Stop wasting time on ‘community’

I’ve spent thirteen years at the intersection of technologists and the companies who serve them. While technology has evolved dramatically, what we mean when we talk about “community” is no clearer today.

This is a problem.

It wastes time and resources, it depresses companies’ perceived value, and worst of all, drives up the cost of customer acquisition and retention. The dark matter that animates a product’s adoption curve remains mostly invisible.

We are leaving the best stuff on the table.

It’s time we as leaders move on from “community,” getting clear about how we harness the passion and energy that exists outside our org charts, so we can drive business outcomes.

Here’s how we do it.

The new economics of mattering to people

19 years after its founding, Reddit will IPO with 850 million monthly active users.

This is three times as many Catholic worshippers as existed in 1900, and remains competitive with modern Catholicism. Reddit’s population is 11 times the US population in 1900, and 2.5 times the American population of today.

These figures are dwarfed by Candy Crush, which boasts downloads in the billions.

In other words, today’s leaders can build followings at scales that were once the exclusive domain of religions and nations.

This is the lasting consequence of the internet, which permanently changes how we approach any business, from a local plumber to the cutting edge developer SaaS platform. The internet connects us all, allowing us coordinate our actions based on aligned values and self-interest.

It makes unicorns possible.

How to matter

The simplest way to matter to people is to make them more successful. Relieve their burdens, improve their skills, enhance their standing, make them less lonely. Our connected world allows us to provide all of these opportunities at scale. In success, the consequence is allegiance to our cause.

Making winners builds your community.

But this can only happen if we are deliberate and consistent in stewarding these outcomes. This requires ongoing negotiation: individuals and organizations are constantly evolving. Curiosity and humility must be operationalized to maintain a consistent view of how our work creates impact.

Mattering is scary

The challenge of mattering to people is that our decisions have consequences. Disappointment—when needs go unmet, or expectations are betrayed—produces uncomfortable, sometimes volatile outcomes. This volatility becomes more complex with scale. Even now, after a rocky 2023, some of Reddit’s most engaged users turn away its olive branches.

I want to be honest with you about tradeoffs. We can’t make everyone happy all the time. Every leader knows this. But we can give the people to whom we matter enough of what they want enough of the time that it’s worth it to them to sustain ongoing investment.

If we model their needs.


A constituent is someone who has expectations of you. They will make choices according to how well their needs are met. Constituents are everywhere in your process of creating value.

The modern business has two degrees of constituencies, but one of them is consistently left in the cold. The conspicuous constituency is familiar, composed of all the business stakeholders you’d expect. But we have to examine all the people who, in an internet age, your business can matter to: the extended constituency.

A diagram of constituencies, represented as an iceberg. Visible above the waterline is the conspicuous constituency. Below and less defined is the extended constituency. Together these represent the total value and impact of a company.

Conspicuous constituency

Every company has an obvious, conspicuous constituency:

People who can call executive leadership on the phone, people who are included in meetings, people everyone knows by name. These are everyone from board members, investors, tenured managers, to frontline workers. Others in this group are external to the org chart but still familiar and in-reach: parties like huge, consequential customers and partner companies.

Your conspicuous constituency has channels to lobby you about decisions in flight, visibility into your planning and assumptions, and context about the pressures that shape your business. It’s easy to take their temperature, and they can provide feedback when necessary.

In today’s business, it’s too common that strategy and planning exclusively centers these parties. But when it comes to the total power and influence that’s possible for your business and product, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Remember: you can matter to a lot of people.

Extended constituency

Here is a non-exhaustive list of those who may form your extended constituency. It’s important to understand that a single individual may be present in multiple categories, and so the results of supporting or alienating the needs of one category may leak into others.

Frontline users

If you sell a boot that has a pebble in it, your frontline users will feel it with every step of the path. If you change the direction of their careers, they’ll never shut up about it.

They have come to rely on you for meeting their goals, and they have familiarity that only comes from ongoing, repeated exposure.

They have opinions. A common refrain from leadership: “Why are they always complaining?”

Because they depend on you. Because the thing they do all the time seems more tedious than it needs to be. Because there’s a particular feature or workflow that they’d use all the time, and they have no idea how to describe it in a way that will be legible to your product leadership.

Your users may buy your product directly, or they may have it bought for them, the decision made by someone else. Either way, these individuals will sing your praises or seethe every time you come up in conversation. In a connected world, these sentiments can replicate dramatically, especially in the case of marketplaces that include user reviews, along with industry memes that shape long-term perception.

Forum posters

If you sell a technology product at scale, somewhere on the internet is a support community. Users show up looking for help, and with any luck they may even provide some. Represented here are power users providing help, newbies being persuaded to keep trying, and power users in waiting, learning the ropes. Posters’ verdicts are durable, showing up in search engines for years.

Community organizers

Communities around your product can gather with or without you. Message boards, Discord servers, subreddits, and other spaces will organize spontaneously through your most engaged constituents. They just really want to talk about your stuff.

In this role, they’ll set the terms of the community, the tone of conversation, and enforce limits on behavior. They will recruit themselves as your ambassadors, and their success will be a combination of your relevance and their wise stewardship.

You can’t control this energy, but you can harness it.

Open source contributors

While all modern tech companies have some open source DNA, there are plenty out there stewarding actual open source projects. The people who file bugs, update docs, and build new features are so invested they’re using their own time and ability to contribute to your success. In exchange, they get proficiency and recognition in an ecosystem they hope will support their careers.

Industry commentators

Experts with large followings will shape conversations in your field. They’ve built audiences through hard, consistent work, so their opinions will reverberate. Not everyone with an audience is a good-faith actor, and you can’t build your business with accolades as a goal.

Still, your standing with these individuals can influence the customers you haven’t met yet. Making your priorities and constraints visible to them can give you a fairer shake in public discussions of your work.

Creators and influencers

If you’re lucky, some of the people your product touches will be so inspired, they’ll spend their free time trying to convince others to give you a shot. They’ll write tutorials, record videos, build example projects, and release libraries. They will identify the conceptual gaps in your onboarding, documentation and other artifacts and provide their labor free of charge to bridge those gaps.

In exchange for these investments, they hope to attract co-founders, collaborators, hiring managers, partnerships, or traffic.


Sometimes tools or platforms enable people to become business owners in their own right. They might be a one-person consulting shop, or even an influencer experiencing outsized success. These are smaller players who have become so invested that their economic interests are bound up with yours. It’s no small thing helping feed someone’s kids.

And you never know which side project will turn into the next startup.


There are ways to squander the energy of your extended constituency.

Coupons and t-shirt cannons

“All they gave me was socks.”

I was talking to an ardent, external champion of a developer platform. He ran a consultancy in their ecosystem and touted their products constantly. So dedicated was his loyalty that his peers were starting to mock him for it, and with the episode of the socks, he was starting to wonder if they were right. He didn’t need socks. He needed the attention of an internal team, but no one asked.

It’s common to jump to swag and coupons as a way of rewarding people for contributions and participation in your extended constituency. But these tokens only matter when your constituents already feel intrinsically rewarded for their work.

When that underlying allegiance isn’t present, when needs are unmet, coupons and swag curdle, even becoming an insult.

One-sided events

If you’re going to spend the day talking at people, your words better be redeemable in gold. Too common is the event that centers the needs and priorities of the company hosting it, at the expense of attendee needs. Attention is precious. Earn trust and keep it by having clarity on your extended constituency’s goals, priorities and challenges. Earn loyalty by learning from them directly, and presenting information you know they need.

Erode both by talking past these needs, or worse, failing to acknowledge they exist.

Misusing attention

Relatedly, command of attention in the extended constituency is a currency. Spend it wisely, leaving people better than you found them, and you can be certain that your next call to action will produce results. Spend frivolously, demand superficial engagement—“what’s your favorite pizza topping?”—and you will quickly find your constituents have tuned you out.

Winging it

It’s too common to treat engagement with the extended constituency as a shoot-from-the-hip afterthought. Endless time and rigor goes into roadmaps, strategy documents, fundraising decks and other planning, but little effort is made to map the extended constituency or understand its needs. This results in sloppy overtures, or worse, simply overlooking these parties altogether.

And they always, always notice.


Extended constituencies can provide you with market research you didn’t know you needed. Some ideas will be impractical, and need to be met with a kind but definitive “thank you for your feedback.” Sometimes, though, you’ll be handed pure gold: market segments that weren’t on your radar, or insights about customer-facing artifacts that need re-tuning. Sometimes, your team stands to gain the simple joy of seeing how much people love something they made, deepening their commitment and boosting morale. 

It’s essential your conspicuous and extended constituencies actually interact from time to time.


Define your extended constituency

Understand who outside your direct sphere of influence you want to serve with an external strategy. Rather than winging it, dig deep on what you hope to accomplish by developing what has been called “community.” Who are they? How will you make them more powerful and effective? What are they already accomplishing with your product, or a competitor’s?

What do you hope your outreach will accomplish for them? Have clear answers here and you’re already ahead of the game.

Tell stories

Members of your extended constituency will enter rooms and conversations you’ll never know about. They’ll represent your position, your value and why people should give you a fair shake. Set them up to win.

Share stories about the work you’re doing with their benefit in mind. Explain your constraints. Be transparent about your goals, and the tradeoffs you’re managing to reach them. Not everyone will be invested in your storytelling, but those who are will carry it forward into their own communities.

Highlight constituent success

You have to show people winning. Make it clear that what you offer makes people a more successful version of themselves. This provides concrete benefit to your specific successful constituents, who will have greater access to opportunity thanks to your attention.

It also provides social proof, encouraging more people to join the ranks of your extended constituency, in whatever roles are most compelling to them. Grow your constituency by making it a good idea to join it.

Accomplish shared goals

Success builds social ties. People come to truly know each other, developing meaningful trust and even friendship, when they overcome challenges in pursuit of their goals. The quest is to fully engage people’s talents—whether or not they’re on your payroll—ensuring their combination of abilities produces output the world can see and which they can be proud of.

These relationships build the value of your extended constituency as a whole—it is more successful, and more likely to be successful for future challenges—which accrues to the value of your product and company.

Let people construct their own meaning

Elite: Dangerous is a multiplayer interstellar dogfighting simulation. Developers provide a breadth of roles for pilots to take on: exploration, piracy, bounty hunting, trading, and more. But a group of players calling themselves the Fuel Rats created their own role: rescuing pilots whose fuel ran dry. This creates a new social scene for players who enjoy public service, while increasing the value of the game as a whole.

Constituents have their own reasons for engaging with what you’ve built. Those reasons may surprise you. Leave room for that surprise. 

What’s next

The frothy era of zero-percent interest rates is, at least for now, behind us. Across industries, this requires greater discipline and a clear thesis for ROI in all functions. The ambiguous, mushy approach to ‘community’ we’ve seen for over a decade won’t cut it. That’s okay: a better world is possible.

Without money flowing so freely, we inevitably confront the need to do more with less. The way we get more out of existing headcount and other resources is by fruitfully, consistently engaging our extended constituencies. They help us make better bets. They sing our praises and open more doors than we could ever manage directly.

Your extended constituency is a formidable power, but you can only harness it by being deliberate in identifying its membership, operating with clarity about how you will support their goals.

This unlocks reciprocity that accelerates your progress. Done right, at scale, consistently, your efforts will convert some portion of your extended constituency into zealous advocates. They’ll be willing to go to the mat for your cause in their communities and discussion. This social proof changes the dynamics of selling and adoption, whether your funnel is self-serve or high-touch.

I hope this helps you add greater definition to this process.

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