Let’s Meet Brian Oblinger

Hey yenizens!

Tough, long, exhausting weekend, right? I’m grateful that the saga is nearly its natural end and conclusion and ready to get back into focusing on many of the other things that have not gotten as much attention in the last few days, weeks, months… … year… you feel me on that?

We’ll make it! We are already on our way. To infinity & community,

— john


Getting back to a bit of a more “normal” schedule of content, Mondays, per the original schedule, are featured interviews with yenizens in our greater yeniverse and Brian Oblinger is no stranger to the community space.

It’s been a real pleasure to get to know Brian over the past year and the many resources that he’s created for others via written content, video, podcasts, and more!

You can get quite a few resources via his website, like step-by-step guides on how to build & launch new communities:

He’s got a lot going on — let’s jump in.


What’s your one-liner?

I help brands engage their customers to increase satisfaction, lower costs, and generate more revenue through the power of community and customer experience.

The moment you realized community was your jam

When I got online in the late 1990’s, the first thing I did was search for gaming websites (and cheat codes, naturally). I found the PlayStation community and was instantly hooked.

Up until that point, the only other people that I could talk to about gaming were a handful of friends in my neighborhood. All of a sudden I was connected with people all over the world playing the same games as me. It blew my mind, and my path was set right then and there.

Editors Note: I found a podcast with Brian in it and he got a role in moderating the PlayStation community because of his involvement!

The best thing you’ve seen (or experienced) recently?

Reconnecting with my personal IRL community via video chats has been the best part of 2020. Seeing and hearing people that I lost touch with over the years has improved my mental health and helped me better navigate this dumpster fire of a year.

You’ve built a career helping some of the biggest companies engage with community up and down their stack — what have you seen work the best and what have you seen done poorly?

The best successes I’ve seen happen when community is treated as an important business strategy internally, appropriately resourced, and the ROI story is clearly articulated to the C-level.

Brian helps organizations big and small to launch.

Imagine if we stripped a department at any company, say Marketing, of most of their budget and headcount and weren’t able to tie their activities to high-level business goals, how successful would they be?

Some companies treat community in that manner and then wonder why they’re not making as much progress as they’d like.

Failure often has less to do with the effectiveness of community than it does the level of investment and integration into the overall strategy of the business.

What community building tactics would you deploy for a early-stage project? What would you avoid? Any gotchas that a lot of folks usually trip on?

Start small and simple.

It’s often the case that you don’t know enough about your members early on to set your strategy and tactics in stone. So, you start with the fundamentals, try a bunch of experiments, and adjust as needed.

In the early days, rigidity and adherence to a strategy that isn’t working can spell disaster. You have to be willing to see the signals and make course corrections that better align with the needs of your members.

This is also a great crash course in learning that the community is not yours — it is your members.

Knowing when to loosen your grip is an important skill as a community builder.

Coaching and mentorship is something I’ve seen you talk about before — how has this impacted your thinking around community?

It’s extremely important, especially in a relatively nascent industry like community, that those of us that have been around a while take the time to pass on the knowledge that we’ve gained and setup the next generation of leaders to be successful.

At the same time, I learn just as much, if not more, from those that I mentor than they do from me. Seeing the industry and how they perceive it through fresh eyes gives me perspective that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to acquire on my own. I don’t want to be the old man yelling at clouds that passed by years ago.

Most importantly, nothing is more satisfying than seeing team members and mentees surpass what I’ve done and become experts in their own right. I’m like a proud parent.

Peter Thiel Question: What is one thing you believe to be true about (online) community that very few people agree with you on? 

The strategies, tactics, and best practices for small interest-based communities vs. large enterprise brand communities are strikingly different and have very little overlap in practice.

It’s quite common these days to see proclamations from builders at both ends of the spectrum that purport that their approach, based in their particular community type, are _the_ way that things must be done. In reality, many of the activities that lead to success in smaller communities don’t work at all in larger communities, and vice versa.

It is important to understand the differences and consider where the advice comes from in relation to the type of community you are trying to build so that you don’t go down the wrong road.

The good news is that because there is a diverse landscape of community sizes and types, there are opportunities for specialization within the industry. Carve out your niche and own it.

Tell us about the new-ish podcast! What inspired you to start, what’s the tech stack, and how has it been going?

I had the idea to start a community-focused podcast for a couple of years, but it never felt quite like the right time until I reconnected with Erica Kuhl!

We got together for a series of lunches in early 2020 and the conversation was just excellent. We’d sit there for a couple of hours discussing a wide range of community topics, and we both thought “This is it! This is the show!” 

The key observation we had about other podcasts is that they were all interview-based. We wanted to instead focus on giving tangible, actionable insights that people could walk way with and build better communities, which is why it’s just the two of us deep diving into a specific topic on each episode.

To take it a step further, we give away, for free, templates and resources that we’ve used in our careers to be successful. This is our way of giving back to the industry.

It’s been a wonderful experience so far. We have great listeners and sponsors. We get messages from people telling us what an impact we’ve had on their careers, which is just amazing. We have a long, ever-growing, list of topics to cover. Stay tuned!

As far as the technical nerdy stuff, we record remotely using the double-ender method. We’re both using Audio-Technica USB microphones into GarageBand for local recording. We do the call over Skype or Zoom and then I stitch together the locally recorded tracks in editing.

The show is hosted on Libsyn and our website is built on Squarespace.

What’s one thing that most folks who know you, know about?

That I’m an absolute space junkie!

As a kid, I grew up wanting to be an astronaut and I spend a lot of my free time these days watching rocket launches and star gazing. I believe we are at our best when exploring the unknown.

This has spilled over into my career, where I use imagery and terminology from space exploration as inspiration for community strategies.

It can be hard to gain buy-in on things that people don’t have prior context for, so using an analog like space travel helps bring things into focus and sparks the innate passion that we all have as humans for exciting voyages. It’s been a very effective little trick for me over the years.

Who should we feature next?

You should ping @hollyfirestone!

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