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Blueglass LA Session: Building Communities that People Love

Moderator:  Brent Csutoras

Ben Huh, CEO, Cheezburger Network

JR Johnson, CEO and Founder,

First up is JR

According to Brent, JR started out with Virtual Tourist ( which sold to Expedia for gobs of money  #WIN   )

With Virtual Tourist, going back to 1999, there were communities out there, like Geocities.  I spoke with venture capitalists.  The response was “why would I want to read what somebody else writes – non journalists?”  That was the mind-set back then.  We’ve come a long way since then.

Through VT, we found out a lot about what gets people participating in community online.

Motivation Matters

The #1 is Recognition – leaving comments, ratings, badging, leader boards.

#2 is even more interesting – that’s a humanitarian motivation.  Someone wants to contribute because they’re helping somebody else’s life.    Even if it’s doing research looking information up and sharing it with others, paying it forward.

Something like Foursquare of Facebook that’s more on the recognition side.  You’re putting information out there to help your friends but it’s to be acknowledged and recognized.


It’s important when you’re building community to give people cues – like when you go to someone’s house and all the shoes are lined up by the door – it’s a cue to let people know to take your shoes off.

When you’re building the site you can do a lot of that through the user experience.  With VT we had over 3 million photos with no filtering on upload.  Someone said – you must have a lot of porn.  No – we had none because we set the tone of integrity and trust of quality from our users that it wasn’t a problem.  The intangibles were set that prevented that.

People are Messy

You want people to take ownership of the community but that means they control it – they can set the rules of how it gets used.  As people come into the community they take ownership.  With Lunch, we had somebody come in posting obscene material.  We had this dilemma – we’re trying to build community do we clip this guy, or rehabilitate him.  We tried to rehabilitate him – get him to participate in a way we preferred.  What motivated him actually turned out to be to interact with us – that was his reason for doing things – to get reaction from us.

With communities, we come into freedom of speech rights arguments.  You’re infringing my freedom of speech.  No – this is our community, our site.  We have to set and enforce the rules.

Remove the Roadblocks

When you start the site, you get from 1% to 20% of the people contributing content.  1 of the biggest roadblocks is getting the rest to contribute, not just consume.  Talking with people helps find out what the reasons are people don’t share.  Some people want to keep anonymity.  One way to help change that is Facebook Connect – we like to encourage accountability.  This helps reduce the trolls, and makes the community more open and comfortable for others to contribute without worrying about trolls.

You Can’t Force It

You need to be authentic with the community.  We’ve seen a lot of communities online over the years – how many have been built by a big corporate brand?  Not many because they have a hard time with authenticity.

Expedia had to buy Trip Advisor and Virtual Tourist because they couldn’t build community on their own.  Could Yahoo or Google have built Facebook?  I don’t think so – you can build something the big guys can’t because we have the authenticity.

Brent – how do you recommend people deal with cutting users?

JR – it’s a question of where you are in the community development and growth.  If you let a heavy user in there early, and they’re not using it the way you want, that encourages more of the same.  If someone like that joins later on when it’s a much better community, they probably wouldn’t be accepted by the community and have less chance of getting big and causing major problems.

But with the guy we had early on, it caused 2 of our biggest 10 members to leave.

One way to address this – how we did it – reach out to some of the influencers.

I think it’s important to be vague with your rules early on.  As you learn what the community finds acceptable you can set more rules that fit the community.

We can haz cheezburger guy now?  (yeah, I went there… ) Yes – Ben’s up!

3 Short lessons from building the Cheezburger Network

At the end of the day what you have to do is find what makes your community work.  Each community is different. 

We have the most active channel on Youtube – the most successful comedy sites online.  We’ve been profitable from the start.

#1  Start With Passion

Showing that love does come across the Internet.  The Internet is a series of tubes that passes data, but it also allows you to pass passion.  If it doesn’t come across, that’s what you call corporate.

Other communities came along that were sharing photos of cats.  Some dude in Hawaii sent his girlfriend the I Can Has Cheezburger photo back in 1999.  They made a blog about it -people started sending them photos of their cats with sayings on them – that’s how that started.  This blog became the number 1 blog on

Eight months after they started the site, I bought the web site.  I was the guy who had the job to take care of the community.

#2  Focus on really good Solutions – Focus on Simplicity

The LOL builder was built in a weekend.  People have the ability to have text on 3 lines.  Question came up – how do we handle text that’s too long?  The choices were:

  • Auto-scale down the font size
  • Wrap the text
  • Warn the user
  • Do nothing

We chose the last option.

The reason people like this tool – you can try over and over and over without restriction.  People love to ADMIRE complexity.  Nobody wants to OWN a space shuttle.

We REWARD simplicity.

Build them something simple so they can try over and over again.  That builds habit.  Habit builds community.

#3 Trust your Users but not Too Much

If you’re here to make money, you need to balance your business needs with the community.  Business needs trump community if you can’t make money.

You can do everything to build that community, but if you lose money, nothing else matters in the end (because you can’t maintain the community).

Today you have the ability to publish more content in a day than what the media could produce in a year.

If you can find a way to harness that content and filter it into specific communities, you can succeed.

We think of users as a monolithic thing “The Community”.  but that doesn’t exist.  You give them cues, guides that are explicit or implicit and they’ll use the community that way.

Instead of focusing on the commenters who make up less than 3% of your community, like the trolls, you should be focusing on the people who don’t comment.  If you just keep focusing on the commenters, you can’t grow your community as well as if you focus on the rest of your community.

Show the community that you’re willing to invest in a system that’s fair.  You set an example – that lets the majority of the community know – this is someone I can trust.


Q- Could you speak about setting the tone of the community – is it UI, style, tone?

Ben – We take a heavy hand on moderating comments.  One Example – found one entry where a group of people took over the comments on one post that had nothing to do with the post.

JR 3 Things – the UI (if you have a black screen with sculls and crossbones, that sets a tone); Policing the contributions to ensure it’s going in a direction you like; when they join give them some guidelines – be nice, be useful, be helpful..

Q- Do you allow people to delete their accounts?

Ben – we make it possible but it’s deep down, or you can email us.

JR – Absolutely – if you want to delete it, it’s gone.

Q- How do you deal with the 3 % who constantly want things, contact you?

Ben – You let them know you appreciate them, but that “we have to help the rest of the community”.  They’re smart people.  They get it.

Q (From Brent)  – What do you do to attract people to your communities and how do you feel about mobile aspect of building?

JR – back in 99 there wasn’t a lot out there it was easier to attract people to the travel community.  What we’re doing now is we’re going after power users of other communities and that’s been very effective.  Once we have content in then its where SEO comes into play.  Mobile isn’t a priority for us now because we’re still building content.  It will be later especially in consumption.

Ben – we’ve done really poorly on that ourselves – the initial ramp is very slow – when you’re seeding yourself at the beginning but social media has made it a democratic process if you generate content or aggregate content?

Chris – how do you approach Amazon users?

JR – Most of the amazon users have their email public.  This is an artistic expression for them.  They get spam – write about my stuff – write about my stuff…  We let them know “we have a similar network”.  That lets them know there’s another place they can reach people. The sites don’t own the content submitted by users.  They license it, but the user can take it and post it on other sites as well.

Q Can you explain more about how to get it started, to build community?

Ben – I’m surprised how many blogs have no feedback system other than comments.  We have a rating system – that lets people give feedback.   After the 1st 100 votes, nothing matters – you’ve reached statistical normalcy.  So if you see 3000 votes, that’s not important to us – it’s that 1st 100 votes that determines if something is liked or not.

If you find a way to give the user what they want, they’ll tell others.  Spend 90% of that and you’ll succeed.  Spend 90% of your time doing tricks and contests, you won’t.


Category Careers
Alan Bleiweiss Forensic SEO Consultant at Alan Bleiweiss Consulting

Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites from medium scale to world class enterprise. He ...

Blueglass LA Session: Building Communities that People Love

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