The DIY guide to growing and nurturing a huge online audience

Achieving scale is a double-edged sword. At Instructables, we’ve more than hit our goals: Our online community of makers, DIYers, hobbyists and other enthusiasts is now 30 million-strong.

That’s a big number, and one to be envied. But with great scale, comes great responsibility. Here are four challenges we’ve faced — and, hopefully, met head-on — as we built, nurtured and grew this exceptionally large group.

Wrangling the right data

Rapid growth is great for spreadsheets and the sales team, but it can play hell with community engagement. At Instructables, we doubled site traffic in the past two years.

That’s where data is crucial. By understanding where our users came from and how they’re engaging with us, we can draw useful conclusions. For example, according to Instructables Publisher Matthew Bondy, we know that “almost all of our growth is organic,” as driven recently by our Design Studio’s original content.

Looking at daily usage revealed even more. On weekends, time spent on site hits reliable peaks, as if our users have an appointment with the site every Sunday morning – (We call it “Instructables Time.”) Knowing this informs our engagement strategy, and also helps us connect the audience with digital marketers.

One thing is true for all online communities: users throw off an incredible amount data. The best engagement strategies are based on careful analyses of this data.

Designing for discoverability

Some communities are meant to serve wildly disparate audiences by presenting informally walled gardens. Others are not.

At Reddit, for example, it’s possible to be an active member of the Explain Like I’m Five subreddit and never interact with members of Tales from Tech Support. This is by design, and it works well for Reddit, where opinions are strong and outsiders aren’t always welcome.

On the other hand, Instructables members are eager cross-pollinators who enjoy being part of the greater community, no matter their particular interests. That’s why our catalog of more than 150,000 projects is organized into just six categories: workshop, technology, play, outside, food and living. Far from being silos, these buckets encourage discoverability.

No maker is an island, we’ve learned, so we’re mindful of maintaining discoverability. In the past year, for example, our design was refocused to be more accessible — and fun — for our curiosity-driven users.

It’s up to you to know how (or if) to categorize and cross-reference. Don’t fear niche, if that’s how your community behaves. But also don’t throw up too many walls, for fear of creating a world of tiny islands.

Trusting the pirates to help steer the ship

Whether it’s learning to ride a bike or turning a profit, all successful endeavors have an inflection point where sustainability was achieved. For a platform-based online community like Instructables, it’s the moment when our original content programming took over as the primary growth engine.

In our case, most of our content is user-generated. This is fundamental to Instructables, and we carefully curate the UGC that’s featured on our homepage, in our newsletters and across our social media channels. But it’s our Design Studio that’s become the true multiplying factor, producing content specifically for viral exposure and social media engagement.

With comment sections rightly under fire as the internet’s cesspool — pity the brand that finds its ads thrown up against a controversial YouTube exchange — many publishers are wary of community self-governance. And bad apples and trolls will always find a way to disrupt.

Fortunately, Instructables members are curious, discovery-oriented individuals. We’re proof that a thoughtfully managed, highly engaged community can handle itself, as long as you build in solidarity and friendliness from day one, as we did with our Be Nice Policy.

Setting free that which you love

Along those lines, many publishers are wary of distributing their content via third-party platforms like Facebook. “Why should Mark Zuckerberg sell ads against my hard work?” they ask.

That’s not bad logic, but it’s not a universal truth. Particular among community-based publishers such as Instructables, off-site sharing is intrinsic to offering the best user experience.

“Engagement on Instructables is unique because it’s one thing to reach someone when they are having morning coffee reading doom and gloom,” said Matthew Bondy, “and another to have the ability to uniquely reach a consumer when they are happy and doing something inspirational.”

Everyone knows you must reach users where they live. We take that a step further: We rely on our users to reach other users where they live. Whether that’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat or whatever social media platform comes next, we wholeheartedly believe in a doctrine of openness. Additionally, our Design Studio produces original content specifically for social distribution. Take, for example, this holiday-themed video from Paige Russel that, after being published on Facebook, snagged more than 10 million views in less than one month:

Paige’s video is just one example of our ability to connect marketers with users. Being open with our content isn’t just a marketing strategy, it’s part of our DNA. It also furthers our ability to connect our advertising partners with the right audience.

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