Starting Small

One of the biggest questions I'm asked when I start working with a client and their community is around ROI. Find out why starting small is almost always the proven path to success..

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One of the biggest questions I'm asked when I start working with a client and their community is around ROI. 

Quite often the client or company understands what the intrinsic power of an online community could be (either they are about to build one or something they have isn't working as well as hoped), yet they see the community as the end of an over-simplified revenue model: 

Us > Drive huge membership > Community happens > People talk > Sell a service / get a desired action.

In many cases, a roundtable meeting amongst the team has drawn them to the seemingly logical conclusion that MORE = BETTER and they arrive at something like this: 

  • Let's create a huge community space to show how big we are / want this to be 
  • Let's get 100,000 members minimum 
  • Let's get those people talking 
  • Let's get the desired result and increase all our metric forecasts accordingly
  • World domination is ours!

On paper that seems fairly solid, right? More people must equal a better end result.

However in almost 15 years building community I've rarely, if ever, seen this big bang theory work. Huge resources of both time and money have been sunk into costly mis-steps that have ultimately resulted in ghost ships floating sadly into the sunset. 

So why is this? 

The truth is that many communities confuse high value engagement and vanity metric noise. They build huge expensive megastructures to cope with noise, when they should be asking what good engagement looks like to them. 

A good analogy here is to think about two bars, The Power House and the Quiet Corner. 

The Power House vast and on opening night they drive an expensive marketing campaign to get people through the door. 10,000 people show up and the next morning the team is high fiving over a frothy latte for "building a successful community".

However, once inside the patrons find the venue isn't as promised. They have no idea where to go first and the size of the place means every person is either too scared to say anything or is shouting to be heard into a black hole where they get no reply.

No one seems to be in charge and there's no attempt to welcome them in and connect them to other like-minded people. 

The Quiet Corner a smaller affair. The team invite 50 people into their carefully considered venue and spend time welcoming them in and explaining how everything is set up.

They make introductions where appropriate and listen to the initial feedback to help define the tone, structure and desires of the patrons. 

It's clear there is a designated community manager (or small community team) setting house tone and style, and the personal touch is both appreciated and engaging.

The outcome
For The Power House, people begin to drift off. The drop off in both engagement and return is a sheer cliff edge fall and within a month the bar is deserted. Those massive signup numbers that impressed the senior stakeholders are now virtually meaningless due to the smattering of engagement and lack of worthwhile conversations happening.

For the Quiet Corner, real and valuable conversations are happening. The first 50 are asked to invite their friends by the community manager if they think the community will be valuable to them and grow. This personal outreach works and new members continue to invite new members. Organic growth is happening, and it's happening fast.

The Quiet Corner team identify 10 people within that group who are extremely passionate and/or subject matter experts to become ambassadors or super users for the community, with some extra responsibility and a vested interest in helping shape the space. 

Over a month, the Quiet Corner community is now at 200 people, with high engagement levels and a wealth of highly valuable conversation and content creation. The team begin to collate this knowledge into a central hub and make it easily accessible for new members. Content is being created leading to a variety of useful tools (ebooks, white papers, webinars, AMAs (Ask me anything) pinned topics, subject matter expert pieces, etc) that can be used for marketing purposes and to add continued value to the space and the people.

A year later The Power House has long since vanished.

The Quiet Corner is now a vibrant community of thousands of highly engaged members who are staunch advocates of your brand and collaboration space.


Whilst it can be a difficult sell into a senior management team at first, starting small and taking careful community building steps is the proven path. If you have an established community and it's struggling, auditing where you're at and going back to basics often results in a positive return on investment and true value to your members.

Whilst trend data for the community is important (and comes in time), successful collaboration spaces understand and considers that the community is made up of individuals.

Building out accordingly will always create a dedicated, committed and above all positive community that remain advocates for your brand and objectives.

Please contact me on to discuss community management or digital strategy support

Darren Gough

Founder, Island23

Community Management expert with over 15 years background building digital strategy and driving engagement with diverse audiences. Former Community Manager for Clients worked with include Facebook, Sky, Greenpeace, World Bank, Springer Nature Publishing, Innogy (formerly RWE), Scope, Mind, Society for Neuroscience, Digicel, Vorwerk, Truth Initiative (Mayo clinic), Townsquared, and the NHS.


Go to the profile of Charles Thiede
over 3 years ago

Great article Darren. I totally agree with this: "Whilst it can be a difficult sell into a senior management team at first, starting small and taking careful community building steps is the proven path."

Go to the profile of Darren Gough
over 3 years ago

Thanks Charles - followed this exact path. Several hundred members > 1.4 million in ten years.

Go to the profile of Jenefer Thoroughgood
over 3 years ago

Awesome article Darren, as ever. I know which bar I would much rather drink in!

Go to the profile of Darren Gough
over 3 years ago

Thanks Jen. Haha yes!

Go to the profile of Nancy Kinder
over 3 years ago

Great summary of what we all face all the time, companies going after quantity and not quality. I will definitely point them to this blog post because you have described it so well and visually!!. Thanks for sharing.