How Commsor started their community for community builders

An interview with Mac Reddin, co-founder and CEO at Commsor

Hey community friends! 👋 Hope you’re excited for the next Build With Users Interview! This time, we chatted with Mac Reddin, co-founder and CEO at Commsor and Community Club. Because, what’s better than getting some take-aways from someone who’s working on a company + community that is all about community building, right?

I’m sorry if this is getting too meta 👀

Anyway, Mac shares how they started, how they used Slack as their online community space and why they now run a Forem as well, and how they deal with keeping parts of the community invite-based. He also sheds a light on the essence of growing your community, and has a unique book recommendation for you! 💎

Let’s dive in, and don’t forget to hit the subscribe button (if you haven’t) to follow along on the next issues! 👇

📣 A little announcement – Next week Feb 9, we’re doing a Build With Users Jam again: a small-size virtual meetup for DevRels & Community Managers.

This time, it’s aimed at those of you serving a developer audience & community. The theme is: Measuring Developer Experience. Check this RSVP page for more details

About Commsor and Mac

Commsor define themselves as the community operating system. They help community managers consolidate community data and enable them to unlock insights, measure impact, and build a community-led company.

Mac is the co-founder and CEO of Commsor and runs Community Club as an important part of that. Community Club is a highly active community for community builders.

Before jumping into this adventure, Mac founded and exited a gaming community called The Chunk. Afterwards, he made it his mission to provide the tools, resources and education needed for other community builders.

At what stage of the company did you start an online community and why?

We were initially building a platform to help connect independent communities with companies through various forms of sponsorships and partnerships. When that wasn't going as well as we'd liked, we decided to start a newsletter as a way of exploring the broader community space.

Shortly after, we added a Slack group to that so we'd have a place to connect and interact with our target audience as we explored new product opportunities in the community space. You could really see this as our foundation. We started with the people first and then discovered our new product direction based on many interactions we had.

What platform(s) do you use to run your online community? What are the pros and cons?

We used to solely run on Slack for our online space but have launched a new space on Forem recently. We have a weekly newsletter on Mailchimp and a fairly active presence on Twitter in addition to those two. 

Most people that have been familiar with our Community Club community for a longer period now know that we started with this Slack group. It grew quite rapidly to around 1k+ members. Along the way we realized we needed to approach things a bit differently and considered using Forem.

We added Forem into the mix for a few reasons. One important reason is that we wanted a space for longer form, searchable content that could be discovered and shared publicly. Slack has its advantages, but one big disadvantage is that's not indexable and doesn't easily allow for this long-form content right in the context of where the community lives.

We also found that some people were more interested in consuming content but weren't keen to participate in the Slack community. Although it's an active Slack community, there is always a majority of the people observing and consuming the content shared. We felt a place like we have today with Forem would better facilitate that.

The biggest pro of all is that Slack has a very low barrier to entry for the right target audience due to its prevalence in many workplaces

There are far too many pros and cons to list for running a community on Slack. The biggest pro of all is that Slack has a very low barrier to entry for the right target audience due to its prevalence in many workplaces. That doesn't hold true for any community. It depends on your target audience. But for us, serving community builders, that's generally already a platform they use for work-related communication.

At the same time, it isn't built for communities and lacks many of the essential community management tools you'd expect from a purpose-built platform. There are ways to combat those. We have shared a thing or two about this in a recent session on building highly-engaged Slack communities – find a full break-down of that session with tips on running a Slack community in John Saddington’s newsletter

Just one thing that's lacking, for example, is a way to onboard members into the community. There isn't any way to set this up within Slack itself. If you're still small, this could be a full manual effort to ensure you have proper onboarding for every new person joining. Later on, you'll have to come up with something that helps you do this in a way that’s a bit more scaleable. GreetBot is an ok way to set welcoming messages in public channels for your Slack community. 

To have a personal welcoming DM, you could use Slack's workflow builder.

How do people find out about the community? How do you make sure it keeps growing?

The best way to make sure a community keeps growing is to focus on making the current members love the community. There is no better way to power community growth than positive word of mouth, and the best way to create this is to make people feel welcome. 

The best way to make sure a community keeps growing is to focus on making the current members love the community.

Give them a safe space, build trust and authenticity. You can't fake those things, and they take a lot of time to build up naturally. That said, we do intentionally use our channels as flywheels to grow each other - Twitter and our newsletter both act as great discovery points for new potential members to learn about the community. 

We've mostly focused on doing one channel well at a time. We figured out the cadence and consistency that worked for our newsletter before we started investing more in Twitter as a channel. We don't plan to try and figure out LinkedIn until we've got Twitter running smoothly.

It's all about providing consistent value, giving people a reason to care about your Slack, Twitter, newsletter, or whatever else it might be.

Do you keep the community open or invite-based? If the latter, how do you qualify people that want to join?

Both. The Slack community has always been invite-only (with open applications), but our new Forem platform is completely open for anyone to join and participate in. 

For Slack, we try to limit it to actual community builders, professional or indie, to ensure that a feeling of trust and authenticity is maintained. Our Forem allows us to reach a broader 'community-curious' audience.

Forem is also better positioned to scale to more users, while Slack communities can sometimes have adverse network effects if they get too large.

How do you keep your community lively and positive?

Lead by example. We wanted to create a welcoming environment for new members. In the early days, we made sure to welcome every new member personally and throw a ton of emojis on their introduction messages. 

As the community has grown, members have taken it upon themselves to do that as well. This welcoming atmosphere happens without our team having to be directly involved these days, which is fantastic.

At the start of a community, you will be the one doing a lot of the heavy lifting and setting the example of how you'd like members to act and behave.

It's also an important part to emphasize. At the start of a community, you will be the one doing a lot of the heavy lifting and setting the example of how you'd like members to act and behave. If things go well and your community grows, others tend to replicate that behavior.

Keeping a community lively and cheerful is sometimes about the intangible vs tangible - it's less about the things you do, and more about how you make community members feel: trusted, welcomed, heard.

How did engagement change when you grew from the first couple of dozen members to over 2000 members? Any challenges anyone can learn from?

I always like to say that growing a community is like growing an apple tree. In the beginning, you have to constantly water, nurture, and watch over the community. As it grows, it's able to take care of itself, so your job shifts more to maintaining and providing the space for the community. 

Starting a community always has that 'chicken or egg' problem to start, so you have to do much more of the engagement heavy lifting upfront.

Starting a community always has that 'chicken or egg' problem to start, so you have to do much more of the engagement heavy lifting upfront.

Because we've always been extremely intentional, even when the community was 25 people, we haven't run into many real "challenges" as we've scaled up. It is worth mentioning that our community is a community of community builders, so there is a higher degree of understanding that might not exist when your members are a different audience.

How do you involve your community in improving your product?

We use our own product to run our community, so it acts as both a place to gather feedback from customers and potential customers and test new things ourselves.

In addition to generally just keeping a finger on the pulse of what community managers are struggling with, we also maintain a private channel for our customers and actively solicit their input and feedback as we continue to build the product. 

One piece of advice you would give to anyone that is building out an early community around a software startup:

Don't commit the cardinal sin of community metrics - obsessing over the number of members. Focus on building relationships and the reason people want to gather around your product, startup, and community. Later on, you can think more about how to measure things. For starters, avoid focusing on this.

Your favorite tool that helps you better run your community, if any?

Besides Commsor (no bias here), we've been big fans of Toucan for our casual community get-togethers. It provides a better experience for virtual social meetups than the more work-focused Zoom type apps.

Your favorite article or book as a community enthusiast?

There are so many good books about community building that I could recommend. I would recommend one that isn't often considered a community book: "Connected, how your friends' friends' friends' affect everything you feel, think and do", by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. 

While it isn't specifically about community, many of the underlying concepts about human nature can be directly related to community building basics.

Anything specific you want to promote or plug?

The Community Club! You have to join if you're interested or involved in community building -

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✌️ Cheers,

Steven, Lennart, Gino, Frank