The bar at the W Hotel Hollywood has a line to get in starting at 6pm. It's not because the bar is full, in fact there is more than enough room for everyone at this point in the night, but they don't want just anyone.
Enter the velvet rope, a signal of value and exclusivity -- executed by a bouncer. The bouncer filters the crowd for young attractive women dressed for success (LA style).
The cultivation of a community is tricky, especially in the beginning, because the seeds or initial users dictate how the group will grow and what it will become. The W Hotel is counting on the initial group of ladies who they let in to tweet, Foursquare, Facebook, or text about their experience, encouraging other members of their community to come, attracting their target tribe. A velvet rope with a line signals value to people passing by because the place appears to be worth waiting for.
When flickr, a photo sharing site, began, it focused on the community. The velvet rope was the requirement to share photos encouraging a community of active members. Caterina Fake, an early flickr founder said their strategy was to "meet and greet the first 10,000 users" by providing positive encouragement through comments and posts, which fueled the community to bring their tribes.
Facebook began with just elite schools and expanded through colleges and high schools before opening to the general public (see Facebook timeline). I joined because it was a community of my peers. Had they started with their gates open, I wouldn't have joined because my mom and then high school sister would have also had access (no offense).
Google built Google Wave for everyone and released it with an open invitation system. There was no real velvet rope cultivating users to then evangelize the practical use cases. Instead it grew like a weed, never finding a home and quickly being pulled.
The temptation when launching an online community is to scale, scale, scale -- to grow as quickly as possible by opening the community to everyone instead of cultivating a tribe. The W Hotel loses a lot of early business at the bar with the velvet rope but they cultivate a trendy crowd and brand which pays off over time. All with a single rope.
What is your velvet rope?
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