Over the years, I've naturally gravitated to the idea of building parallel communities.
Communities have never happened in one place. They never have. It's probably only a recent thing where companies have tried to obsessively control community to happen all in one place.
What are parallel communities?
I'm glad you asked!
It's kind of like walking down a street in your home town, bumping into someone and having a conversation right there. You might invite them back to your home, the Town Hall or a local cafe, but only at the right time. You most certainly wouldn't stop the initial conversation from happening at that point in time. You would go with the flow, enjoy and learn from the moment.
A distributed channel can be anything that facilitates sharing and communicating, for example:
- a Telegram or WhatsApp group
- Social Media: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Threads, Bluesky, Reddit, LinkedIn
- Video: YouTube, Reels, TikTok
- Events: irl or virtual, they can be so full of gems
- Audio: podcasts, Twitter Spaces, LinkedIn Audio Events
- an email list
- Other communities: find complementary rather than competing communities to participate in
- Publications: supporting and contributing to publications that exist
- or your local streets :)
In practice, this means creating a strategy around identifying what to include in each channel and exploring what you can bring back to your main community home.
Why are Parallel Communities important?
Communities rarely happen in one singular place. People will naturally gravitate towards where the conversations are happening. Or perhaps they have preferences and habits in how they consume content. Sometimes that can be in your community home, but it doesn't mean the conversations are less important just because they are happening elsewhere.
Showing up in different places shows that we care (as long as we behave nicely!). Sometimes we can lead conversations. Other times we can participate. Whatever the case, we should always seek to learn and look for opportunities to help.
I would even say that not participating in distributed channels can quickly make your community irrelevant, not having it as part of an overall strategy could really cause your community problems as you won't be keeping up with trends and what people really care about.
Here are some key benefits of adopting a Parallel Community approach:
Community discovery happens naturally
When exploring different channels is part of your job, you have no choice but to learn, listen, converse or lead with conversations. You can find and follow new people. Learn what makes them tic and discover new places to explore.
The key here is to explore with intention, don't fall into the trap of doom scrolling!
Parallel communities create community flywheels
Community growth and getting people to become aware of your community is one of our biggest challenges as community builders.
A presence elsewhere naturally creates awareness of your community efforts. Every social and content platform is a search engine too. You can make it easier to be found. Sometimes it feels like a necessary evil, but the reality is that those who do it well can build a following that serves the community in a variety of ways too.
A never ending content and idea generation machine
People and conversations are a never ending source of ideas. Whether you participate or lead with conversations there are always conversations that lead to better understanding of our people and how we can serve them.
Think they will share that within your owned community? It's more likely you'll find it elsewhere and it's your job to bring it back to the community in a variety of ways.
Community starts with conversations and then relationships
It almost doesn't matter where you have conversations. It's better to focus on having them rather than worrying about where they happen.
Creating parallel communities enables you to start more conversations, build relationships to ultimately createTo understanding and hypotheses of problems to be solved.
The magic of this is not only that we can build relationships, but that we are always and actively having the opportunity to interview our members. We can show curiosity at every stage of our journey.
Parallel communities can increase diversity
You can often pick and choose who you follow and converse with. You can also strategically select who you believe would be best to support and elevate.
Does your community feel a bit white? A bit straight? A bit male? Maybe you can help fill in some of these gaps.
Find your people elsewhere and explore how you can help them belong. A diverse community is the best, and to be honest, the only type of community we should aim to have these days.
How do you build a parallel community?
Don't confuse a parallel community with building an audience or driving traffic. That's an easy trap to fall into.
Parallel community building is more about using community building practices in different and external channels. Perhaps it's creating space, opportunities, conversations or using your resources to help your potential members thrive. There is no one way to do this. Creativity is a must. And community building practices are essential.
I like to think that when people visit your "main community" they will feel right at home because they experienced your parallel community efforts.
Here are some ways you can explore creating parallel communities. These examples are taken from my work a few years back at Indie Hackers, where I took over the Twitter of Indie Hackers at 20k followers and grew it to over 60k in 18 months. No hacks, just community focused activities.
💡 Adapting forum posts into questions on Twitter...
Here's a snippet of a forum post.
And here's what I posted on Twitter:
In this instance, the Tweet got the most and best responses. It was always hit and miss which version got the most helpful responses.
In this instance, I posted this on Twitter because the forum post didn't get much response. At least this way, the person was able to get answers to his question. That's better than no answer at all.
💡 Zoom and focus on one core idea
I loved to zoom in on a key part of a story I knew people in the community would identify with and have fun with.
💡 Forum posts as Twitter threads
Perhaps this is Twitter threads as a service. Threads were always fun to do, but only if the content I was using was already in a list type format.
I loved doing these to help amplify, bring new followers and credibility to members who put effort into participating in the community.
💡 Random acts of Twitter kindness
Surprising people with random tweets of kindness is one of my favorite things to do. Indie Hackers is a community for founders. There's nothing that they love more than getting written about, traffic, email growth and also sales.
When people participated in the community, I would do my best to give back to them through Tweets. This became more valuable as our Twitter following grew.
Many of these tactics work for private communities too. You can share things to help others. Or you can ask questions and maintain anonymity.
We can also tie conversations together. One thing I've done a bit with Rosieland is ask a question on social and embed it in a forum post as a reference point. Sometimes I go back and edit the forum posts to include a summary of what has been shared.
My goal here is to be helpful and inclusive, I'm super aware of how hard it can be to keep up with social posts. I don't expect people to see them all the time. This one way I try to make things a bit easier for people.
Any channel can help us build community
We can build parallel communities on any social or communication platform. Twitter has been my favourite for the past few years, though I'm not sure for how much longer at this stage. 😢
It's what you do with the tool that matters. We need to choose to look at these channels and do community things, such as conversing, helping, teaching, amplifying, connecting and supporting ideas.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of trying to do it in a way to bring people back to our 'main home'. And, of course, that might matter, to some degree, but it shouldn't become our focus.
Building parallel communities has multi purposes:
- we learn about our people and industry
- we form and log new ideas
- we converse and find inspiration
- we find new people and opportunities
- we expand our horizons
- we support our people
- we show we care
- we end up being found by people
It doesn't mean it's easy; with all these things, it can take time to build traction. Taking on too many channels is tempting too. I'd really recommend sticking to one or two unless you have a large enough team to support the process.
It takes intention and a process too. I once maintained a Notion doc for my Indie Hacking community note taking efforts. I lived in this every day. It was amazing for me, and mostly only I understood it. As a community-team-of-one, it was effective and got stuff shipped.
These days I would consider doing the same to create a habit of note-taking, planning and scheduling content. It can really help take the pressure off trying to think of what to include in your Parallel Community.
Through using tools like Notion we can track all of our content ideas and contributions. These could be used as a way to track and show the value we are finding and creating. This can be done in addition to using tools like Common Room or Threado for more quantitative distributed tracking and measurement of posts, people and comments.
Doing it enough, with consistency and care, will naturally lead people back to our communities when the timing is right. And that is what matters. It's actually wasteful to get people in our communities if we or they are not going to gain any kind of value from it.
The challenge that follows on from this becomes 'designing a community home' that is 10x more useful than what is in the distributed channels. However, that's an interesting topic for another post!