Laurel Toby, founder of MediaBistro, got up on stage with an energetic shout “Let’s show ’em how it’s done!” Laurel started building community in 1994 in order “to meet guys.”
Rather than present a speech, we were treated to a chat between Laurel Toby and David Spinks.
In 1994, she started the company simply by starting some community. She hosted cocktail parties as a journalist to meet others. Her parties started with 10 people and grew through word of mouth to hundreds and, then, millions–without ever paying a cent on SEO.
Why? It started with a strong vision of a community. And that’s Mediabistro, cocktail-party-turned-community-company.
Mediabistro then grew from a small website with job listings and events, to a company worth $23 million. Laurel sold the company and, “pocketed all that change,” she says.
“That’s good ROI,” replied David.
1. Community and Business Don’t Always Mix
Laurel argues that community is always a small thing. She cannot think of a single business that has built one large overarching and cohesive community over time. Why is that? It becomes too transactional.
Community is small by definition–with the exception of church and sports. In other words, community is a type of minority. “There aren’t 20 million of these people in America, there are 5 million of these people in America.”
“Community, for business, means there has to be some transactional element, for example delivering services or products to a like-minded group,” she says. That is just not a fun, heart-warming thing to do necessarily.
“Everyone is using the word ‘community’ in the same sentence as ‘engagement,’ and to me that is passion-less and soul-less.” She says.
To have true community with a business, you have to have connect with people in a real way.
Laurel presents this as a challenge for all of us. How can we, as community professionals, make business something that is full of heart, connection, and love? Something that is not simply a transaction?
2. Keep it Exclusive but Don’t Shut Everyone Out
Community is both about who is included as well as excluded. She says that Mediabistro may have been too exclusive in the early days, when she kicked people off the website and out of the parties. Her biggest mistake was kicking everyone off a monetizing platform. She says, “I should have opened it up to the world and called it Craigslist.”
She says that perhaps she should not have been so harsh with these early members, but the community grew and grew despite her setting these gates to entry.
3. Set Boundaries
As community professionals, “we’re people pleasers.” It is hard for us to say no. Despite that, we must find ways to put boundaries in place.
“Sometimes you have to be tough in order to be successful. People want to feel selected, which means saying no to other people. We are people pleasers, which means we have to fight that urge to please everyone… you have to have boundaries.”
4. ROI is Not Everything
“I hate to say this, but at a big company, it is hopeless,” she laments. “Get your skills and get outta there. In true community, there’s no dollar ROI. There’s a dollar ROI on engagement and marketing, but if you try to just call it community, you’re not going to be able to tie those two things together.”
There are some companies that try to get it, she says, but they all started as small companies like Zappos. Once a founder of a small company leaves, it might not work. Once a company becomes successful, visions, and priorities change. When a new crop of people comes in, things change, “and that’s just the cycle of life.”
“Once you pull out the person-to-person, face-to-face magic, you start to lose your community,” she says.
3. Show Love
“How many of you guys feel that you are expressing love to your communities?” Laurel asked.
“All hands should be raised. In order for there to be a real community, there has to be some emotion.” The way Laurel Toby made Mediabistro work was by training people to replicate her emotions. It wasn’t always easy, but if you find people across the country who love your brand, you bring them in. People don’t want to help a company, people want to help if they see their values and love.
“You have to communicate a clear value to the audience you’re activating. They will represent you to the other members. Make them feel part of your organization.”
“Everything you do, you have to do it with excellence,” she said.