The Next Generation of Community Infrastructure

As a key part of our social fabric, communities have always been at the forefront of our lives and are constantly evolving with us as we evolve. It is fascinating to look at how dramatically communities have changed over just the past few decades. Along with the decline of communities that historically centered on geographic proximity and in-person connections (neighborhoods, religious organizations, labor unions, social clubs, etc.) has come the explosion of online communities. We have seen communities flourish across the Internet on message boards, email lists, chat rooms, social media platforms, and more. Today’s communities are forming across our entire online experience, becoming increasingly decentralized, niche, and engaged.

But the era of online communities is just beginning. A few months ago, I wrote about the rise of the community department and how community is becoming a company’s most valuable asset. Indeed, community deepens the customer relationship across the entire lifecycle, driving meaningful and sustainable competitive advantages and unlocking powerful network effects. COVID-19 has only accelerated the growth and importance of digital communities. In the coming years, companies and organizations will continue to invest aggressively in their communities.

Community is an incredibly powerful force and will be a megatrend that continues to shape the tech ecosystem for the next decade and beyond. However, as online communities play a larger and larger role in our lives, the community tech stack must evolve to meet the rapidly evolving needs of both community builders and their members.

The democratization of community building and the existing community tech stack

The Internet has democratized community building — communities of all kinds can now be built and scaled entirely (or almost entirely) digitally. What we have today is lots of communities built on top of tools like Slack (enterprise chat) or Facebook (social network) that were not exactly designed for communities, but have nevertheless made community building much easier.

In the past decade, we have also seen several community-focused companies like Patreon (founded 2013) and Discord (founded 2012) reach significant scale and help a whole generation of communities grow. These market leaders enabled community builders to capture value and demonstrated the demand for community tools, paving the way for an entire wave of new community point solutions that have sprung up over the last few years to fill gaps in the community toolkit.

With a myriad of tools at their disposal, the community builder’s tech stack has become quite complex. A quick glance at this Twitter thread by David Spinks reveals several examples of this. Most communities operate on some combination of software repurposed from other use cases (Slack, Salesforce), social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Clubhouse), horizontal productivity tools (Notion, Airtable, Zapier), virtual events platforms (Zoom, Hopin), and community point solutions (many of which I have shown above).

“None of my tools are bespoke for community. I use software meant for other things and repurpose them for my community.”
Erica Moss, Community Engagement at Atlassian

At FirstMark, we are very much a community and network driven venture capital firm. My talented colleagues Dan, Jack, and Katie manage several public and private communities (including Guilds by FirstMark) that span our portfolio companies as well as the broader tech ecosystem. Like many professional communities, our community members engage with us and each other through online and in-person events, discussion forums, and relevant content. Here is a look at our tech stack:

  • Discussion: Slack, Google Groups
  • Events: MeetUp, Luma, Zoom
  • Member management: Memberstack
  • Content: Medium
  • Horizontal tools: Webflow, Zapier, Airtable

Clearly, there is no shortage of tools for community builders to choose from today. However, almost all of these tools are focused on a single use case in the community stack, and some are even focused on a specific type of community like brand, professional, creator, developer, or non-profit communities. As a result, most communities are stitching together a variety of individual solutions to serve the end-to-end needs of their members. The community tech stack is incredibly fragmented.

The problem with fragmentation

The more conversations I have with community builders and community experts, the more I can see that the fragmentation of the existing community stack is not sustainable. It is preventing communities from reaching their full potential and creating fundamental challenges for community builders.

These challenges include:

  • Data silos: Because tools are fragmented, data lives across multiple platforms, resulting in a lack of data visibility. Community managers cannot get a deep and granular understanding of the health of their community down to the individual member level.
  • Difficulty measuring value: Lack of data visibility means that identifying and tracking a community’s most important metrics becomes a formidable (and often impossible) challenge. For brand and enterprise communities, this makes it difficult to measure ROI and demonstrate the value of the community to the broader organization.
  • Lack of ownership: Community builders may feel like they do not truly own their communities when they rely on too many third party companies.
  • Control over member journey: Since the various community tools often do not integrate well together, community leaders have a hard time managing the end-to-end member experience in a consistent way.
  • Productivity loss: Managing a plethora of tools creates too many manual and inefficient workflows for community admins. Constant context switching and managing unruly spreadsheets is a common symptom.

Of course, none of this is optimized for the community member either. The fragmentation of the community stack means that members have to sign into and navigate across a bunch of different platforms, each for different use cases. This is a poor user experience to say the least.

“Community members are confused. They have to be in their inbox, on Slack, on Zoom...it’s hard to understand what takes place, where, and when.”
Sarah Noeckl, founder of Femstreet

Ensuring an excellent member experience is top of mind for every community leader, especially as the number of online communities continues to grow exponentially. Every interaction from onboarding and activation to ongoing engagement should be seamless for the community member.

So if community stacks are under-optimized today, where do we go from here?

The opportunity for a platform

Every community is different; each has distinct goals, members, engagement models, etc. The fragmented landscape of community point solutions is evidence of that, as different tools have emerged to serve different needs for different types of communities. I fundamentally believe there is no one-size-fits-all solution for communities. Communities want to (and should) be able to customize their tech stacks.

On the other hand, communities now have member bases that are accustomed to using whatever tools those communities have pulled together, even if they are not ideal. For many communities, moving off of certain solutions or trying to force major behavior changes is a risk not worth taking.

From all of this, it’s clear that the challenges that communities face are incredibly complex. Therefore, community solutions need to be quite nuanced. When I zoom out and think about both the needs and the constraints of communities, I come to the following:

  • Communities need something to tie all of their point solutions together.
  • Community point solutions should not go away. There is value in having specialized, best-in-class tools in each part of the stack that fit a community’s unique needs.
  • Communities need flexibility and should be able to swap out their point solutions easily as their communities scale and evolve. They should also be able to stay on certain point solutions that are critical to their member experience.

With all of that in mind, I believe what communities desperately need is a Platform. This Platform would sit at the center of the community builder’s universe, providing the core functionality to facilitate relationships with community members. The Platform would act as the control center for community administration, empowering community managers to do all of their operations in one place, as well as enabling workflow automation across various tools and software. It would also be the single source of truth for the community’s data, including the community member “CRM,” providing critical real-time analytics.

Importantly, the Community Platform would become the integration point for all of a community’s existing and new point solutions. What was once a fragmented set of tools would become an ecosystem of community-specific point solutions, seamlessly integrated into the Community Platform. This would give community builders the flexibility to hand pick the tools that are best for their communities, while having a single unified data model that will give them full visibility into their North Star metrics across all of their members.

If implemented properly, the Platform would dramatically improve the community member experience. For example, with data in hand, community managers could personalize the community experience for each member. The Platform could also act as the central hub for all member interactions and the launching off point into various front-end experiences like community forums and events.

A Platform model would leverage the power of modularity to create massive value across the community tech stack, enabling communities to reach their full potential and enabling community point solutions to scale on the Platform as communities scale. Over time, the ecosystem of point solutions could evolve into a marketplace of apps — all built on top of the Community Platform.

The community space is moving incredibly quickly, with new companies popping up left and right. I believe that in the not too distant future, we will see thousands and thousands of communities sit on top of a Community Platform (or multiple Community Platforms), enabling a new wave of community growth. As this future unfolds, I am excited to see new and existing companies continue to address the expanding needs of communities — and the emergence of Platform in the next generation of community infrastructure.

If you’re building the next big community infrastructure platform, I’d love to chat. You can reach me by email (lisa@firstmarkcap.com) or on Twitter (@lisaxunyc).

VC @FirstMark | former homes: Handy, Peloton, Bain & Company, Wharton

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