The Reddit community is one of the largest and arguably most active communities in the world.

With over 600 subreddits being created every day and hundreds of Reddit meetups hosted every year all around the world, the community just continues to grow. It’s truly taken on a life of its own.

Erik Martin RoundSo how did they build such a massive community and what did they do to scale their community strategy with such a small team? 

To learn more, I sat down with Erik Martin, Reddit’s General Manager and original Community Manager, to get a deeper look into how Reddit built its community in the early days and how they continue to grow it today. He shared some of his biggest wins, mistakes and lessons along the way.

The Reddit Approach to Community

During a time where more and more companies are trying to figure out how to build communities, hire community managers and scale up a community strategy, Reddit takes a unique approach. Some might say their strategy is to not have a strategy. They do “Community Management” by NOT managing their community. Instead they let everything happen organically.

Erik described his early days at Reddit: “I started as Community Manager  in Fall 2008, and I had no idea what it was. It was a new term back then and I wasn’t sure what it would entail. It was a lot of dealing with spammers, responding to people on reddit and looking for interesting things to share on the blog, share with press etc.”

So how did Reddit get from there to where they are today? Here are 7 lessons Erik shared to build a thriving community that you can apply directly to your community strategy starting today.

1. Start by helping an existing community (in one vertical)

Most companies try to create their own community from the ground up. They put their brand as the main topic of conversation and expect people to just want to be active. Often conversations feel forced and dry.

“It’s not about creating a community. That’s hard or impossible. Instead, look to communities that are already out there, what communities are trying to form and how can you help them grow? How can you serve them?”

Reddit was just a new tool, but the people that comprised the first community on that platform were already active elsewhere: Programmers.

“It started with Paul Graham’s blog when he shared the first link to Reddit and that created the initial audience. So it was a lot of people interested in programming, engineering and then it just sort of naturally expanded through word of mouth.”

It’s similar to the story you hear time and time again from communities or platforms that are massive today. They started focused and small. eBay started as a marketplace for collectors items. Amazon was just books. Craigslist was an email list for events. Facebook was just college students rating each other.

Start a community with one focus, helping people do what they’re already trying to do.

2. Give people a place to feel like they belong

Are you giving your audience a place to have conversations that they can’t have anywhere else?

Martin believes that a big part of the value Reddit offers is creating a home for people to talk about anything, no matter how weird or niche it is.

“There’s a strong sense of belonging. As Reddit has grown, people spend more time in subreddits. Anyone can create their own community.”

Often things that we know today as popular, or mainstream, started out as tiny subreddits with early adopters.

“Emerging trends show up on Reddit first. Reddit was the first place where people interested in cryptocurrencies could talk and connect before it became really popular. Now everyone knows about Bitcoin.”

3. It’s better for communities to grow steadily, rather than “hockey sticking”

In the startup world. it’s especially hard for community professionals to battle the expectation for exponential growth. While userbases grow at rapid rates, that doesn’t mean the community can too. In fact, growing a community too fast can be really detrimental.

“Reddit has never had exponential growth. It’s doubled every 12 months. It’s very linear. Steady and significant but never explosive. The steady growth and subreddits help maintain a sense of belonging so you never feel like it gets too big or mainstream for your tastes.”

Grow too fast, and you lose that feeling that you’re a part of something special. It becomes hard for members to feel like they belong.

Another option for fast-growing communities is to break them out into sub-communities. Which leads to Erik’s next lesson…

4. When a community hits critical mass, start offering subgroups.

I asked Erik if there’s a magic number or some point where a subreddit hits a critical point in its growth and has to break out. Well, there is no number, but there is…um…I’ll just let him tell you.

“One of the things we pay attention to is that you don’t have a real community until it starts to make fun of itself. That’s when you have a critical mass. Any subreddit of a certain size has what we call a ‘circle jerk’ version, satirizing common popular topics. For example, r/Murica is a subreddit for over-the-top American patriotism. Pretty soon other countries started doing the same thing, like Canadia and Straya. The creation of a ‘circle jerk’ subreddit is a sign that we have an active community in that country.”

Every time a subreddit gets too big, they see it naturally break out into smaller groups.

5. The success of a community is directly related to the leader or moderator

After seeing thousands of subcommunities grow over the years, Reddit has a pretty good idea around what it takes for a subreddit to successfully grow and what causes many of them to fail.

“The interest level and activity levels of the moderators are really important in making a subreddit successful. It’s all about the person leading it.”

When a moderator is really active and cares, that’s what makes it a good experience for the members of the group — especially in the early days before there’s a lot of organic activity.

“The key for users is if they post something, are they going to a response? That’s what really hooks people.”

Good news for community professionals! Turns out that without someone driving the conversation and getting people involved, most communities struggle to get off the ground.

6. Give your community leaders the tools they need to succeed

Even though moderators are so important for the success of their community, Reddit is pretty hands-off in how they work with them.

“We try to give them tools to customize their subreddits but to be honest, most of the tools made for moderators were made by other moderators. The community creates what it needs. Not to say we don’t do stuff behind the scenes but it’s all pretty small and just going with the organic things that are happening.”

I asked Erik if they provided any educational material to train their moderators and he told me they don’t have too much. There is a subreddit specifically for moderators where they can ask questions and help each other out.

“Compared to the early days, now we have a little more resources for programmers and community so hopefully we can do more, but it’s going to continue to be about giving the community and moderators more tools to customize their own experience.”

7. The biggest lesson: When you give up control, your community surprises you in amazing ways

The recurring theme in my entire time with Erik was this idea of distributing control and letting your community drive the product.

“You’re not as smart as your users collectively. Just listen more and trust that the people who are passionate about the subject matter are going to do interesting and unexpected and amazing things with control you give them.

Get over the fear of giving up control to customers or users. None of us would have anticipated that local subreddits and offline meet ups have become as big as they have.

For example, one of the first subreddits that was ever created was the programming subreddit, because one of the first members was mad that the homepage wasn’t about programming anymore. Then someone created the AskReddit subreddit because they were tired of others asking questions on the main page. Now it’s the biggest subreddit ever. The same thing happened with AMA, and now that’s also one of the biggest.

Sometimes the best ideas come from somewhere you never expected, so listen to your community.

“Businesses should do that too. If you have customers who really want to talk about a certain subject, want do something with your product or show off something they’ve done with your product, you’re a fool not to embrace that.”

David Spinks

David is the Founder of CMX (cmxhub.com), the world's largest and most passionate network for community professionals. Thousands of community professionals come to CMX for support and education in com...

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