Bailey Richardson on creative ways to move user communities online

We catch up again with the community expert to find out why online communities are now more important than ever.

On this week’s show, we’re revisiting a chat I had in October last year with Bailey Richardson, co-author of Get Together, a book that tells you everything you need to know about fostering community. We know that nurturing a sense of community is so important at a time like this, so I actually caught up with Bailey again yesterday to get her advice on how companies and groups can cope.

We’ve re-edited the original interview with some insights and stories you won’t have heard the first time around. You’ll also hear how Bailey has been getting on since our interview and the advice that she and her colleagues at People & Company – a coaching organization that helps companies and groups harness the power of community – have for people at the moment.

Here’s some highlights from our chats with Bailey:

  • There’s a lot businesses can learn about community from grassroots organisations. Many of these have, for a long time, operated remotely in innovative ways.
  • A key strategy for nurturing a community is to build with people, not for them. Bailey spoke about this in her original conversation with me.
  • As people around the world get to grips with not gathering in large groups, the online world offers an opportunity to bridge geographical distance.
  • Digital first companies and teams are in a really good position to get creative about fostering community online, whether it’s with clients, colleagues, or family.
  • If you’re a leader, ask yourself what has changed with what people are coming to you for. Consider those shared activities or things that you may have done in person, and try to design experiences for those people in an online capacity.

We hope this discussion is of value to you. As we are considering the content we put out at the moment, we’d love to hear whether you find it useful or if there’s anything else you’d like to hear from us about. You can mail us at to let us know. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

When we chatted last October, I asked Bailey about the work they do at People & Company and why community is so important to them. Here’s what she had to say.

Coaches, not consultants

Bailey: People & Company, in many ways, is three people who really love each other and feel like we have a very high value-overlap. We are trying, hoping, aspiring to answer a question, which is, “What does it take to build a community?” Although a community feels magical, when it shows up in your life, it doesn’t come together by magic. We see a community almost like a fire. Once you end up with a fire, it’s this metaphysical, beautiful thing. But there is a very clear order of operations of what you do first to get a fire started and how you progress from there. So we broke it up into nine steps and just published a book called Get Together with all of those nine steps broken out.

Dee: The ethos of People & Company sounds incredible; what an amazing mission statement for a company to have. Can you elaborate a little bit for our audience about how exactly you guys work and what exactly are the services that you offer?

Bailey: When we first formed People & Company, we approached our work with clients as a very deep embedded relationship. The hunch was that, because of all of our backgrounds, a lot of people almost wanted us to come in and do the work for them. But we realized about a year in that the best thing we could do was actually build capacity within an organization for people to do this themselves. Ultimately, community-building is about developing leaders. Whether you’re building an online community or an offline community, it’s about building relationships and developing people who are very passionate about your mission and about your purpose. And it just doesn’t make sense for us as an external third party to come in and own those relationships.

“What makes sense is for us to help people establish their strategy and then start to realize it by coaching and working with the people who do the work inside each organization”

What makes sense is for us to help people establish their strategy and then start to realize it by coaching and working with the people who do the work inside each organization. We really call ourselves coaches, almost teachers, now. We come in and spend two very deep days with any client, where we get really clear on the investment, whom they’re investing in and why they’re investing in them. We bring in community members to get their input – to interview them, to learn from them – and then we start to work on designing what exactly that company needs to invest in next given the state of their community and their goals. So we do a very deep dive, and then we’re onboard with them as partners as they begin to realize the work.

The two things I really see us doing are helping people have clarity about how to make smarter bets with community-building. A lot of people know that having a community would be great for their business, and they have millions of ideas, but they just don’t know how to prioritize them. We come in and really help people do that. And then we’re there to tweak, adjust and talk through the tactics as their teams build the capacity to do this themselves. So that clarity piece and then that capacity piece is how we really focus our services.

Give up control

Dee: Have you guys ever come across a potential client that you’ve decided not to work with because you didn’t actually think that they could build a meaningful community around their brand?

Bailey: Yeah. One of the biggest signals that we look for, like I said, is mostly if people are willing and able to give up control. That’s been the biggest block for us: just realizing this organization is not designed in a way that will allow them to truly collaborate with people on the outside. Over the last five years, my business partners and I have interviewed and worked with hundreds of different communities.

“If you have a passion that you care about, at the very least, there’s probably some other folks out there who care about it”

We have interviewed a squirrel census from Atlanta. There is a community of “Potheads” around this Crock-Pot that was developed in America called the Instant Pot. There are people who started the Cloud Appreciation Society. Like I said, fairly enterprise-oriented software companies like Notion have super fans. One of the beauties of the internet is that it has helped prove that if you have a passion that you care about, at the very least, there’s probably some other folks out there who care about it. Is it going to grow to be millions of people? I don’t know. But if you feel like you have a purpose that’s resonant with you, there is a good likelihood that there are other people out there who might also care.

I just think that purpose piece is important. If you’re building a business that’s ultimately about you getting the biggest return and not so much about truly creating value for a customer or a user, that will probably take precedent over the purpose or over the user experience. That can be a challenge if people just want some vibrant, thriving community, but they haven’t done the work to truly create a compelling purpose or create value in their product.

“Developing communities is something I do professionally, but I really believe in it from a personal, social and professional level”

Dee: I was very compelled by your own website to see that you do pro-bono services in addition to corporate clients. I love that, because it seems to go back to your original mission statement and where you come from personally of wanting to foster community.

Bailey: Absolutely. I really believe that the more people who get people together, our personal lives will be more meaningful and fulfilled. I also think our civic societies, especially democratic societies, will be more engaged. I also think there’s a lot of potential for businesses that have engaged people to grow faster or grow in a more ethical way or grow in a more informed way. Developing communities is something I do professionally, but I really believe in it from a personal, social and professional level. It hits on all those points for me. I know my business partners feel that way as well. Frankly, businesses have a lot to learn from people who are doing this in a very grassroots way.

“There are things that businesses can learn from these grassroots groups”

There’s playfulness, a creativity, an instinctive nature that these very grassroots organizers bring to the design of their events and to their communication. There’s a joyfulness to it that businesses sometimes default into pretty professional language or highly strategic decisions. I feel like there’s a lot of creative inspiration we can take from things like the Star Wars Fan Club or the Squirrel Census or a community for Asian-American women looking for connection. There are things that businesses can learn from these grassroots groups.

I also think there are things these grassroots groups can learn from businesses. One thing in particular is that businesses have this dreaminess to them. When we enter into a business setting, we want to grow. We want to get big and reach many people. Businesses have this natural instinct to scale and to think about how to template-ize things. There are many grassroots communities that we have interviewed – like the Squirrel Census or we have community in our book called Downtown Girls Basketball, which is a team that is specifically for women who are bad at basketball. I often feel like, “Wow, it would be great if those people expanded the model and took it to new cities to get to new places, because it’s just such a positive thing for the world.” But that that’s something that a business mindset is really great at and can inspire grassroots groups with as well.

Practical advice for building community

Dee: Aside from the personal stories in the book, it’s probably important at this point for our audience to let them know that it is actually very much a how-to and how to build a community. So how have you gone about condensing all of these quirky personal stories into such a practically applicable resource?

Bailey: Well, I would say that there is no magic way to do that outside of time and drafting and redrafting and having hard conversations. Much of what our original sketch of what key points we needed to make in this book were originally formed by a framework that we developed to educate our clients on what the heck we mean when we talk about how to build a community. There’s just so much ambiguity in the space that we felt like with each client we needed to show them what we meant about the investments that it takes to take a community from nothing to a global chapter community – or something that reaches people all around the world.

“There’s just so much ambiguity in the space that we felt like with each client we needed to show them what we meant about the investments that it takes to take a community from nothing to a global chapter community”

So we would present this multi-step framework we had developed when we started with any client, and we would use our existing research and our personal experiences to create that framework. And then as we began to write, we made an aggressive effort to speak to tons more people. This is also part of why we do pro-bono work; it doesn’t just help the world, it also helps us get smarter. My business partner Kevin has coached more than a hundred communities this year. He went to Berkeley and got an undergrad mechanical engineering degree, graduated at the top of his class and then got a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, so he brings this very structure-process-precision brain to thinking about people. He in particular has just really helped us build these step-by-step frameworks, pressure test them and make sure we have a ton of clarity and certainty in what we are recommending to people at any stage of building a community.

Build with people, not for them

Dee: Brilliant. Our audience is predominantly internet-first or tech-based companies. If you had one piece of advice from the book that you could give to companies like this, what would it be?

Bailey: Yeah, the difference about investing in a community versus other things you might do is that investing in a community is about building with people, not for them. Traditionally, people have used this term “community management,” and in our opinion, building a community is not about management. It is about developing leaders, and it’s really about finding these people who care and understanding their motivations and how you might collaborate with one another and eventually turning them into leaders. Across internet companies – in particular platforms, from online marketplaces to creative social media platforms and to offline communities – I always find myself wanting to underscore the power of role modeling behavior.

When I began to research other online communities, I spoke to the first community manager at YouTube, at SoundCloud, at Medium. I just spoke to community manager at Twitch. I’ve spoken to Notion. I’ve really tried to learn as much as I can about different online communities and how they function. Almost universally, people put exceptional contributions, exceptional users, exceptional customers up on a platform, up on a pedestal, so that other people can see what good behavior looks like or what success looks like, and that’s something that happens across all stripes of community-building. But if you don’t do that – if you don’t differentiate and create standards or aspirational use cases – people are left to guess. And I’ve just found that that piece is so, so important: finding people who are really exceptional and making them into role models, but also make sure if you’re not a communication platform yourself that you do forge open some place for people who are passionate to connect with each other, instead of having to communicate to you as a bottleneck.

We got in touch again with Bailey this week to learn why, now more than ever, online community is a powerful social working tool.

Catching up

Dee: Bailey, thanks so much for agreeing to chat with me again and at such short notice. We last chatted in October when you just released your book, Get Together. Can you catch us up on what you’ve been up to since?

Bailey: Yeah, absolutely. Well it’s been so fun publishing a book, I have to say. We wrote this book as something that we personally care so much about. You know, I’ve spent five years, six years of my life researching communities, interviewing people and thinking hard about it. And it felt like by publishing this book, we’ve really poked the world and now the world is kind of coming back to us.

So it’s just been neat seeing all the different people who have ended up with the book in their hands and how they’re using it – everything from the Parks Commission in Canada to surfer activists communities to communities who are de-stigmatizing how women talk about their bodies. All sorts of different groups have just knocked on our door. And we’ve been really focusing on, as People & Company, how we don’t just stop at having a book that people can take into their lives on how to community build, but also be more of coaches and teachers.

So we’ve been on the road a lot, bringing the learnings in the book to life and building between organizations and their actual community members. So essentially, orchestrating exercises and ways for people to really apply the book and its teachings to their organizations.

Community in a time of crisis

Dee: So only a few months have passed since our last chat, but I feel like a lot has changed quite recently in terms of fostering online community. So going forward, do you think this is going to be more important than ever for businesses and social groups?

Bailey: Yeah, certainly right now it is. I think there is one constraint that everybody, nearly everyone on planet earth is looking at right now: don’t gather in big groups. Don’t meet in person with more than 10 people, stay six feet away from one another. That’s a pretty large constraint for any person who’s gathering groups of people or cares about the culture of those groups.

And so, I think what we have to do, at least in the immediate future if we can’t rely on the magic of being together physically in person, is to start thinking about ways to bring some creativity into how we do that over our communication channels or live online to stopgap that.

“I hope we can carry some of these lessons that we’re all learning in a very experiential way into that next phase of our digital lives”

And some part of me is really excited about that because I sometimes think digital community builders feel like people who are nerding out on this topic in the corner, and now I’m seeing all sorts of people sharing interesting creative ways that they’re getting groups together online. And I hope that when we emerge from this time period of extreme shelter in place and people really not being able to spend time together, we might carry some of these lessons that we’re all learning in a very experiential way into that next phase of our digital lives.

Dee: That’s a lovely way of looking at it. And one thing I really took from your book when we last spoke was the wonderful and really rich online communities that you had found, and the fact that to be intimate with people and connected with people, you don’t have to be in a room with them. It can be a shared interest or hobby or a shared person. There are myriad reasons why you could have community with people and it doesn’t need to be around geography.

Yeah, absolutely. I think in fact that’s been the real big change of community building in the last 20 years. Maybe the things that you care about, you don’t have someone very close to you who’s gone through that experience. As an example, one of my friends recently had a miscarriage and she says the most meaningful Facebook group she’s ever been a part of is a global community of women who have been through that.

“The internet has broken down those geographic barriers and we’ve seen people able to express themselves and relieve themselves of burdens”

And that may be something that you’re not normally comfortable talking to other people about in your local community or in your private life. But the internet has broken down those geographic barriers and we’ve seen people be able to express themselves and relieve themselves of burdens that they otherwise had to keep quite private in the world before the internet.

So I think that those kinds of groups are the groups that many of us can turn to and look towards for inspiration. Some of these groups have been functioning for years and functioning at a very large scale, and they have insights and learnings from all of those efforts and practices that we can take into our small communities of coworkers or friends that we’re isolated from.

Dee: Totally. We have a remote worker Slack channel in Intercom, which, up until about a week ago, was not particularly busy in terms of participants because only the people who work remotely as part of their day-to-day were in it. So they’ve had a severe influx recently with the rest of us. So there are nice things that are coming out of this. I mean, already I’ve seen some pretty compelling examples online of communities pulling together. I have a group of friends who were meant to have a table quiz in a pub recently, and rather than cancel it altogether, the person who was hosting it did it via Instagram Live and people emailed their answers to her. This was actually on St. Patrick’s Day, which of course is a big social day here in Ireland. In the end I think there was over 70 teams that took part.

Bailey: Wow.

Dee: It is pretty amazing, to turn something around like that last minute.

Getting creative with community

Dee:Have you noticed any similar activity like that, that you’ve been impressed with recently?

Bailey: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’m sure there are so many, it’s hard to even keep up with them at the moment, but I think in the U.S., so many athletic physical sport health communities have been really leading on this. There’s a boxing gym in New York that is now just live streaming all of their classes.

“You see people immediately taking to the tools that we have today to realize their group shared activity in a new format”

A lot of meditation and yoga communities are live streaming their classes, and I’m sure that’s happening internationally, but I was so impressed with the speed of that.

The other groups that I’ve been really impressed with are entertainers. So musicians for example, are so used to being able to get in front of a crowd and have a group of people witness what they’re doing live. Christine and the Queens has been just alone in a studio doing basically private performances for people on Facebook and Instagram to tune into. And Lizzo has been doing these amazing live meditations on her Instagram where she lights incense and plays the flute and everyone is meditating along with her.

And so I think just anything Lizzo does, we can turn to. But I think in many ways you see those performers are actually taking some cues from another group that’s been doing this for a long time, which is Twitch, the online video gaming community. Those people in many ways are performers. They’re playing games live for constituents of people. And it’s really interesting how these musicians are basically taking something that they did typically for a group of people in person and saying, “I’m just going to record myself and do this live and we’re all going to witness it together at once.”

There are interesting groups for whom it’s very important to have the urgency of the crowd or the urgency of the groups being able to continue to meet. And you see those people immediately taking to the tools that we have today and realize their group can share activity in a new format. I think if COVID had happened 10 years ago, seven years ago, so many of these live tools that we have now wouldn’t have existed or wouldn’t have been able to support this kind of activity. So it’s pretty wild to see what people can in fact do with technology now.

Dee: It’s so true. And I think what’s funny is that we’re seeing a lot of these SaaS tools that have been developed for a business audience now suddenly being used informally by everyone… You know, people’s grannies are going, “What’s a Zoom? Can I join in?”

“Understand what your group is coming to you for. Is it guidance? Is it emotional support? Is it inspiration? Is it fun?

Bailey: Exactly, so when we talk to community leaders, people who are organizing a group of any kind, there are three questions that I think are really important for those leaders to ask themselves right now in this moment. One: we feel like one of the most important things that you can do as a leader is to understand what your group is coming to you for or is coming to one another for. Is it guidance? Is it emotional support? Is it inspiration? Is it fun? And in this moment, some of those needs may shift slightly. More people may need things like emotional support whereas before it was a entirely nerding out community or an activist community.

And so I think as a leader, one of the things I want everyone to ask themselves is, how have the needs of my people changed? And then from there, I think it’s really important to reconsider these shared activities, the things that your community comes together for. Do you need to change those given you can’t meet in person anymore? And how should you change those given what people need right now?

And I think that’s where Lizzo has really hit the nail on its head. By doing these meditations, she’s playing music, but she’s also guiding people through meditation in a moment where there’s a lot of anxiety. So she’s kind of shifted what she’s offering people to serve the moment in time. And I’m trying to think about how I think we can all get smarter about how these shared activities can be more and more meaningful given this constraint of physical distance from each other. And the provocation I have for people is this: how can we make those shared activities participatory so that the person on the other end isn’t just watching the musician? Or just kind of listening to someone do a lecture. How do we make it so that they’re able, in their homes, to add value, to contribute? And those pieces are the things that I get really excited about.

“It’s on all of us, to elevate the creativity and the dynamism of the activities that we facilitate while we’re all stuck at home”

So, for example, one of my favorite longstanding YouTube channels is a woman who is one of the most popular people teaching ukulele online. She’s a Hawaiian woman and she does a lot of breaking songs down and playing those songs for an audience of learners. And every once in a while, she does singalongs and play-alongs, so people live stream in and play the songs with her that she’s taught them, live. And I think that piece of not just broadcasting at people or publishing at people, but actually thinking about enabling creativity or participation for folks at home is the holy grail that I get really excited about. I think those forms of participatory activities are just much more meaningful and much more resonant and powerful and much more needed right now.

So that’s the piece that I would love to hear more from the listeners as well, from what they’ve seen that’s worked really well, but it’s on all of us, I think, to elevate the creativity and the dynamism of these activities that we facilitate while we’re all stuck at home.

Dee: Well, it’s funny you should say that because one thing I have noticed with any of those streamed gigs or activities, and I’d actually liken it to live radio in a way, is that when you’re interacting with the musician or performer you can’t see the rest of the crowd. So you don’t know it but there are actually potentially thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people also taking part. It feels big, but also it feels more intimate in a way.

Bailey: Yeah, absolutely, I think that even, you know, with radio, I’m sure you’ve experienced this, the feeling of having someone directly in your ear talking to you is so personal, it’s experienced so personally. And I think that’s true also in some ways of when you tune into Lizzo’s live meditation on Instagram, you’re looking at Lizzo on your phone as if she’s playing directly to you.

“We live in a digital world, and if we can  realize actually the full human being is using these tools. We can move into the future in a healthier way with one another”

And I think that interface, that Instagram Live interface is doing so well right now because they do an excellent job of balancing that sense of intimacy and the personalization of that content as if someone is singing right to you, and just in the corner, a little animation of someone liking it or leaving a comment. And you see the liveliness of the audience and the fact that other people are there in that moment with you, combined with the personal delivery of it.

So I’m really curious to see not just how people use the tools, but how these tools change, or how new ones are built over the next few months. Because I think very quickly with so many people pressure testing these tools for different things that we would have done in person, there are gaps and there are opportunities for improvement. I’m really excited about the focus on these tools and the focus on trying to advance them. Because we live in a digital world, and if we can take some of these things that are designed for business and realize actually the full human being is using them, I think we can move into the future in a healthier way with one another.

Captaining a community through unchartered waters

Dee: Totally agree. In more practical terms then, with the wealth of experience that you and the team at People & Company have in helping businesses build community, what are some of the more practical tips or insights that you have for companies or teams, or even individuals, who might now be needing to foster an online community even more?

Bailey: Yeah, absolutely. So we’re actually giving a training tonight to a global activist network that has chapters all around the country that push forward protective measures for our oceans and water. So they’re the folks in the United States that have been behind the plastic bag bans that have happened here. And as we train, their chapter leaders are going to dial in across the country, and the message that we’re going to deliver to them is number one, reconsider what your people need from you right now. What, given the state of the world, are they coming to you for and has that changed?

“The secret to growing a community isn’t managing a community, it’s creating leaders”

Then from there, think about these shared activities, things that you may have done in person, and try to design for those in an online capacity. The three things that we say make a great shared activity are number one, it serves the group of people that are in your community. Its little nuances and details reflect the who and the why of your community. And it’s participatory. You’re not just talking at people The members contribute. And it’s repeatable. It’s something you can do over and over again. You can open the door and welcome people once a week, once a month. So think about your shared activities, what you normally do together in person, and how you can take those shared activities into an online space.

And then the second thing I’ll say is the secret to growing a community isn’t managing a community, it’s creating leaders. The act of community building is a collaborative act. We say you build with people, not for them. And, so one thing to consider in this time is, how are you giving other people within the community power, autonomy, ownership? How are you asking them to contribute or lead outside of what was expected to you before we moved into this world of primarily online interaction? Do you need new leaders to rise up? What are those roles? Do you need to ask your current leaders to do something new? So think about how you bring other people in your community into the act of organizing themselves, and what those asks are, given that we’re now in a more online space, a more online dominant world.

Reconsider what is it that people are going to come to you for in this moment in time. Number two, how do you think about your shared activities given we have an online constraint? How do you take the things that you normally do together and create a repeatable drumbeat of those things online? And number three, how can you lean into people in your community, collaborate with them to help make this moment in time meaningful and rich? What can other people help you with?

Dee: That makes a lot of sense, and I’m sure there’s a lot in there that will be really, really useful to people at this moment in time, and beyond it, no less. Bailey, thank you so much for catching up with us again today, and as always, it’s a pleasure chatting to you and we hope to do so again.