7 Lessons From: Patrick Woods
From AOL chat rooms to Flash Fiction writing groups
Hello there! Please introduce yourself and what you do:
Hello! My name's Patrick! I’m the Co-founder & CEO of Orbit, the community growth platform.
What was your first real experience of community online?
I think my folks first subscribed to AOL when I was in middle school, so I have some old memories of various chat rooms mostly focused on computer games and music (I’m a drummer and pianist). I was also into the Metaphysics chat room, which provided an interesting blend of philosophy, religion, and other ideas that were interesting to a dorky but curious seventh-grader.
The specifics of those early experiences are somewhat lost to time but the feelings of excitement and connection still resonate today. The idea that there were other people wanting to discuss and share about things I was into felt powerful and, honestly, addictive. Things were often chaotic but sometimes magical, and I think that kind of serendipity is a big part of what makes community so invigorating.
What virtual community do you currently enjoy the most and why? (please include links where possible)
Though it’s increasingly hard to find time for it as a co-founder and CEO, fiction writing has become a hobby of mine. Mostly Flash Fiction and other short fiction, but nothing good enough to publish (yet!).
While my fiction writing career is in its infancy, I’ve massively benefited from the help of a virtual community.
Writing, while an inherently solitary act, really improves in the context of community — at least in my experience. In community, the writer shares ideas, gets feedback and edits, and unstructured time spent around other struggling writers can lead to all sorts of interesting directions or collaborations.
That’s what makes Scribophile my current favorite virtual community. It’s a well-established place for writers to give and receive feedback. Here are a few things I love about the community:
The purpose is clear: we’re all here to improve our writing. It’s not trying to be all things to all people, and this narrow framing brings clarity to everyone’s expectations about the kinds of things that happen in this community.
There are explicit expectations: when you join on day 1, you’re not allowed to post your writing for feedback — first, you have to earn enough points. Points are earned by providing feedback on other peoples’ writing. More in-depth feedback earns more points, and there are event “accelerators” built in such that the author can add even more points for particularly great feedback as a bonus. This structure leads to really useful feedback and collaboration.
There’s an implicit onramp: the experience is designed to pull you further into the community’s orbit. As a new member, you first learn the norms and expectations of the community. You then invest in the community by providing several rounds of feedback on the writing of others. Then, you contribute by posting your own writing for feedback, which is great for you, but also provides the means for other members to earn points.
It’s a really effective flywheel that contributes to long-term participation.
In addition to the feedback component of the community, you can also join writing groups to further connect with other writers. Based on the overall community design, joining groups ends up feeling like a natural next step to connect further with the community. It turns out, once you’ve posted a few Flash Fiction stories and have given and received feedback in that genre, you’ll likely keep “running into” the same handful of folks. At that point, joining the Flash Fiction writing group feels easy and natural.
What makes the best virtual communities stand out?
I think there are several things that make the best virtual communities stand out.
A clear purpose is one. In the example of Scribophile, it’s always helpful to know why you and I find ourselves in the same community. This ensures that the conversations are relevant and concentrated.
From a member experience standpoint, it’s great when there’s a clear onramp from being an observer to becoming an active contributor, or as we’d say it at Orbit, moving from Orbit Level 4 into Level 1. Tactically, this can look like progressively revealing channels in a Discord server based on completing certain activities, or hosting cohort-style experiences for new members. This kind of onramp reduces the perceived psychological risk of participating, leading to more activity overall.
Overall, magic is a key element — it’s hard to conjure but it’s special when it happens. This often manifests as a feeling, something like, “I can’t believe I just met this person I’ve admired for so long,” or “It’s so cool that strangers from the internet can be so helpful,” or “These people just get me.” While it’s difficult to create magic directly, these moments are always the result of thoughtful effort on the part of the community builder to create the conditions where magic can happen.
How do you grow a virtual community?
I think the tactics here depend on why the community exists in the first place, and what the expectations of the members are.
If meeting other folks is a focus, then one way to grow would be to host events that emphasize connections. Tactically, this might look like monthly virtual mixers that you’d then promote in the community and across other channels like email and social media.
As a follow-up, you could ask attendees to share the positive outcomes of their conversations, then include a summary of those in a newsletter or in Discord. Over time, these summaries could turn into longer-form content or even standalone events. For example, “Join our fireside chat next Tuesday, featuring Jen and Ben who met during the October mixer, and have since raised a pre-seed round and launched their startup.”
In this way, the frequent mixers provide a ton of value to folks who are interested in meeting other people, and the follow-on content and events (hopefully) create a self-reinforcing promotional loop that attracts other like-minded attendees and community members.
Of course, this approach would vary a lot depending on the mission of the community.
How do you measure the success of virtual communities?
When it comes to measuring success, I think a lot about managing the polarities of gravity and growth. Here are some short definitions from the Orbit Model:
Gravity = the rate at which members become and stay involved
Growth = the rate at which new members join
Some communities are all about adding new members, and others are about getting more participation from existing members. “Why not both?” you might ask. It’s possible, but it’s also a balance, and what’s important for any given community may change over time as they move between the two poles.
For example, imagine a small Slack community with 50 members, where each person is participating daily. That’s a high-gravity community. But, if over the course of a week, 200 more people joined that community, Growth would increase, but Gravity would go down.
Healthy communities keep these two metrics in check, so that quality and utility remain high as new folks join.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone thinking about launching a virtual community?
I think the most important thing is to identify the overlap of areas:
What are the unmet challenges or needs of your potential community members?
What unique capabilities, networks, tools, or understanding can you provide?
I encourage folks to spend what may feel like a lot of time researching their potential members to understand who they are and how they behave, and digging deep into existing communities to uncover themes as well as gaps.
We call this process Community Discovery, which I dive deeper into in my guide A Practical Guide to Building a Community from Scratch.
What article/ book/ essay/ podcast/ blog post/ video have you enjoyed on the topic of virtual communities?
I’m a book person, and several have influenced my work, but two in particular have had a unique impact. The first is The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer. It explores the delights and challenges of cross-cultural collaboration, which is increasingly important for virtual communities that are de facto global. It’s written about the workplace, but I’ve found the lessons for community invaluable.
The second is The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker. I return to this book time and again for inspiration on how to curate and execute impactful events. It’s packed with practical advice on hosting events large and small that I think any community builder would benefit from.
Aside from those, I consider these required reading as well:
Get Together, by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, Kai Elmer Sotto
People Powered, by Jono Bacon
The Business of Belonging, by David Spinks
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