The Idiot’s Guide to Destroying a Community


Look at how cute I am? Why would you exploit me to build a fake community?

This is a post I’ve debated back forth writing for a while now. Maybe one of the most irritating on-going conflicts the ability to write and publish at will presents is deciding if you are writing because it will benefit your community in some way, or if you are writing for purely selfish or rant-iliscious reasons (much like how I make up words such as ’rant-iliscious’ due to the inability for the english language, as is, to properly allow me to translate my sentiments. But, I digress…)

Often, such as with blogs like my recent “How to be a ridiculously awesome failure”, I write them as a bit of self therapy, but follow through in publishing them because I feel they also might strike a cord with all of you (or at least some of you and in the end that is all that matters. If I can help just one tadpole turn into a toad, I’m a happy camper).

So anyway, this post I’ve waited on writing because I wanted to make sure it just wasn’t a petty rant. That basically is the moral of that story (oh yeah….who can get to the point quickly? This girl! BOOM!)

Now here is the actual blog (don’t worry, I’m rolling my eyes at myself right now…save your breath). The company name is being kept confidential because it really isn’t needed to make this post useful. I’ve already reached out to them indicating that I felt there methods were not aligned with what I assumed to be their goals. I’ve received no response. So they can continue to do what they do and the rest of you can hopefully learn from their mistakes.

A couple of months ago a friend told me about a fun new social network for dogs. Obviously being a huge animal lover and a dog mom, I thought it sounded fun. Even more importantly, I do a lot of work with dog and animal focused non-profits and so wanted to check it out to see if participating might be somehow useful for them or their communities. So I signed up to receive a BETA invite.

The whole ‘sign up for an invite’ ploy is totally effective. Both for startups, leaving the gate fresh, and for established brands, launching something new. As humans we are naturally drawn to things that are ‘exclusive’, so it appeals to basic human nature. “Ohhhh, I want to be a part of that!”

This was a gold star #1 for them.

A couple of weeks later I got a great email with my invite. It was handled really well, gave proper motivation and continued the excitement of the perceived ‘exclusivity’ of being asked to join this social network. Gold star #2.

I logged in with my invite code and proceeded through several extremely user friendly steps to set up my dog’s profile. Gold star #3.

But then what? I finished setting up my profile and it was very unclear what I was supposed to do next? What good was this new social network other than looking at other people’s dog’s profiles and “heart-ing” them? I couldn’t figure it out (and this is what I do for a living, meaning I spent much more time trying to understand the WIFM (what’s in it for me) of the site than the average user would). So I clicked away. Mistake #1.

Since I work with a lot of start ups, I have a soft spot in my heart for them. I understand how hard it is. Plus, they were in beta, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Beta IS for continued market testing after all. However, ‘beta’ has seemed to take a bit of a broader definition as of late and it seemed (based on the wide range of people ‘invited’) this was less of a beta and more of a launch. Regardless….

The next day I received a well written template letter from the Founder and CEO of the platform. Although it didn’t tell me much more, at least the acknowledgement was good.

So let’s recap. So far

-I sign up and set up my profile

-I see no really WIFM other than looking at other dog’s profiles and the ego boost of having my dog’s mug there and sharing it (which is really not much different than other things I can already do that also have additional benefits and capabilities as well).

-I get an email from the CEO, giving me no further direction. But hey, at least I was acknowledged.

That is all I have received after giving them my trust, time and information.

One week later…..I get a breed specific sales email. Now this email isn’t directly listed as being from the company I set up the profile on. Instead it is from some lady (who I have never heard of but is proclaimed in the email as a vizsla expert.) and called ‘The Vizsla Pack’. This email was full of “cute vizsla stuff hand picked just for you”. Which were items for me to buy that supposedly were good for vizsla’s and their people. It also contained a few half-ass articles (aka crap content used only for the purpose of trying to pretend the email is actually useful when it is really simply crappy sales spam).

Because getting signed up for emails that I didn’t opt in for is the one of my pet peeves, I decided to research where, how, who did this so I could disconnect myself from them in every way. Low and behold, the fine print says I was signed up because I joined the social network. Mistake #2

Well, that’s just swell. I provide them my info, I am given very few benefits (basically none

We really hate spam email!!

We really hate spam email!!

that are all that inspiring), and hear nothing until they start immediately trying to sell to me. And in ‘beta’ too. Again severally pushing the definition of ‘beta’, which is a time that most companies are wooing visitors and provide free or reduced fee services to test the market out, refine and also get people hooked on things so when they do start selling their community will already feel like they need them.

Now being a business owner, I know it is really hard to fully understand the outside user experience. So since I have the CEO’s email from her previous template letter I decide to take the time to write her a nice note, letting her know how this appears. I would want someone to do this for me after all.

I spend time laying out exactly what my experience was, why it is off putting and how much I really loved the concept of the platform so I was disappointed to see this be the way the community was being handled. It was very tactful, complimentary and polite.

I wait, I hear nothing, but continue to receive sales emails weekly. Mistake #3 and #4

I unsubscribe and continue to receive them. I unsubscribe again, and again. 5 times I’ve unsubscribed with no change. So, I remove my dog’s profile. Community member lost.

And that folks is the anatomy of losing a community member and destroying a community before you start. Community by definition is not about YOU, it’s about them. It doesn’t just work as a one way street to fuel your sales. It is about relationships, about giving to the people who give you their trust (through sign up, info, participation, etc.). It isn’t a quick overnight get rich scheme, it takes time, commitment, work and an understanding of who the people are you are reaching out to.

What do they want?

What do they need?

How can this community help provide for those two things?

How can you bring them together?

How can your organization be the moderator to facilitate all of this?

As ‘community’ continues to become more of a trendy catch phrase than an actual understanding we are going to encounter more and more situations just like the one outlined above. The good news is that successful community building simply won’t occur in these cases. The bad news is that many potentially fantastic concepts and brands will die prematurely as a result of misuse. Business Darwinism in action.



Hi Laura,

Ultimately, the bottom line is that community members must see a value to joining. (Of course, this can be a subjective thing, at times.) I sometimes shake my head in disbelief when looking at some very popular communities. (Hot or not type sites.) One person's meat is another's poison, as they say. But what's sad is when community builders don't bother to give any thought at all to why people might want to join.


Laura, this is a powerful tale which illustrates everything that is wrong about misleading marketing online.  While reading it I had the 'marketing team' visual sitting around a boardroom table, all fired up, as they said to each other, "And then we can create a community, get the dudes to sign up as they love their dogs, and once they have we have a targeted audience to sell our stuff too".  Wrong.  Wrong and wrong.  On all levels.

Sadly the word community has become a catch all for poor, often immoral marketing.   It is a discussion that many organizations just don't want to have.  "You mean we don't just create community so we can sell to them?"  While some people like you leave and close the door firmly behind you, others hang around and some will be misled and that is truly the sadness of it all.  Be fine if everyone just stormed out and slammed the door on their phoniness.   But damage gets down to some.


Everything Nick said and ...

These deceitful types always come across as "desperate" to me, Laura, so I (almost) feel sorry for them.  I'm chalking this one up to IGNORANCE and, yes, GREED.  And as a fervent dog lover and dog mom, I'm ashamed of these folks for exploiting our beloved four-legged furry friends.


These sound like mal-intentioned trolls who used the beta moniker to hide the crap out of their sales-laden drivel.

I hate it when that happens; and you know, they have no business selling you ANYTHING unless you have opted in for that. And worse, it shouldn't be in the fine print, it should have been blaring and actionable if they really wanted to make a sale.

"I would love to get information and offers on breed-specific products for my dog" (check or uncheck).

The sad thing is, it works for idiots. Idiots who run out of money, eventually - but idiots nonetheless. These are the folks who don't really understand how a computer works, how an email opt-in list works, and think that the email just got in their inbox by magic and mind-reading.

You don't make a great business out of practices like that. It's like knocking up every girl in the school and hoping you land the prom queen to live your magical fairytale ever-after story. Nevermind the externality of all that child support.

LauraPetrolino moderator

@HeatherStone Heather I'm so glad you chimed in on this. As a leader of an amazing community you definitely know what building and maintaining a community is all about and you bring up excellent points. Community is about 'them', not 'you' and refusal to look at 'their' motivations is a one way ticket to failure

LauraPetrolino moderator

@SandyMcDonald Ahhhh Sandy, you are so right! And the saddest part is that communities can be so powerful if built correctly, not just for the brand, but for the people involved, as you well know with your clans! It is a lose-lose when something like this happens. 

LauraPetrolino moderator

@MelanieKissell There isn't ignorance because they all came from successful ventures that should have taught them to know better....but greed and the quest for the 'magic overnight success', for sure. And yes, I think the fact they are using our love for our dogs to do so is even more infuriating! 

LauraPetrolino moderator

@WTFMarketing Exactly, exactly, exactly! The prom analogy is AAAA-FREAKING-MAZING!! So spot on! (and in true signature WTF Nick fashion).

The REALLY bad thing is the founders have part of a grouping of quite accomplished other ventures, which they obviously did not take the lessons from. Honestly I took so long to write this blog because I kept trying to figure out if I was just missing something. So disappointing and unfortunately is becoming more and more common as 'community' becomes the cool thing to do