Nextdoor is a social networking app where users are grouped into their own neighborhoods. Since its founding in 2010 in San Francisco, it has grown to cover 260,000 neighborhoods across 11 countries, expanding into Europe. Similar to its large competitors, it operates a newsfeed and kept membership free. Unlike them, it puts a huge focus on identity verification done by phone or portal mail. Also unlike the incumbents which focus on drawing connections among friends as they move across countries in an increasingly mobile world, Nextdoor is built on proximity and ring-fences content only to one’s neighborhood instead of relying on a popularity algorithm to deal with the increasing volume of content. The team believed in helping neighbors establish a sense of community during a time where people increasingly lost touch with their local communities. They sought to rebuild social fabrics with the use of critical connectors or Founding Members. As a member of a neighborhood, residents had could discover other people and small businesses around them.
Neighborhoods’ importance suddenly became evident in early 2020 with the onslaught of COVID-19. As wide-sweeping social distancing policies to contain the virus’ spread increased, day-to-day life restricted itself to people’s immediate surroundings. People that were used to reaching out to further flung social networks suddenly found themselves limited to digital communication, from being unable do one’s regular visit to parents or fly across the country to celebrate milestones. Perhaps for the first time ever, people had to rely on the next-door neighbors they had never needed to meet – until Nextdoor. As of the last month alone, Nextdoor’s user engagement has increased in 80% especially in Seattle and New York. It has jumped over 100 slots in the App Store. Tennessee’s local officials have use Nextdoor as a primary channel for official communications to constituents.
At the start of 2020 and especially in the last month, Nextdoor has built, launched, and heavily publicized several new features that allow residents and businesses to extend help and ask for help.
- Groups: Nextdoor allows neighbors to create small groups within their neighborhood across interests that allow former strangers that happen to live one house apart to connect. Groups range from those that aim to directly help and redirect resources during COVID-19 such as elderly check in and babysitting, to those that aim to lighten the mood and enable more breathing space like hobbies and virtual social groups.
- Small Businesses Support: Next door has rolled out several small tools for local businesses such as COVID-ID banners, take out and delivery status displays, and gift card capabilities to help them reach their local consumers and adjust their dining business models.
- Help Maps: Nextdoor layers on a ask for help feature on its maps for neighbors to either ask for help or offer for help/list services they are willing to provided such as running errands especially for the elderly. This also allows neighbors to pool resources such as only doing one trip to the store on behalf of several people. This helps augment the already strained gig-economy workforces on DoorDash and Instacart, and also allows these on-demand services to be extended to those that would have ordinarily been unable afford continuous usage.
- Neighbors Helping Neighbors by Walmart – Just this week, Nextdoor announced a partnership with Walmart, that allows neighbords to pool together orders and aggregate Walmart trips.
While most of Nextdoor’s sudden surge in popularity and utility has been largely positive, the company is dealing with two unintended consequences. First, neighbors have used the platform to increase sometimes inappropriate social distance shaming towards non-compliant neighbors. Second, misinformation on the platform has increased as content volume increases. As a result, Nextdoor has started instituting poliicies on misinformation and reporting at this critical time.
Is Nextdoor’s growth fated to be only short-term? Yes and no. The platform’s growth is driven by COVID-19 circumstances, and its peak usage is likely to be during these black-swan events when the social networks people are used to turn to in crises are not in a position to help. Once COVID-19 subsides, people may revert and decrease their reliance on their neighbors. However, COVID-19 will have impact over the long term towards a new normal which may still require relying on proximity. More importantly, relationships formed during crucibles are unlikely to fade so quickly. The circumstances may have only helped nudge people to become better neighbors and better citizens. If a sense of local community and true bonds have developed between neighbors, they are likely to continue helping each other and helping their local businesses in the future.
Nextdoor can sustain growth in three areas as things go back to normal or towards a new normal.
- Nextdoor should continue its small business support and patronage and continue to innovation around these. It is most suited to give SMBs a platform where they are not crowded out by large business with infinitely larger marketing budgets while also having easy access to the local community similar to a phonebook. The pandemic has taught us that small businesses are especially vulnerable and often can only rely on their most loyal and local patrons.
- Nextdoor should continue to build neighborhood ties online, but also find ways to develop these connections offline. Once COVID-19 restrictions lift, people will be eager to socialize again and to express gratitude towards those that have helped them. They can utilize the community leaders to get neighbors to meet offline in person, building trust not only in the platform but also in the community in a virtuous cycle.
- Finally, Nextdoor should also explore expands its government partnerships similar to Tennessee’s initiative as a platform where civic responsibility and grow and be checked.
COVID-19 has ironically shown both the power and limits of digital technology. The future of social networks is likely omni-channel, and Nextdoor reminds us that when we need help, we need not go far to find it – its perhaps waiting just next door, like it used to be.