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innovation economy

Breathing life into an online community isn’t easy. Here’s what HubSpot and others have learned.

HubSpot, which sells software for online marketing, launched its Connect.com community initiative at its annual conference in 2022.Scott Kirsner

The 10,000-plus attendees of HubSpot’s annual conference in September couldn’t help noticing the booth for Connect.com at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. It was the last thing they saw as they entered the main hall to see keynote speakers such as baseball Hall of Famer Derek Jeter and actress Reese Witherspoon, and the first thing they passed when they left.

Connect.com is owned by HubSpot, the marketing software provider in Cambridge. It’s an attempt to create an online community where HubSpot’s customers — marketers, salespeople, customer service leaders, and small businesspeople — would spend time chatting and answering each others’ questions in between the company’s big in-person bashes every fall.

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Connect.com is in a strange place for a company like HubSpot, which has prided itself on being a pioneer in how blogs, social media, and now artificial intelligence change how stuff gets sold online. HubSpot paid $10 million for the web domain Connect.com last year and has promoted the site at its annual conference twice — including once in a keynote presentation by HubSpot’s founders. But it hasn’t talked about the project in any of its recent calls with Wall Street analysts.

Most of the forums on Connect.com are as quiet as the halls of the convention center on Christmas morning. The bulk of the messages are written by HubSpot employees, except for one forum, “Talent Match,” where people post in search of jobs or freelance work.

Turns out that building communities for busy professionals is not easy.

“We wanted to bring the whole network of the HubSpot ecosystem all together in one place,” said Graham O’Connor, who oversees a team of five employees as the product lead for Connect.com.

But O’Connor, who is based in HubSpot’s European office in Dublin, acknowledges that “we’re at our humble beginnings,” trying to generate regular visits, posting, and commenting from both the customers and noncustomers among its 30,000 registered users.

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HubSpot's Connect.com community initiative had a prominent spot at this year's Inbound conference, held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in September. Scott Kirsner

He mentioned an AI-focused community as one of the most active. But nine of the 10 most recent posts there are from the same HubSpot community manager, trying to spark engagement from others.

The site is getting additional features soon, like the ability to post images or to notify another community member that there’s a question they should answer by “tagging” them. HubSpot cofounder and chief technologist Dharmesh Shah acknowledged that the community site is “off to a somewhat slow start,” in part because adding AI features to the company’s core marketing software offering “became our top priority.” He said he believes that Connect.com can grow from 30,000 to 300,000 users in 2024.

Dave Gerhardt, who briefly worked at HubSpot as a marketing manager, hadn’t heard about Connect.com before I asked him about it. “I must have missed that they were working on this,” he wrote via email.

His first reaction: Connect.com could be casting too wide a net. “Successful communities are usually rallied around a particular niche or interest group,” he said.

Gerhardt, who is based in Burlington, Vt., has been building a community for marketers who target business customers (as opposed to consumers) called Exit Five. Founded in April 2022, the company hasn’t taken outside funding, Gerhardt said. He says Exit Five will surpass $1 million in revenue this year, and that he is hiring.

Another community-focused entrepreneur, Melis Dural, recently presented her business at a “demo day” in Cambridge that was part of the Techstars’ startup bootcamp. Similar to HubSpot’s Connect.com, it aims to forge connections at in-person or online events such as conferences and meetups, but create a place where people can continue talking. Unlike Connect.com, though, Dural’s startup, Ekos.ai, is starting with a mobile app rather than a website.

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“Our first goal is to make sure that you’re getting more out of an experience that you put time toward, whether it is virtual or in-person,” said Dural. “You can’t get that time back. If you didn’t get a chance to speak to 95 percent of the room, if you use Ekos, you don’t feel like you’ve lost out. You still get a chance to build a relationship after.”

Employees of Ekos.ai, a startup with employees in Boston and Ankara, Turkey, that has built a mobile app for business communities: (from left) Kazim Bora Erdil, Nilay Dagdemir, Tugba Top, Ezgi Ozkan, and Berkay Turanci.Ekos.ai

Her business model involves charging event organizers $349 a month to maintain a community with the app in between the events they put on. The app lets you see photos of other people who attended the event, connect with them, and send messages.

Ekos doesn’t yet have open group discussions as on Connect.com. Dural said she has 12 employees working on the startup, eight of whom are based in her native Turkey. The company, which has raised $1.9 million and is in the process of raising another $2 million, has attracted 17,000 users, Dural said.

The most successful online communities are often “built around shared passions” such as hobbies, politics, or parenting, said Rusty Williams, a Wayland entrepreneur who has worked in online communities since the early 1990s.

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“That’s the energy that Facebook taps into,” he said. “Business communities are harder, because the mindset in business is focused on time savings. There’s also the risk of voicing an opinion that reflects poorly on you or disrupts some relationship.”

Even when business-focused communities work, they take time to grow. The Wilmington chip company Analog Devices started its Engineer Zone community in 2013. It focuses on having Analog experts — as well as community members — address challenges that engineers encounter when they’re designing something new or working with Analog’s products.

Lisa Allison, the company’s director of community and digital support, said Analog maintains three separate communities — in English, Chinese, and Japanese — that together have attracted more than 100,000 users.

Perhaps the most successful online community, Reddit, was hatched in a Medford apartment during the summer of 2005. Reddit’s cofounders came to town to participate in a summer entrepreneurship program called Y Combinator, and raised their first $82,000 in outside funding here. The site now has more than 50 million visitors a day, and hosts discussions on everything from cooking to space exploration to, yes, digital marketing. Its headquarters are in San Francisco.

Reddit filed for an initial public offering in 2021, and according to recent reports, that offering could take place in early 2024 — at a valuation of up to $15 billion.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him @ScottKirsner.