How One Student Built a Study Discord Community With 150K Members in 15 Months
Nadir Matti, the Founder of Study Together, chats gamification, partnering with platforms, and the ins-and-outs of community building
Study Together is a Discord community where students share exam schedules, join lo-fi and classical music rooms for focused work music, or link up in webcam rooms to study on-screen with fellow students around the world.
Today it has 150,000 members. Last year, it barely existed.
Nadir Matti, a law student at Radboud University in The Netherlands, created the server 15 months ago for a small group of friends as a place to stay productive and motivated each semester. Then the pandemic took its hold on the world in early 2020, and growth exploded.
I came across Study Together while researching and writing what eventually became my piece on Study Web, a constellation of online communities and study spaces built for students by students. I was struck by the supercharged online environment that Matti has built: there’s often 23,000+ students online at once and 1,000 or more live studying in sync.
Students in Study Together talk about their study session goals, commiserate about exams, and compete for the top spot on the monthly leaderboard: In April 2020, the winning member studied on the platform for 520.7 hours.
I spoke with Matti about what inspired him to build the community with his team of 15 volunteers, how he’s driven such significant organic growth using promotional channels like Reddit, and his future plans for Study Together—from monetization to new features.
By the way: tomorrow at 10 AM PT, I’ll be chatting with Nathan Baschez, Every Co-founder and writer of Divinations, in Every’s Discord about writing and internet culture, including details on how the Study Web piece came to be. The Discord community is accessible to all Every subscribers. Join us!
When did you start the Study Together Discord?
I started the community around two years ago, prior to the pandemic. It was a small community for just myself and a couple of friends. We saw that studying together, whether it's online or offline, largely helps with motivation, productivity, and concentration. It helped all of us. I began the Discord group with the same name and logo we have now!
How has the community grown since the early days?
People started inviting their friends and we grew larger and larger. Then, the coronavirus came. We started seeing a significant increase in sign-ups with everyone migrating to online education and seeking support.
At the beginning of March 2020, we had 371 members. Around October 1, 2020 we had 11,465. Now we're growing at a rate of around 20,000 to 30,000 new members a month. On April 1, we had 80,411 members. Today, we have nearly 150K.
Did you promote the community online? If so, where?
I started on Reddit. In study subreddits, every conversation I saw was, “I literally lost all my motivation” and “I lost all my focus.” Everything shifted from offline to online. Everything shifted from university classes in real life and studying at cafes and libraries to Zoom. People were just losing their drive. As a student myself, I know how hard it was transitioning to online schooling when COVID arrived.
I shared Study Together as the solution.
The advertising I did was simply spreading the word: “Hey, there's a community out there that you can join, and where everyone's feeling the same as you. We feel that it works, and lots of other people feel that it works too. The feedback is super great, so you might want to give it a try.”
My aim was to share a really genuine message.
A lot of Subreddits have rules around self-promotion. How did you navigate them?
Sure, I am the Founder of the platform. However, I am also a user of the platform. It helps me just as much as it does any other student.
The message for Reddit was written as a user and was a genuine recommendation from me to fellow students, that's how I 'advertised' it to others. Reddit users were interested, checked out the platform and loved it. Win-win for everyone!
What other channels contributed to the growth of your community?
A lot of it is word of mouth. Many of our users send invite links to their friends, according to the feedback they provide us. Our growth has partially been fuelled by the pandemic, and partially by our promotional efforts on Reddit to help students.
But mainly, we started getting lots of users when I applied to become a Discord Partner, where the platform partners with the best communities out there. We were accepted! Now we’re being advertised and mentioned by the platform and we’re on the front page of the Education screen. When Discord grows, we grow.
I’ve observed that once popular study subreddits, like r/Students, r/Study, and r/StudyTips are now less active. Have you noticed the same? If so, why do you think this is?
I’ve indeed noticed that some study subreddits are super inactive. I don't know the reason! Maybe it's bad moderation or the people behind the subreddit are not doing enough to promote it or keep the community active. But some, like r/GetStudying, are quite active and have reached out to us with positive feedback on what we’re doing and have suggested Study Together to their users.
Why did you choose Discord over other platforms for Study Together?
In 2015 or 2016, Discord became popular in gaming culture and throughout the gaming community. But, around 2019 and 2020, they started shifting from gaming to a more general market. Everyone can use Discord now.
There's a huge difference between Discord and a platform like Reddit. Honestly, you can't really compare the two. Discord has video conferencing. It's more private, while subreddits are more public. And if you post the message, everyone can see it. Of course, Reddit has a DM function. But it's nowhere compared to what Discord offers.
You can form groups in Discord, you can form private channels where people can come together and study. Discord is really private, and that's what students like. This makes sense because in the library, you might be studying with one, two, three, four, or five friends. Or alone. So, it feels like a private group. Of course, you're surrounded with other people, but you’re mainly engaging with a few.
What keeps students coming back day after day? What value do students experience from being part of Study Together?
I think there are many advantages to studying together online on our platform. Gamification is a big part of why people are studying on our platform—the leaderboard, for instance, and the study roles. When people study more, they get virtual rewards. That's something that’s custom to our community. Our volunteer team and I sat down together, brainstormed, and coded these solutions.
Then, of course, there’s the accountability aspect. If you join a camera call with 20 people, for instance, you see 19 other faces. You might have the feeling (just like when you're in the library) that you're being watched. You won't grab your phone that quickly, compared to if you weren’t on an accountability call.
Third of all, people like to see insights into their study data. The more they study on the server, the more accurate their study data on our dashboard is. We display their data through graphs and statistics, and that's what people also like to see.
Our community members often say: “I'm super focused when I study with other people online, or when I use the platform.”
People are getting more stuff done. Since the beginning, I've only heard positive feedback—that it works. I think that's the main reason they're coming back.
With the Discord Partner Program, is there monetization?
Are you thinking of ways to monetize?
Our users can donate to us, which is of course voluntary. But everything's free to use—you can do whatever you like and study with whoever you like on the server. But if you'd like to give us a donation for the work that we do, you can. All the donations go to server management. Running a community of this size requires lots of servers in the background. We have virtual private servers, databases, and software that we’ve coded, bought, or are paying a monthly fee for.
These numbers stack up.
We acknowledge that our community members are students and we don’t ask for a lot of money, but mention that if people like the community and would like to donate, that we would appreciate it very much.
The community has grown quickly in a short amount of time. How are you thinking about keeping it friendly, inclusive, and intimate with 150k+ users?
This is something we started thinking about when we had 300 community members!
Users can choose how they would like to use the community. We have public channels and public goals, but we also have private channels and private goals. If you think the server is too big, you can just hop in a private call with your friends and all the other content in the server will be removed so you can’t see it. You will only be focused on your private group. When you enter a private channel with your friends, only you and your friends can talk in that channel and use voice, camera, or chat. It's a very big public community, but there are micro communities being formed within.
It can be as intimate as you want it to be.
Yes, it's totally up to the user. They can form a group of two people or 25 people, they can fully decide how they would like to use the server. That's something we made sure of.
There’s a great video you’ve produced for new members to see when they initially join the community. What else do you think about as people join the community for the first time? What kind of experience do you want them to have when they enter?
We made an introduction video to guide members who aren’t only new to Study Together, but new to Discord. We focused on the things that matter for our community and honed in on how to teach them to use the server easily. Right now, it's around three minutes long, but we’re going to update it and make it shorter. We want the user to be inclined to watch it even faster than now.
We also send every new user a private DM. This explains things and how the community works. It's really, really important to explain things first, so that we don’t lose the user five minutes later because they’re overwhelmed by the size of the server or the amount of channels. It's super easy. You just need to explain it.
What are your upcoming plans for Study Together? What do you envision for the community in the future?
I've been saying this for one or two years now––we just like to help other students. We feel the same way they’re feeling. Our plan is just to grow it and grow it even more, and help even more students than we are helping right now.
And, of course, add new features. Today, we have around 15 student volunteers. We’re university students all around the world, studying medicine, marketing, design—we have everyone. We all put our skills together to make this platform the best one for students. Our team is always working super hard on new features, and thinking of how we can upgrade it. Yesterday, we added the website and the dashboard. These are things that we’ve been working on for a very long time. It just takes time to do it, especially with everyone’s exams and assignments—everyone on our team is a student. So it takes some time and work and effort. But once it’s there, we are super glad it’s there and we get great feedback. That’s what drives us. That’s what motivates us.