How to grow and use a strong community


Maga Seghete

Maga Seghete

In just two-and-a-half years, Branch has cultivated a Mobile Marketing Meetup community with more than 20,000 mobile app developers and leveraged it to grow into a service used by companies such as Airbnb, Buzzfeed, Jet, Pinterest, Target and Yelp. Branch co-founder Mada Seghete gives her hands-on tactics in this talk from DevXCon San Francisco 2017.


Thanks, everyone. Thanks for having me. I’m Mada. I’m one of the founders of Branch, and I am pretty developer relations space. So today I’m gonna talk to you about how you can build community. And I’ll give you a lot of examples on how we started and how we were able to build actually not one, but two different communities that Branch manages and grows. And I’ll focus mostly on offline communities and events, and how you can engage people offline and then take advantage of that online.

Okay, so a little bit about me and how I got to be here. These are some of the most important pieces of my life. I was born, then I graduated from college and I worked as a software developer for about two years, after which I moved to product. And before Branch, my co founders and I actually built an app. So we were pretty much customers of Branch today. So we built a little app called Kindred Photo Books, worked hard to get it off the ground. We were featured in both app stores, sold about 20,000 photo books and ended up selling the company, and starting Branch to actually solve all the issues we had as app developers. And we started branch about three years ago.

This is my only slide on Branch where basically a linking infrastructure for apps, and we have lots of tiny apps using ours but also a lot of the large apps like Pinterest, or Slack, or Airbnb. So we are the mobile linking…when you click on a house in Airbnb, it’s usually our link powering it.

What is community?

So when you talk about community and when we started Branch, we decided when we were app developers and when we were trying to get our app off the ground, we actually had a really hard time finding any information around it. We went around and try to understand…when you look at growth, there was a lot of talks and articles about growth but they focused on growth in general, not on growth on mobile. And we found that the challenges an app developer faces are very different than the challenges that someone faces growing on the web. And we were very surprised that it was so hard to find communities building on mobile, specifically considering how much harder it was to grow on mobile.

So when I look at what community meant, community is really…and these are the two definitions I found. It’s a group of people living in the same space or having a particular characteristic in common. And for us, we were looking for communities of people that actually had the same problems that we did so we can learn from them. A community also means a feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing interests and goals. And for us, this is actually what helped us build our initial community.

How communities grow

So when we look at who is our community today, when we were just us, four founders in a room, we decided that we were trying to build around what we were trying to do, a community of app developers. And we tried to figure out, “What did these developers need? What was our biggest problem? And what were the bigger problems of our friends who were also building apps?” We understood that it wasn’t really monetisation, it wasn’t really like launching an app, it really was growth. An app developer would come and say, “Hey, I have this great idea. I’m gonna build this amazing app.” But what happens is once they put in the app store, they actually found it incredibly difficult to grow. So we decided to build our community around growth. So we started these meetups, and we started very simple and I’ll talk through my lessons but now we’re about 24,000 people in all these meetups around the world that my team manages.

And then, we actually built a separate…as Branch grew and we started being used by more and more app developers, we realised that we couldn’t take the community that we had before. So we built a completely separate community of Branch users and we called them Branch User Groups. And that managed separately, a very separate…like the mobile growth community we also manage. We consider ourselves as managing two separate communities, the mobile growth community, those are not Branch users, they’re people interested in growth. And we do educate them about growth and Branch comes up. And then we have like our very strong user community that’s smaller but a lot more engaged on our brand.

So I’m gonna go through five…six lessons actually. And I’m gonna give you guys some examples of things that I learned. And again, I was pretty new at this. My job before was in products. So I’ve only been doing community for the past three years. But I think I learned a lot of really interesting things during this time.

Lesson one: just start

So the first lesson, and sometimes people come to me and say, “How do I start? Where do I get started?” And my advice is that you can actually start incredibly simple. So we had raised a seed. We didn’t have a lot of money in the bank but we wanted to build this community. So all we did was, we went to, started the meetup, and decided that we were just gonna do it. We got two people to speak at our meetup, two friends from Pinterest and Robinhood. And we just decided…we called all the different pizza places and found which one had deals on that day, and we ordered the cheapest pizza. We went to Safeway and we bought some beer. And we asked the incubator we were at, StartX, if they can host us for free, and we just did it. We didn’t really have a team that worked on this. It was just the four of us and obviously two of the founders were just coding all the time. So me and this other guy just did all of this.

And it was actually incredibly awesome. Although we knew nothing about this and we just decided do a meet up randomly, we had over 100 people show up. I found the picture from our first event at StartX in Palo Alto. This was the pizza, people were engaging, and my lesson was…I was so nervous that no one was gonna show up. And when you kind of organise this event, you think, “What’s gonna happen if I just put together meet up, if I just get together some people?” If the topic that you’re gonna do this on is good, people will come. That was my lesson. And you can start incredibly simple. And even if the topic is not that great and even if people don’t come, you’ll learn from it. You’ll figure out what people want and you’ll do better next time. So if you’re thinking about starting a new community, just start it. Don’t think too much about it. Don’t wait until the perfect time. Don’t wait until you have a lot of people. We actually organised a meetup group three weeks before the meetup, and I went and I found every single site that you can promote your events, and I just put this meet up everywhere. I bugged every single friend I had to come. A lot of them didn’t, but the ones that were interested in mobile did. I don’t do that today. Now our meetup is big enough that we don’t actually have to do any promotion. But just like hustle in the early days and it really does pay off.

Lesson two: you are not the topic

The other one that’s really important is when you think about topics, and when you think about how do you create your community, it’s very important to find a topic that others are interested in versus one that benefits your brand. Many people and many of the partners in our space come to us and wanna sponsor our events. And they always say, “How were you able to build this big community with people that are so engaged? We’ve been trying to do this and we can’t.” And I went to some of their meetups because I was trying to understand what makes us different? Why do people come over and over again? And what’s very interesting when we go to other meetups in this space, people always make it completely about their brand. There are usually not that many people and it always starts with a big presentation about why they’re the best company and why you should use their product. And that goes on for 20, 25 minutes, and then maybe they have someone else speak as well.

It’s interesting when you build communities to understand what’s the purpose of your community. So when we have a Branch meetup, less people will come and we can talk about Branch all we want because people come here, they’re expecting to hear about Branch. But when we call our meetups, you know, mobile growth, and we go with a more general topic trying to bring a larger community, we don’t talk about Branch. Or if we do, we talk about it for like two minutes. We don’t allow any other people that we consider vendors to come and speak. They can come and sponsor. But we actually bring people, like the people in the audience or people who work and have really struggled with building mobile apps, and we get them to speak. We make sure that most of the content is very relevant and is not salesy at all. And that’s very different than how some of the other meetups do it. And that’s actually why people come back over and over to our events because you put so much emphasis on content.

And as we grow as a company, like I fight with my co-founder, Alex, our CEO. And he always says, “We need more Branch content at your meetups.” And I’m like, “No, we don’t. Because if we do too much Branch content, people will stop coming. They’re not coming to these events to learn about Branch. They’re coming to learn from their peers.” And we need to make sure that their peers are highlighted.

So the lesson here is, as you grow and as you start having a community, and even at the beginning, to make sure that you understand the purpose of the community, and don’t do what’s good for you, but do what’s good for the community. And you will also gain from that. And I’ll talk a little bit later about ways that we’ve used community to help grow our brand. And this is basically…for our community, we created a separate brand. In the early days, we didn’t even have “Powered by Branch.” It was just like a separate community altogether and then over time as we grew, we kind of added that. So we power this community but it’s still your community and this is not gonna be something that we talk about Branch at.

Lesson three: be consistent

Three is also something that’s very important. And as we grew our community internationally, we were able to compare and really understand the importance of consistency. So consistency is key. When we’ve gone to see this, where we were doing events and then we stopped doing events, we saw the quality of our community decreasing, whereas in the cities that we keep a very consistent base in events of bringing people together, we’ve seen the community really flourish.

The other thing that’s also important is having a face that people can recognise and see over and over again. So our director of community, Elizabeth, who has helped us grow internationally, went to Toronto for the first, I think, four or five meetups. And people recognised her. So when we sent someone else, we saw that people were confused and didn’t react as well as when she went to Toronto. We have a team in New York that manages our mobile growth meetups in New York, people recognise them and they feel that consistency so when they come back, they know that they gonna see the same people, they know what the format is, they know what to expect. And that helped us get our meetups to become bigger and bigger, and get over 100 people at every event that we have. We wouldn’t have had that without consistency.

One thing that we did initially, the way we were doing these events, it was I would be like, “Okay, where is the next meetup? Let’s find the time on the calendar.” That’s not the way you should do it. So when I brought someone who actually knew what they were doing to our team, she came up with a calendar for the whole year. And we have events. We came up with every city around the world that we were trying to do this in. And we came up with a calendar, and we have a target date. Sometimes it changes if we really can’t find a venue or we can’t find speakers but 90% of the time, we know what the dates are for all our meetups in every city that we’re in around the world. And we have a cadence. In SF, it’s every month. In New York, it’s every two months. In Bangalore, it’s every two months. In Paris, it’s every quarter. And we stick to that cadence and it really helps people understand when they come back, when the next one is, and it’s really helped us build a larger community.

Lesson four: get to know your community

Four, so this is really interesting. It’s really important to tailor to your audience. You might think that you know who your community is, but you might not. Like we thought our community was all developers. Then we started asking people, and we found something really, really interesting. It actually completely varies who our community is by country and by city. So this is a picture of me. I went to a meetup in Bangalore and I was doing a talk. And if you see, it’s not a very diverse meetup. I think there were five women. But also when we asked people, “How many of you are mobile developers?” Everyone raise their hands. So everyone who came was interested in growth for an app was a developer. So we understood that when we do our meetups in India, we need to be more technical because the audience there is extremely technical.

However, this is our SF audience and this is me speaking at our last meetup. In SF, it’s completely different. When we asked people, about 30% to 40% are developers, about 20% to 25% are founders, and the rest are marketers and product managers that work for apps and are coming to get tips. So our meetups in SF are actually a lot less technical because we have to cater to a more diverse audience and when we bring people to our panels, we have a mixture of product manager, developers, and marketers. Because they can all bring very different and interesting topics.

The other one we ask is, “How big are the companies that they’re at?” We used to have meetups in SF and we used to bring people from really large brands. Someone who worked at Slack, or Yahoo, or Pinterest. And then we surveyed the audience and we realised that the advice that they were getting was not what they were expecting. Because they were all working at tiny startups, trying to get the startup off the ground. So the growth person at Pinterest was dealing with very different problems. So we started really varying the people that we bring to speak. So now our goal is to have someone from a small app, a medium app, and a very large app because each of them will have very, very different insights. So make sure that you understand who your audience is and try to cater to most of them as possible.

Lesson five: it won’t always go the way you think

And then, this was an interesting one. Community is a beast you can guide and evolve, but you can’t change it or control it in any way. So this was an interesting learning when we thought that we could build this mobile growth community and then we would eventually evolve them into a Branch community. That did not happen. That will never happen. That’s just not how it works. The way the whole community was built, and now we have over 20,000 people, you can’t take something that was built with one goal in mind, then completely change it. We actually kinda tried to be more Branch heavy and we realised it just wasn’t working. So that’s when we decided to build a completely different community because that was the only way we can cater to Branch users and answer their questions and create a community around Branch. We couldn’t take a community we had and just transform it into a Branch community.

And I think it is very important to think when you start something, know that you won’t be able to evolve it into something completely different. It might evolve on its own, so you might start a community that you think is gonna be about one thing and then they might get together and they might evolve to a different thing, but you can’t really make that change yourself. Only the community will make that choice. The thing that you can do is you can pick community that started in the initial medium and to send it beyond that.

So one thing that we did is, we built this community, this international community, in meetups. And we wanted to actually bring it online. And we were able to do that when we started doing these webinars, which we actually do in the exact same way our meetups are structured. We have people that we bring in, people can ask questions. And it works really well. People come in. And now people from India can come and feel like they’re in a meetup with growth leaders from SF or from U.S., and they feel they’ve learned a lot from that.

We actually built an online community too and a forum. However, this didn’t work. So it doesn’t always work. It’s interesting because this was so different. I think what happened with the webinars, the webinars are close enough to the initial medium, and people are used to the format. And they came in, they could ask questions the same way. Whereas with this online forum, this didn’t work. We thought for sure this was gonna be a place where everyone comes and they talk to each other and answer questions. It didn’t. It’s still out there and we have users, but it’s not as vibrant as our meetups that were built around one way. And we did the webinars afterwards, and that worked. So don’t be afraid to try things, but sometimes things don’t work. And this didn’t in our case.

Lesson six: value your community

And lastly, community can be more valuable than you think. So in our case, our community is one of the best ways we’ve been able to engage with developers, the small developers. And it’s a way for us that we can educate them in how they can grow their apps. And Branch always comes up. So even if we don’t tell them about Branch, people who come and sit on our panels tell them about Branch. And they do learn that we can help.

But that’s not the only way. For example, one way with we’ve used our community, and I’m slightly ashamed of this but it works, whenever we launch something on product hunt, for example, we go and we ask our community and we tell them that we launched. And say, “Hey, we launched this from product hunt. Let us know what you think. And they all go and app vote.” So every single product I have launched on product hunt has always been in the top three of that day, and that’s only thanks to our community that likes our products and goes and helps out.

Other ways are inviting people to speak, and speak to a large community actually makes them feel really great, appeals to their ego, and helps us create better relationships. Doing meetups in specific places, helps us create better BD relationships. So community is one of those valuable things that both our BD partners, our strategic partners come to us and think that we’re a more valuable company because we build this community.

So that was it. I think I have less than a minute left. I hope this was informal and you learned something. If you have any questions about events, how to do events better, how to use events to build a better community, I’m [email protected]. So please reach out. Thanks.

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