Ok but can you *really* scale community?
A talk with Duolingo's Laura Nestler [a 6 minute read]
“Community is not transactional by nature. Humans seek to connect on a deeper level. They're looking for validation or for support or for something bigger than themselves.
Now that community is such a buzzword. Everyone wants it and they want it quickly. We have more levers than ever, and they work. But when you growth hack with incentives, what you gain in volume, you erode in authenticity.” - Laura Nestler via the Get Together podcast
So what are our options if we want to grow an authentic community that aligns with business goals and is valuable to community members? If anyone knows how to scale community collaboration and connection, it’s Duolingo’s Global Head of Community, Laura Nestler. (Laura also helped shape Yelp’s community-driven growth!) Pre-Covid, Duolingo community members were holding over 700 in-person events per week. Her team made a hard pivot, shifting to online events, and ramped up to 300 online events in a short period! I reached out to Laura to see if she could help us understand how to thoughtfully scale community programs (and get the resources needed to do this in a healthy way).
I know it took lots of testing and time to find the right events model that could scale. What kept you going? How did you know it would work?
I didn’t! I had a hypothesis that it would work, but I certainly didn’t know, and this impacted my approach. I firmly believe you must treat your community programs with the same rigor as you would any other product trying to find market fit. So while I didn’t know if it would work, I did know that I could apply principles to cheaply prove my concept and then systematize. As I saw signs of success, I transferred more resources in the form of time and money into proving it out further. This is a slow and measured approach, and it requires that you’re not precious about your idea. If you’re proven wrong (and when, because it will happen), you must realistically assess whether you’re solving for a real problem.
Can you help someone starting from scratch? What steps to they need to take to test a community strategy?
Yes! Step 1 = Testing it yourself. You need to understand the pain points/problem you’re solving.
For Duolingo Events, I started by simply emailing a few Spanish learners in Seattle and seeing if they would show up to IRL events. I planned every single event myself, rather than assuming that I somehow magically could understand exactly what an attendee or future host would want from an event. In this phase, you’re just trying to understand the pain points by doing it yourself. You pick the venues and the times and deal with the invitations and figure out what kind of third party tool you need (do you even need a tool? Can you manage it through forums or google forms)? You won't understand any of that unless you're actually doing it yourself.
Next step? Test things that don’t scale. At this point, you’re not out there trying to get millions of people. You’re trying to prove that you’re not solving for an internal bias; that you’re solving a real problem. So consider this as an experiment, just get it out there and validate! This phase is all about gathering early feedback to see if you can grow your idea in a small, but sustainable way. If you’re in this phase and you can’t grow beyond 100 people, that’s your biggest problem. Prove that you can figure that out before you obsess about scaling.
The final step is to only build what you need. There are very few things you actually need. Just build what you need to get your airplane in the air – save the in-flight entertainment options for later. It’s tempting to want to work on the “sexy” part that you’ve envisioned in your mind. I get it. But there are very few, but very important things you actually need at this stage. Tackle the monkey first. (Here’s a link if this makes no sense.) It’s critical that you only worry about the next order of magnitude. When I was at 10 events per week, I thought about how to get to 100 each week. Only when I got there did I worry about reaching 1000 each week. It’s really tempting, but do not optimize directly for two-three levels above where you are.
TL;DR: I knew it would work only when I saw it working successfully on a small scale and was able to grow it to a medium scale, then a large scale.
One thing I find most community managers have trouble with is getting leadership buy-in and acquiring the freedom and space to run tests. Do you have advice for getting support and resources for community work?
Oof. This is a massive question. Let me tackle getting leadership buy-in. I hear the cry for resources so often, but the reality is, everyone in every function is strapped for resources. To earn more, it is your responsibility to articulate and ideally quantify (if possible) the value the community delivers to core business objectives. The SPACE framework does a great job clarifying the multiple ways community can add value. Your job is to FOCUS your resources on clearly proving the value – identifying the place where your company can’t succeed without the help of the community.
PSA: the most vibrant and impactful communities are groups of people who not only come together, but act upon their passion to contribute to what’s being made.
Yes! I heard someone say building a community strategy is all about prioritization. Maybe it was you? Ha! Can you talk about how you attack this?
I’m about to get dark, but stay with me… imagine you’re fighting a war. You have a small army (respectively) and there are 5 different battles raging; you're vastly outnumbered. Does it make sense to split up your troops and send a few people to fight each battle? NO. You should stick together and win one before moving on to the next. THIS is how you gain resources. Strategically pick your battles, win decisively to earn more resources, then tackle the next one with even more firepower. (I promise I hate this metaphor as much as you do; if you can find one that better illustrates this point, let me know!) Once you are able to clearly articulate your value and demonstrate how more resources will lead to more impactful results, this door will open.
As for inspiring a team – the greatest leaders I’ve known have shown incredible ambition and focus, but never for themselves. It’s always a blend of honesty, humility, and unparalleled will to lead others in service of a greater cause. I do everything I can to emulate this model. I truly believe that, as a leader, it’s not my job to deliver the wins; it’s my job to articulate a well-defined vision by clearly defining short and long term goals, establish guardrails to ensure focus, then act as part bodyguard, part goalkeeper to remove obstacles so my team can do their best work. I think this is how we all win.
So grateful for these thoughts from one of the industry’s most prolific community builder and leader! If you want to hear more from Laura, definitely check out this talk. And, if you want to work with Laura, some fantastic roles are open right now at Duolingo.
P.S. Are you hosting community events right now? Or thinking about it? If so let me know, I’m on an events kick and would love to understand your pain points and experiences!