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SXSW: Scaling Your Community

Sean Ammirati of mSpoke is at SXSW in Austin, TX (USA). He is reporting
for Read/WriteWeb throughout the event.

This morning I attended a presentation by
Matt Mullenweg, the Founder of WordPress, on ‘Scaling
Your Community
.’ Matt started by defining scaling your community as “being as useful
to the last 100k people as you are to the first 100k.” He talked about the four steps a
community goes through as they scale.

The steps he laid out for leaders of a community were:

  1. Build a Good Foundation
  2. Bootstrap
  3. Let Go
  4. Personalize

Step 1: Principals for Building a Good Foundation

The principals that Matt emphasized to build a solid foundation all revolved around
taking a simple idea and articulating it clearly. Also he said that once you, as a
leader, commit to a set of simple principals, it is essential to make sure all of the
product development is consistent with that vision. Matt made the point that while this
is very straight forward, it is often difficult to execute on. For example, at Word Press
they have committed to “all free features will always be free”. Unfortunately, this has
proven difficult at some points because users have leveraged the system in ways they
never expected (such as unique ways to track their blog’s activity). Because of their
commitment, they have decided to continue offering those features for free.

Step 2: Bootstrap

Matt encouraged leaders to do three things during the ‘bootstrapping’ phase of
community development:

  • Be your most passionate user;
  • Talk to people (like an earlier panel,
    he pointed to the Flickr example);
  • Finally, he admitted that while somewhat controversial, he encouraged leaders to
    ‘pre-moderate’. He explained that “there is a point in every community where the signal
    to noise ratio degrades … you need to pre-moderate before comments are publicly
    available to protect the community from this degradation.”

Step 3: Let Go

Once you have an active community, he explained that one of the most difficult things
to do is give the community over to its members. He talked about how he has recently done
this with WordPress Ideas, a website
that allows people to enter their ideas for new Word Press Platform features and allow
the community to vote on them (think Digg for features). So far the site has received
over 487 ideas. He encouraged other open source project leaders to let go, because Open
Source “is more than just providing software and source code” – explaining that it was
also about opening up processes and decisions.

Step 4: Personalization

Finally, communities need to encourage their users to express themselves as
individuals. Websites need to to treat “every tag and click [as] sacred.” He discussed
how interacting with a personalized site can build stronger affinity. He pointed to a
recent article
from The Onion about the effectiveness of Amazon’s Recommendation Engine. Matt explained
that systems like this really help encourage your community to spend more time
interacting with your site. As an example, he relayed a story where he spent 8 hours on
the phone with Amazon trying to merge all his accounts together.


Obviously, this is something Matt knows a lot about – having built a very active open
source development community for the Word Press Platform. He also has helped create a
destination site that hosts 3/4 of a million free blogs (wordpress.com) which have more than 35 million unique
visitors a month.

Each of these four steps are critical as your community evolves. Hopefully, you’re
able to diagnose where your community is and have identified a few techniques to help you
get to the next level.

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