David Markovich shares secrets that helped him create Online Geniuses, one of the largest Slack communities in the world
David Markovich, age 29, lives in Midtown Manhattan and launched Online Geniuses in January 2015.
Today, with over 16,000 members, Online Geniuses is by far the biggest, but not the only, online community Markovich manages. He also runs five others, including one for the 1,400-tenant building he lives in, a sizeable mental health community called 18percent, and three meta-communities focused on starting and managing online communities (e.g., Modtalk).
Markovich grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in New York City. He didn’t go to college. He had five siblings. His father worked at a printing company and his mother was a teacher at a religious school. His parents divorced when he was a child.
How Online Geniuses Started
Once the age of independence dawned, Markovich took off globetrotting. He taught himself marketing, networked around the world, and worked as a digital marketing consultant hustling to solve problems for clients.
This global, personal network formed the early roots of Online Geniuses. “Everyone I met and worked with I added to a Skype group,” he said. “It helped me stay in touch with people better.”
In other words, the largest Slack community of marketers started as simply one individual’s group of friends with whom he wanted to stay in touch.
Markovich mentioned the personality trait that served him most and that he has recognized in most successful online community managers: “They are very caring and want to give and don’t focus on anything else. They take pleasure in connecting people and staying close friends.”
I saw firsthand an illustration of this trait after our interview. While we were still on the call, Markovich shot off three email introductions to friends who could help me with my conversation app company. He didn’t have to do that, but he did. It was generous.
The community grew due to a lot of work?—?DM’s, Reddit, emails. It took six months to get Online Geniuses up to a few hundred members.
“At 200 members, you outgrow Skype,” the founder said. Later in 2015, when the community had reached the 300–500 range, Markovich announced they were moving to a new messaging platform called Slack.
“It killed the community,” he said. “Nobody was using Slack and nobody knew how it worked. We were too early.”
However, what was a liability soon became an asset. Or:
A month after using Slack, Markovich began reaching out to media publications that were covering Slack.
He helped introduce reporters to underground communities hosted on Slack which resulted in articles like “The Top 10 Slack Communities” published in BuzzFeed. These always mentioned Online Geniuses.
PR kickstarted word of mouth and referrals contagiously. Soon, Online Geniuses was the largest Slack community on the web, second only to a group of iOS developers.
Meanwhile, Markovich needed to make money.
3 Crucial Characteristics of Online Community Managers
Markovich said the reason Online Geniuses took off was three-fold:
Be completely passionate about the topic. Markovich lives, eats, and breathes marketing, community, and mental health. He loves these topics to no end. This transforms the repetitious mundanity of the community manager’s job into enjoyable tasks so that it doesn’t feel like work. Community managers truly care and give selflessly?—?this is not for everyone.
Set up the community so that it can survive without you. “No one’s here to see you,” said Markovich. Founders get caught up in the false notion that the community is there because of them. Instead, Markovich plays the background and facilitates when he needs to, but for the most part, stays out of the way. The value is found in the diverse interactions between the people, not in the founder.
You must be able to survive without the platform you’re on. “I have everyone’s emails if Slack closes down,” said Markovich. Ownership of your space is insurance, even though “renting” is necessary to host your community. This tweet sums up the point with a bow:
The Most Effective Ongoing Practice For Growing an Online Community
Many community managers don’t understand when there needs to be engaged and when there doesn’t.
“Don’t force engagement,” said Markovich. “If the founder is constantly pushing, saying, ‘Did you read this? Did you read this?’ that’s a sign it’s about you, not the community. If that’s your game, use a Facebook Page, not Slack.”
The number one best practice that has helped Online Geniuses grow successfully is great guests. The community hosts AMAs and pulls in some of the biggest names in the world, including Gary Vaynerchuk and head marketers from household companies like Netflix, Red Bull, Visa, Facebook, and so on.
Second, to great guests, a successful community has high-value members to interact with, or, as Markovich puts it, the opportunity to “meet cool people.”
The key is curation. “I noticed a certain pattern,” he said, “No sales reps, no recruiters, no interns. If you want to be annoying go on Facebook if you want to recruit go on LinkedIn.”
When members sign up, they have to apply by filling out a 7-question Typeform. A team of 15 moderators vet each applicant and ensure authenticity.
This team of mods constantly combs the Slackscape for inappropriate or guideline-fracturing content.
The result is a productive, insightful daily discussion between marketers who are serious about achieving results. Nearly two million posts have been sent to the community thus far.
Over 19 local OG meetups (i.e., “Chapters”) transpose the digital community into real life across the globe. These face-to-face events?—?breakfast in Boston, drinks in Toronto, or coffee in Sweden?—?inject new energy and genuine connection into the community, feeding back into the bloodstream of the Slack group.
In the end, your goal should be for the community to exist on its own without you. You do this with great guests, cool people, and moderated content.
But bad eggs are inevitable and Markovich said problematic people can slip through sometimes as often as once a month.
A Hack for Handling Trolls
One time, Markovich spun up a huge Google Sheet for documenting members’ information and activity. It was a resource that contained names, websites, guest posts, emails, etc. to help people connect.
“Then jerks scraped it,” said Markovich. The full community access to the spreadsheet backfired and rogue messages started pouring in. So he shut down the spreadsheet.
Over the years, Markovich has learned a thing or two about handling aberrant behaviour and has developed a process for weeding out spammers and trolls.
The first step, as mentioned before, is every member is vetted during the application process. But then there’s a two week waiting period to get in.
This two-week waiting period filters the majority of spam.
“Spam is impulsive,” said Markovich. “When people launch a product, they spam. If they’re live on Product Hunt, they’re in full spam mode. OG takes two weeks to get in. Two weeks later they become normal members.”
Not all spam is bad. For this reason, Online Geniuses has a dedicated channel for pure and unabashed self-promotion. It’s called “Shameless plug.”
Any online community with traction suddenly becomes a lot of work to keep up—people are engaged, chatting, and reacting. It’s thrilling, but it never turns off. With time, the question of “Is this really worth it?” eventually creeps in and the barb of money presses in.
Monetization Streams For Online Community Businesses
The difference between an online community and a social network is that online communities tend to be more focused on one topic, whereas social networks are more open.
Online Geniuses is focused on one topic: marketing, connecting marketers, and tertiary marketing activities.
While social networks gravitate more towards advertising to generate revenue, the “niche” quality of an online community makes it more attractive to partners and sponsors who target that niche. For example, SEMRush is OG’s biggest partner because the community effuses SEO practices.
Markovich declined to share specific revenue numbers but briefly described the fee structure: an annual payment in return for a mix of in-person events, webinars, dedicated coverage in the AMA emails, and website and social promotion.
Additionally, “People will pay for specific roundtable events,” said Markovich. He gave an example. “If you get ten people in the ride-sharing space in the same room with Uber and Lyft, there’s a tremendous ROI.”
This is the superpower of the community manager?—?he or she can pull together a high-octane group of people from the deep corners of their network, coordinate an event, and create an effective wave of change that’s worth a lot of money.
Life as a Community Manager
As a manager of six online communities, Markovich is permanently glued to his phone and computer. It’s a neverending job, which sheds light on perhaps why Markovich cofounded a Slack community dedicated to helping the 18 per cent of Americans living with a mental health illness.
Caught in a digital career one loves but can never turn off, one’s digital health can slowly break down. Markovich offloads as much as he can to a team of remote contractors, but amid surviving the tempest of responsibilities of each day, he only has one desire.
“I just want to sleep.”
Source: Dave School
Photo by Medium