December 4, 2020
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Community Doesn’t Work At Scale

For many subscription-first publications, the content is the primary means of getting a user to sign up and pay. That’s the expected behavior and it makes perfect sense.

But is that enough? Should large publications be trying to move into more than just a content for dollars business? In other words, should they be trying to figure out how community factors into everything.

That’s the exact question Bustle Digital Group’s Dave Nemetz asked yesterday on Twitter and it got me thinking:

Why don’t the large publications focus more on building community? I’ve written quite a bit about community here on A Media Operator. One of my more well received pieces explored this thesis in more detail.

As the piece says, a subscription is perfectly fine. The transactional nature of paying for content is good. But are there ways to introduce community as a means of building a deeper relationship with the reader and, ideally, getting more revenue out of them?

I broke down how I think about community using A Media Operator as an example:

Nucleus: The content that you create. At A Media Operator, that’s the essays that I write about media businesses. I really don’t think non-media people are reading this.

Layer One: The access readers have to me. People reply to my essays all the time and I try to reply to every single email. That access has built a stronger relationship.

Layer Two: The access readers have to each other. A Media Operator doesn’t really have this yet. I offer comments, but by and large, people don’t feel inclined to participate here. I’ll have to continue figuring out the right way to build this.

All subscription media companies have the nucleus. Some have experimented with layer one. And very few have figured out how to do layer two.

This brings us back to the original point that Nemetz poses in his tweet: Why aren’t large subscription pubs focused on building community? It comes down to a simple answer…

Community doesn’t work at scale.

To explain why, it helps to think about it differently. Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who theorized that there is a maximum number of people that you can have a real connection with. According to the BBC:

According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the “magic number” is 150. Dunbar became convinced that there was a ratio between brain sizes and group sizes through his studies of non-human primates. This ratio was mapped out using neuroimaging and observation of time spent on grooming, an important social behaviour of primates. Dunbar concluded that the size, relative to the body, of the neocortex – the part of the brain associated with cognition and language – is linked to the size of a cohesive social group. This ratio limits how much complexity a social system can handle.

Dunbar and his colleagues applied this basic principle to humans, examining historical, anthropological and contemporary psychological data about group sizes, including how big groups get before they split off or collapse. They found remarkable consistency around the number 150.

It’s really quite fascinating if you think about it. Because of how powerful our brains are, we can only handle 150 meaningful contacts.

When you start looking at that number, it becomes painfully clear that there is going to be an upper limit to any sort of community. To be clear, I’m not suggesting online communities can only be 150 people, but rather, that when you extrapolate out, we can only really engage with so many people.

It helps to visualize it:

Source: Wikimedia

What are the 500 and 1,500? These are people that are acquaintances of yours or that you can at least recognize. Think about Twitter. I don’t know many of the people I follow and hardly interact with them, but I can recognize them from their profile picture.

Why do I mention all of this?

At its core, communities can’t be large. They can’t be all encompassing. That’s part of the reason people seek out subcommunities within larger ones.

If your community is about cars, they might move into a secondary layer that’s all about sports cars. If that gets too large, they might move into an even smaller community of people interested in just American sports cars.

But what do you do when your publication is about everything? Large publications like The Times don’t have a real theme to them other than reporting on an ever increasing number of things. How do you create communities there?

The Times has tried with mixed results.

On one hand, apparently NYT’s Cooking is really something special. I’ve heard that it has a loyal audience and that people are really helpful with each other in the comments. As I wrote in my community piece:

I was having a conversation with a member yesterday and he commented on NYT Cooking, to which his wife is a subscriber. He said, “every time my wife finds a recipe she wants to make, the very first thing she does is read the comments.” Other people that have made the recipe leave comments on what they do differently or if the recipe is a success.

The only reason his wife would do that is because she trusted that community. For all intents and purposes, Cooking is a core part of the Times’ strategy to grow its subscription business.

The question, and I don’t know the answer, is whether people are recognizing individuals within the Cooking community that are particularly good at giving quality information on recipes. Or is it less about the individual and more the aggregate opinion on recipe quality?

On the other hand, for a while, The Times had a parenting product that it was really trying to push as a potential new subscription business. It eventually shuddered, but you could see they were breaking things up by age of the child. Those were going to be the sub-communities.

I don’t have enough information to explain why the product was ultimately shuttered, but what The Times has likely found is that trying to create deeper niches within a generalist audience is hard. Even something like parenting is likely done better by another publication that is more focused.

It’s not just media. Social media platforms might facilitate communities to exist, but you can see multiple smaller ones form. If you follow me, you’ve likely seen me talking to the same people. I try to break out of that, but it’s human nature to form this mini-community within the broader Twitter ecosystem.

What it boils down to is this… Community is, by very nature, a niche thing. Humans want to seek out specific clusters of people that share the same interests, professional objectives or beliefs.

That doesn’t mean our vertical publications shouldn’t try, though. On the contrary, we absolutely must.

We just have to think about the business and structure a little differently. If a human can only support meaningful connections with 150 people and can only recognize 1,500 people, is that the upper limit to how many people a community can hold?

Not exactly. We just need to look at the two levers we have available to us for growth.

The first is that you have to price accordingly. This works better for professional publications, but charging a lot more filters people out and reduces the number of people you need to still generate good revenue. Fortune Connect costs $2,500 per person. Get 1,000 people in and you’ve got a $2.5 million business.

Fortune also has a product targeted to CEOs. I don’t know the exact price, but I have heard that this can run upwards of $10-15,000 per person. There are obviously a finite amount of CEOs in the world. But if every Fortune 500 CEO signed up, that’s a $5 million dollar business.

Price accordingly.

The second is that you need to structure the community so people can choose what matters to them. Consider the car example above. People like certain types of cars. Let them easily find their way into those categories. They may never cross over into another section, but that’s perfectly acceptable.

This is where NYT Cooking may have to go if it wants to start building a more robust community. Cooking is too broad. But what about meat eaters, vegetarians, bakers, vegan, etc, etc. Those are sub communities that can form, allowing NYT Cooking to scale and still make the community meaningful.

I’ve thought about this a bit for A Media Operator even though I’m not at the scale where it matters. But if AMO grows to be thousands of people and when the Slack channel launches in a couple weeks, will people start to seek out specific channels? How do I structure that in such a way that people can get what they need?

It’s a lot to think about.

Subscription products can scale for a long time. I have no doubt The New York Times will add far more subscriptions over the coming years. A new subscriber doesn’t change anything about the product you’re creating.

But when your product is community, scale isn’t really a thing. You can try to push it with smart community construction vis-à-vis sub-categories. But at the end of the day, niche communities that focus on that one thing will likely do better than larger, unspecialized ones.

Communities don’t scale; they get more niche.

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