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Reddit’s VP of community says creating community online is about more than building a mailing list

July 14, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC
Reddit VP of community Laura Nestler at Fortune Brainstorm Tech in Aspen.
Stuart Isett—Fortune

Tech companies love to talk about their communities. But community is more than a “happy birthday” email in an inbox, panelists said at Fortune Brainstorm Tech in Aspen this week.

“A community at its core is people coming together intentionally over something they are interested in or believe in,” explained Laura Nestler, vice president of community at Reddit. “And when people get it wrong is when they consider an audience, or a user base, or a distribution list a community.”

Nestler was joined by Steven Wolfe Pereira, chief business officer for 3Pas Studios and chairman of children’s learning app Encantos; Issuu CEO Joe Hyrkin; and Fireside CEO Falon Fatemi for a conversation moderated by Fortune senior writer Phil Wahba.

At Fireside, Fatemi builds a new kind of community, working with creators from platforms like TikTok—figures who have more engaged and larger audiences than some leading brands.

To create true community, companies must move beyond transactional relationships, emulating the bonds that form in communities like fandoms. “In reality, what people are seeking is experience,” Nestler explained. “People are seeking belonging…In today’s market, you can find transactions everywhere. What’s really hard to find is connection.”

By nature, some topics build deeper relationships online than others. Shared values and authenticity around issues including abortion rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, parenting, and mental health all create strong bonds between people who discuss them, said Wolfe Pereira. “That’s where you’re seeing community go very deep,” he noted. “But it’s hard to build and maintain.”

Maintaining community sometimes requires tough decisions—by companies and by community members. When people violate the formal or informal rules of a community, members are often the ones to take action. “[They say], ‘That’s just not cool. There are places for you, but it’s not here,’” said Nestler. “It’s all about empowering users to feel a sense of ownership over this place where they spend their time and dedicate their energy.”

Forming transactional relationships is easier—but companies risk falling behind if they don’t put effort into building true and strong bonds among their customers, users, and clients. “Businesses will be savvy if they start thinking about actually creating true intrinsic value for their members,” Nestler said.

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