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“Great Communities Have Great Leaders”
What we learned from the team that supercharged Facebook’s Groups product
Downloading what we learned from an extraordinary community. ________ Issue #1
Facebook Groups 👩🏻💻
“Every party needs a host. Every team needs a coach. It’s no different online than it is in our real world communities.” - Lindsay Russell, Facebook
Friend of P&C, Lindsay Russell, spearheaded Facebook’s early efforts to listen to and supercharge group “power admins”—the massive social network’s biggest community—building investment to date.
Why did Facebook decide to invest so deeply in its community leaders? What can we learn about building successful groups from Facebook’s insights and research?
We sat down with Lindsay to learn more about this bold pivot at Facebook HQ. Below, we share what we learned and link to the full interview.
Five years into Lindsay Russell’s time at Facebook, the company made a big shift. Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would have a new focus: building communities.
Yet at the time, only a handful people at Facebook were focused on the platform’s biggest community-building tool: Facebook groups. According to Lindsay, groups were a “sleepy part of the business” up until that point.
So when she joined the small team, they started looking at the product with renewed vigor. They started by digging into the data, and when they did, they “were shocked,” Lindsay shared. “A big surprise was waiting for our team to find it.” Lindsay’s team learned that a sliver of groups were “off the charts” active, and these successful groups had one clear commonality: a remarkable admin. These admins were spending hours and hours every day running the special, even life changing, groups where users could talk about everything from infertility and miscarriages, to gender politics in Nigeria, even dog spotting and cruise-going.
As Lindsay shared with us, “Every party needs a host. Every team needs a coach. It’s no different online than it is in our real world communities.” That insight led Lindsay and her team to spearhead a novel effort within Facebook’s walls: focusing on the niche community of admins who were essential to their product’s success.
Lindsay led early efforts to listen to and supercharge these “power admins.” In our latest episode of the “Get Together” Podcast, we sat down with Lindsay to learn more about her experience spearheading Facebook’s pivot towards building niche communities.
What can we learn about building successful groups from her research? What investments helped community leaders spark and stoke their communities?
Not All Facebook Groups Are Equal
Early into Lindsay’s time focusing on groups, the team began to do what Facebook does best: dig into the data. Within that data, a big surprise was waiting for them. They observed that a sliver of groups were “off the charts” active. Of the millions of groups on Facebook, there was a set of clear outliers that were having remarkable success. Here’s how Lindsay described what she saw:
A lot of times when I talk to people about Facebook groups, they’ll respond with, “Oh yeah, I think I’m in a group, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s a page?”
And I would reply that you’re not in one of these kinds of groups. In the kind of group that I’m talking about, members literally say they would die if they didn’t have access to it. They provide a sense of belonging. There’s nothing else like these kinds of groups online.
The team was fascinated by these outliers. They began calling members of these meaningful groups to learn more about what made their communities so remarkable. The Facebook team heard that these groups were “the only reason to have a Facebook account,” that the groups were the most important part of many users’ Facebook experience. These groups had even become important parts of members’ real world support systems.
Lindsay (front left) and the Facebook Groups team.
Such groups were having a powerful effect on members’ experiences with Facebook. Lindsay said “it became pretty obvious that groups were going to be a really big part of Facebook’s future.” (In fact, the company would change their mission statement. Today, Facebook’s mission is to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”)
Once Facebook identified that a segment of their communities were particularly thriving, they focused on turning these scattered sparks into a roaring fire. To do so, they had to understand what made these outlier groups so remarkable.
Groups don’t work without a community leader.
So what differentiated ordinary or dormant groups from the extraordinary ones?
As the team dug into data and research, the answer became clear. “What they all have in common is a really active and engaged community leader. Groups don’t work without a community leader on the scene.” In the context of Facebook, that’s the group admin and oftentimes the group moderators as well.
Mark Zuckerberg onstage with Power Admins.
Working back from data, Facebook learned a lesson that community leaders and organizers have long known: a community’s long-term reach and impact are determined by one’s ability to find and replicate genuine and qualified leaders. Thus, growing a community isn’t about management. It’s about developing leadership.
“Every party needs a host. Every team needs a coach. It’s no different online than it is in our real world communities.”
If the groups team wanted to supercharge their product, they’d need to supercharge these power admins–empowering more of them to fulfill core tasks for their groups. With the help of power admins, Facebook groups could affect more people and sustain itself longer than product and marketing Facebook teams at HQ could have managed on their own.
Team P&C Tip: If you’re beginning a community-building investment, use your measurement and listening processes to search for people we call “hand-raisers.” Zero in on the individuals who are the most engaged. Who seems to be raising their hand to take on bigger responsibilities? These people are your most passionate community members, the hardcore of the hardcore. They always show up. They consistently invite friends. And most importantly, they’re raising their hands — eagerly contributing time and energy toward taking your community to the next level.
Hand-raisers have the potential to become homegrown leaders of your community, your most valuable collaborators. If you develop these hand-raisers, they’ll ensure the growth of your community and its ability to stay vibrant. (Find more on how to vet hand-raisers to take on specific roles in Chapter 7: Create More Leaders of our book “Get Together.”)
Building a Bridge between HQ and Power Admins
If Lindsay and her team were going to support power admins and grow their numbers, they would need to understand these people. What motivates them? What core tasks do they perform? What challenges do they face?
Sounds reasonable enough for a startup, but this focus on a small subset of users was unusual for Facebook. “By Facebook standards, the power admin audience is a small audience,” Lindsay explained. “It’s large for every other company, but for Facebook it’s relatively small.” Even though these admins were punching above their weight in terms of the impact that they were having on the platform, building with them at a company like Facebook required a cultural shift.
One of the most powerful tools Lindsay & co. used to create buy-in for their investments in admins began as an experiment. A Facebook employee had been emailing “anyone who could listen,” about an incredible group called Female IN, and her email ended up in Lindsay’s inbox. Lindsay decided to cold email the admin, Lola Omolola, and set up a phone call with her.
“Lola just came bursting out of the ether with a million brilliant questions and ideas and problems and stories about her group,” Lindsay remembers. “She was having so many technical issues because the product really wasn’t well set up to accommodate large groups back then.” Lindsay absorbed all of Lola’s feedback on the call, staggered back to her desk, and checked her email to find that Lola had already followed up with a PDF deck or of her top 10 feature requests.
Lindsay knew other people on the team had to meet Lola, so she set up another meeting with her, this time inviting the engineers and the product managers to join a video conversation. The conversation was transformative. “It was a moment of consciousness raising as a team and radical empathy building for what terrible trouble these super users were experiencing while trying to use groups to run these incredible communities,” Lindsay remembers.
Chief Product Officer Chris Cox’s posts after meeting Lola Omolola and Haley Woods, two power admins Lindsay and her team brought to campus.
The engineers left fired up to help Lola and to hear more from admins. So Lindsay partnered with the research team and started an “Admin Series.” Every week they hosted an informal talk with a group admin, and that talk became a treasured ritual for the groups team. Lindsay started flying some of these admins to Facebook’s campus to host meetings in person. Soon enough, admins were meeting in-person with Chief Product Officer Chris Cox and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
With a simple, repeatable format, Lindsay and her team were able to build “a ton of love and empathy for these users throughout the organization, all the way to the top.” This work was crucial because it put employees on the same page about who the groups team was building with and why.
“These remarkable groups and their admins were no longer an abstract idea. They became very real. We knew faces, we knew names, we knew their struggles.”
The teams began operating with a sense of service to these remarkable leaders.
That shift in orientation made all the difference with the groups product. Through our conversations with different clubs, networks, and societies, our team at People & Company landed on one big takeaway: You must build a community with your people, not for them. While amateurs try to manage a community, great leaders create more leaders. Nearly every challenge of building a community can be met by asking yourself, “How do I achieve this by working with my people, not doing it for them?” In other words, approach community building as progressive acts of collaboration — doing more with others every step of the way.
That kind of collaboration requires a team approach, not a single advocate at a distant HQ. At its best, community-building in the context of a company becomes a collective effort to supercharge a vital group of stakeholders.
Facebook’s head of new product experimentation Ime Archibong revealing new features Facebook’s team build for power admins.
Supercharging the Superusers
In many of the communities we studied, a contingent of extra-passionate people made an outsize impact. These exceptional leaders act as catalysts, accelerating a community’s ability to fulfill its purpose. Catalysts are as rare as they are potent. A community leader’s job is to seek out these standout leaders, give them the structure and support they need, then let them fly.
So with broader company support on their side, the early Facebook groups team went deep into how they could better support power admins. What tools do great admins need? What non-product support do they crave?
The team found that these power admins handled a bunch of essential roles, including:
Content creator: “They are expressive and communicative, and are constantly posting graphics, going live and trying out new features. Anything they can do to communicate with their community.”
Influencer: “Within their world, they’re kind of a celebrity. Members really care about what they say and they follow what they say.”
Enforcer: “Admins make sure that norms get enforced, rules get enforced, and bad actors get removed so that there’s an ongoing sense of safety in these groups.”
Developer: “They’re super, super users of the product. They know the product almost better than anyone.”
Next, the Facebook team got to building with these superusers—solving problems that will supercharge power admins’ work.
Based on insights gained from listening to community leaders from around the world, the Facebook Groups product team built and launched dozens of new features designed to make it easier to build community using Facebook Groups, from scheduled posts to group rules to new privacy settings.
The product marketing team rolled out a slew of investments to connect admins to each other for emotional support and sharing learnings, including an annual in-person Facebook Communities Summit and private Facebook Groups for power admins from around the world. And, they created the Facebook Community Leadership Program, a residency and fellowship program offering training, support and funding to community leaders to further positive social impact, in addition to many other initiatives led by the Community Partnerships team.
Team P&C Tip: Apply this problem-solving approach to your own community. (More on how to do this in Chapter 8 of our book Get Together). Though the support that leaders need depends on the community they belong to, you can always figure out how to help by breaking down their process. With each step and every activity in their journey, there’s an opportunity to make their lives a little easier. Or to save them some time. Or to stir their creativity. Or to make their efforts more effective. Supercharge your leaders and you’ll supercharge your impact.
Scenes from Facebook’s Communities Summits, the big events Facebook invested in to bring power admins and Facebook employees together.
Summary: Great Communities Stem from Great Leaders
Growing communities isn’t about management. It’s about cultivating leaders. As Lindsay put it: “Every party needs a host. Every team needs a coach. It’s no different online than it is in our real world communities.” This insight guided the revitalization of Facebook groups. The communities within Facebook Groups could only be more meaningful if they supported the humans leading those groups.
Realizing the promise of that insight was no small effort. Cultivating a community of power admins required rigorous qualitative and quantitative research, an internal cultural shift, and investments both online (new features, watering holes) and off (summits, chapter groups, fellowships).
But the work has paid off. Since Lindsay’s team began their efforts, the product has “lifted off.” More than 1.4 billion people use Facebook Groups every month, with 400 million users belonging to groups that they find ‘useful’. (The pandemic has only increased this level of engagement.)
Communities feel magical but they don’t come together by magic. Behind every thriving group are leaders doing daily work — inviting, communicating, organizing, moderating, hosting. To invest in bringing people together requires an investment in the often unsung shepherds of those people.
Facebook’s investment in power admins is a testament to a principle we all know, but sometimes forget: Alone, we are limited. With others, we extend our capacity.
Thank you, Lindsay, for your time!
If you want to find Lindsay online, head over to LinkedIn.
More on all things People & Company and Get Together here.