will get members to remember to log in, consume content and contribute.
  2. Connect with each other and the content. Encourage members to volunteer as greeters in the community, who will suggest content to newbies based on interests. Members will come to the community for good content, but stay for each other.
  3. The power of the Focused Group. Test out a particular topic by featuring it for four weeks, imparting a certain theme for each week. Define that topic’s outcome, have the community manager facilitate and make it open and available to all members. Example: AANAC boasts its community as the number one reason why members joined, and assert the value is consulting dollars saved. Its renewal rate isn’t bad either – a massive impact of 58-72% improvement!
  4. Showcase members. The line between control and disclosure is tough, but give up a little to gain engagement. Share member accomplishments and they will spread the good news. Example: CXPA is quickly growing by about 1,000 members per year, and it credits the active volunteers, member spotlights, MVP recognition programs and branded cookies for members.
  5. Community as a symbiotic part of organizational culture. The community should inform changes in the organization, and vice versa. Example: NJCPA makes sure its community and organization are intertwined. It has an 80% peer-to-pee response rate, strong advocacy for its industry, daily digest emails with no option to opt out, and uses member insights for new products and services.

Growth matters: build trust through social capital

Any community, whether it’s new, old, large or small, needs trust and trust building strategies for success. Community members will always find value and improve peer relationships if they have trust. This can be attained through social capital, perhaps a stodgy, academic term that does hold weight for community success.

Harvard is credited with defining the essential premise of social capital: a network only has value based on the intelligence and collaboration put into it – in other words, the more information and exchanges there are, the better the network gets. It’s the rule of reciprocity and it directly relates to trust. 

Every member matters in a community. If members share and collaborate online, their expertise and skills will eventually benefit others and bounce back to them. This is trust building, and it takes time to evolve. An example of success through knowledge-sharing is the popular board game, Settlers of Catan. This game is built on collaboration and cooperation, where players win by sharing and exchanging resources. Certain game tactics can be applied directly to online community:

  • Marshal the executives. In the board game, you can learn a lot from seasoned players. Similarly, it’s important for an organization’s executives to make their tacit knowledge explicit to members, which will signal to others that they are in a trustworthy and learning-focused place.
  • Lower boundaries. In order to exchange goods in the board game, you have to be somewhat transparent about what you have and what you need. Similarly, a community should validate the authority and resources of those up-and-coming members. They can’t be afraid to share, because that increased transparency will only validate the knowledge shared in the long run. 
  • Capture and extend content. The board game offers a lot of different resources, descriptions and options for winning. Similarly, a community should provide valuable content for it’s wide array of members. People often don’t know how to work with raw data – the more information that is available, the better the feedback loop and cycle of new content will be.

Community should be simple: members and organizations working together to solve a common puzzle. This power to convene will continuously improve if the community considers its growth strategy.

About Vanessa DiMauro

Vanessa DiMauro is the CEO and Chief Digital Officer of Leader Networks, a research and strategy consulting company that helps organizations succeed in social business and online community building. She is a popular executive advisor, author and speaker. With over 20 years’ experience in social business leadership positions (Cambridge Technology Partners, Computerworld, CXO Systems), Vanessa has founded and run numerous online communities. With Leader Networks she has developed award winning social business strategies for dozens of the largest and most influential companies in the world.

Vanessa’s work has been covered by leading publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNBC and Forbes. She was recently named one of 40 top social marketing masters worldwide by Forbes. She sits on several boards including The Society of New Communications Research (SNCR) and Social Media Today, teaches at Babson and Columbia, holds both a B.A. and M.A. from Boston College and blogs at

Twitter: @vdimauro