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How many communities can claim Sheryl Sandberg, Selena Gomez, Junot Diaz, Eminem, Diplo, Sia, and Pharrell Williams among their contributor bases? Genius is able to rattle off those names without batting an eye.

Genius (formerly Rap Genius) was born in 2009, when founders Tom Lehman and Ilan Zechory happened upon an idea for an “art project”: They would bring people together to annotate the lyrics to rap songs.

The project started with just a few friends, an email chain, and a Facebook Group. Today, it’s a community of over one million people annotating all kinds of lyrics, and they welcome 15,000 new accounts every single week.

It’s a community so strong that they’ve just partnered with Spotify, attracted major celebrities, songwriters, and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors to join their ranks, grown their community by 80% in the last year, and boosted their internal team  to 50 employees.

There are thousands of websites that attempt to bring people together around shared passions, but what sets the great communities like Genius apart from the rest?

Elizabeth Milch, Genius’s Deputy Director of Content and former Senior Community Manager, knows what makes their community so special. Elizabeth (who holds a degree in English Literature from Yale University and a master’s degree in education from NYU) understands deeply how this language-loving community has grown and matured.

Through her work with the team, Genius has created their own secret sauce that has resulted in annotations of over two million songs. Elizabeth shares some of the ingredients that have made Genius into the content and community engine that it is today.

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1. Start with small, unscalable actions.

Genius got off to a humble start in October 2009, when the founders started by doing things that didn’t scale. This startup was just an email list and a dream. For five years, they built the community organically, themselves focusing on building up engagement and making connections before hiring Elizabeth in 2014.

“You use whatever tools you can until you can bring it all into one place,” says Elizabeth of the early days. But it kept growing.

“It was very private, invitation-only and songs were hidden until they were considered done. They just did it a song and a text at time. The site was built and the annotations were posted there, but the email list was how they organized the entire editorial process.”

“In early 2010, around when it got to 200 people on an email list, that’s when they figured they should open this up to more people.” That’s what they considered to be critical mass.

That number may seem arbitrary, but it was at that exact point that people they didn’t know started to clamor to contribute. That’s what critical mass looked like at Genius. At first, it was friends and friends of friends. Then strangers were asking to get involved. They knew they were on to something.

“Then they added forums to have meta discussion instead of going to a Facebook group to do it. There was a little bit of press when they got in the NY Magazine Approval Matrix and things really took off.”

2. Have a clear mission that gets people excited to contribute.

Genius’s overarching mission is to annotate the world. They call their company “the world’s largest public knowledge project.”

This is a large mission, but they’ve managed to harness the shared passion of their contributors to move this mission forward. That’s where community and content play together.

While the founders didn’t have such a formal mission and vision statement from the start, they certainly had one core belief that drove them: “We believe everyone has special knowledge and our community has to be open to be the most informative, most fun, place to consume knowledge about lyrics.”

And so they scaled their strategy around this very belief: together, we can do more than we can do alone.

As the Genius story goes to show, it’s okay not to have a formal mission from the very start. Over time, though, the mission has become more formalized for their team. It’s also become a lively topic of conversation internally and with their own members.

“We all talk about this together as a team. We want the site to be where passionate people connect. And we get to connect them.”

The mission is also something that they build alongside their community. “The community too believes in what we’re building. They see what it’s like when it’s working.” The mission therefore becomes a constant compass that guides community actions, and Elizabeth is able to remind members of the mission when they post new song lyrics for annotation. It’s about reminding people of the shared goals they have, not asking them to do something for you.

Calling on members all the time to work toward this shared goal is what allows Genius to harness their members’ shared passion and cement their sense of community.

3. Set your culture.

Genius is, of course, not the first project that gathers subject matter experts and enthusiasts together to create content. So what makes this story so unique? It’s their culture, which they constantly reinforce through their language and actions.

Elizabeth herself may hold degrees from some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, but she speaks like her members. She says things like, “We’re down with that” and makes Justin Bieber references in the same breath as explaining that the lyrics on Genius are the “shared objects of understanding” that bind their members.

It’s bottom-up not top-down. This also speaks to their hiring process: about a year ago, they brought on six passionate community members from around the world to work as full-time community managers under Elizabeth’s direction.

“We hired about six community members to work with us, and they are the people who, with me, figure out what are our priorities, how we galvanize the community around them. It becomes a way to have constant ongoing conversation with the people who are so important to us. A lot of times, if it’s top down, you don’t get anywhere.”

But, even now that they have members on the team itself, “the staff are not the bosses of the community. We’re the servant-leaders of the community. I guide my team to facilitate and organize people,” she says.

The stories that come out of ushering new members in with open arms speak for themselves: a few months back, new community members put Hamilton lyrics into a Google doc and then posted them to Genius. “They put it up on Genius and that’s where they chose to stay. Then they could really go Ham,” she jokes. “From that work, we developed a relationship with Atlantic Records. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the musical, added verified annotations and now our lyrics created by the community are embedded on the official website. It gained us press coverage and, more than anything else gave an existing community a place to go to do what they wanted to do.”

Community culture permeates every action on the site, the way the team communicates with their active contributors, and the way that their story is told in the press. It’s about setting a compass and then letting people carve their own path.

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4. Know your members’ motivations.

In order to do all this work, Elizabeth has to know her members inside and out and understand shifts in the motivations of new members.

Today, Elizabeth breaks down Genius member motivations into two buckets: pursuing shared passion and feeling their expertise acknowledged and even celebrated.

  1. Passion: “We are a place for people to really pursue something they are passionate about. Sometimes fans can be scorned. We think fans are stars. We think that the people who love something know the most about it. We give people a place to go if they love Bieber or Kendrick. People like having an outlet for that and like connecting with others who think the same way.”
  2. Celebrating Knowledge: “We believe everyone is a scholar. If you’re 19 and you haven’t been made to feel an expert, you can come to Genius and be appreciated for what you bring to the table. That is something that means a lot to people.”

5. Be open-minded about where new contributors will come from.

While the Genius community started with just friends and friends of friends, it was impossible for it to stay that way as the community grew.

Over time, they have welcomed all kinds of new contributors and encouraged diverse perspectives. Today, “we have a lot of college students and PhD students, and there are a lot of people who say that the work they do on Genius helps them be interdisciplinary,” she explains. It’s not just a site for rabid fans (though it is unequivocally that too), but a real educational opportunity for many people.

A lot of the people on Genius are borderline obsessed with the content they’re annotating to the point that they know everything about the topic. Up until Genius was created, there wasn’t a place for academics to mix with pop culture nerds to express their passion in a constructive and collaborative way.

They maintain their mission statement and continue pushing their culture forward even with these shifts in membership. This is what allows them to keep growing sustainably even while their member base transforms and matures.

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6. Measure success with one solid KPI.

While it’s great to have a gut feeling about the success of community, tons of stories to share, and warm fuzzy feelings about what members are creating, Genius goes beyond these initial indicators to show that their community contributes to business priorities.

So what is Genius’s overarching business priority that the community drives? “We want to convert visitors into contributors, which we define as anyone who participates in the editorial knowledge project,” Elizabeth explains. They are interested, therefore, in widening their contributor base so that they can annotate songs more and more quickly and robustly. Their community strategy has to tie back into this at every turn.

“The main thing the founders want to know is that people are contributing. That’s what we report back to them,” says Elizabeth.
To prove that they’re doing their job, they have one key metric that drives all of their community work. Their metric for defining success? A clear-cut KPI called “Editorial Actions on Non-Trivial Songs.” That is, they measure the amount of contribution on songs that get a significant number of views.

“To that end, we also track overall visitors and where our editorial community is working. So it allows us to check if there’s some page that’s blowing up and we haven’t been able to put some community firepower there.”

“We also track number of contributors in general. Then we look monthly for trends in that area.”

Tracking your community work back to business value is different in every organization, but Elizabeth offers sage advice for other community builders: “Whatever you choose to drive for your business value, it has to make sense for what you’re building.” It’s important to start measuring as soon as possible, but be mindful about what you try to measure. The KPIs you choose must map back to what the business cares about, otherwise the business won’t care about community.

Don’t Make Your Community Members Do Work; Invite Them to Contribute to a Mission

“When we post new lyrics and ask people to start working on annotating them, we want it to be fun and exciting when they get that message,” says Elizabeth. You definitely don’t want it to feel like “‘someone is asking me to do work.’”

It should feel like a privilege to be part of a collaborative community, to have access to people with shared passions or obsessions. When it comes time to contribute, it should be a moment that members want to be a part of.

Today on Genius, “College students are annotating alongside Pulitzer Prize winners,” says Elizabeth. That’s the kind of value proposition that your members can get behind. And, what’s more, is that the value the contributors add is just as important as the value of those Pulitzer winners: “Their insights matter just as much,” she says.

At the end of the day, Elizabeth says, “We are just trying to build something truly great.”

Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.