Since 2008 I’ve been voluntarily created or contributed to the growth of more than a dozen “online communities”. This post, published on world changing.com in 2009, shares the insight that got me started: communities can be considered an amazing ‘technology’. What online communities create, particularly, is a a place to test thinking or incubate ideas, and enable experimentation that leads to learning that can then be dispersed widely beyond the communities boundaries.
My interest and experience in digital communities lead to an invitation to speak a science communication conference (#comm2inspire). Conferences create a similar potential for simultaneous learning – for me to reflect what I’ve learned, to combine my learning with the audiences, and through application of learning for others to learn far beyond that specific context. This post aims to articulate my learning (better than I did at the conference) in service of that third area of benefit.
If reading this proves useful in your endeavours to grow an online community, and would appreciate your comments below, sharing it through your networks, and getting in touch with me via Twitter.
Before sharing what I’ve learned, some notes on definitions and typology. I’m distinguishing ‘communities’ from ‘names on a mailing list’ or ‘followers on social media’ which people are now calling ‘communities’. Community characteristics may include:
- Boundaries that signal a different online ‘space’ from other adjacent spaces;
- Peer to peer communication s a shared norm, more than just comments on a single authoritative source;
- Shared value creation, more than monetary exchange or distribution of information.
Examples of these types of communities may include: team collaboration (e.g. partners collaborating on an annual sustainability festival), event-focused (e.g. participants in a weekend hackathon event, or morning setup meetup groups), marketplaces (e.g. organising to go kitesurfing together, or buy and sell equipment), forums (e.g. sharing news, tips and discussion on astrophotography, Geraldton, or rock-climbing), co-creation (e.g. collaborative inquiries and co-authoring articles), and deliberative (e.g. voting on and progressing community projects).
Some of those types of communities I’ve been involved in have endured and their benefits may last for centuries, others fell by the wayside for a variety of reasons. As you can imagine, there’s an immense amount of learning that could be harvested, and below is my best attempt to very briefly share the best of it.
It would be embarrassing to fail the same way others have, including me. I can tell you from experience that trial and error is a dumb way to learn. Don’t make these 7 mistakes:
- Putting the platform first. Shiny features on slick platforms are no substitute for good people, interactions, content and consistent effort.
- Proceed with invalid assumptions. Assuming people will behave and interact a certain way without observing, testing or experimentation is a recipe for failure.
- Ignore all precedents. Facebook’s features “work” for a billion people, Ning openly shares insights, and there’s probably a version of your community already in another location – learn from them now (or later, after great expense and frustration).
- Build in isolation. If you can’t recruit someone to help or contribute, you’d have to question whether it could work as a community. Start as you would continue.
- Misalign the mindset. The norms of a spiritual, surfing or star-gazing community will likely differ and be particular. Don’t found something on misaligned values.
- Attract the audience later. Attracting an audience after launching is not recommended. Find and grow them where they are with what exists, already.
- Assume self-sustainability. The earth needs solar energy, gardens need water and nutrients, Twitter still loses money. Momentum doesn’t equal perpetual motion.
Growing a community is often a significant responsibility and commitment. It doesn’t have to be difficult though, and considering these tips may increase the chance it is simple, energising and beneficial, rather than a depletive, messy hassle!
- Clarify intentions. Get clear about the results, impact, benefit that you want it to have, and that the audience will appreciate. Communities exist for a reason.
- Have a business model. Figure out who will pay for costs. Test assumptions, create and get audience input – the feedback process will grow community itself.
- Assess against criteria. Results, audience, business model help prioritise features and criteria for making choices: like which technology platform, or types of content.
- One unique feature. Enable or provide something that people can’t get elsewhere: this will keeps members coming back, and keep your design focused and simple.
- Grow with integrity. Be true to yourself, your passions and people this exists for: more time kitesurfing, and connecting personally than tech-platform-fiddling.
- Create a culture. Provide guidelines and embody behaviour that creates a culture that is particular and appropriate, and likely different from their other contexts.
- Enable evolution. Through technology, administration and how you respond to feedback, keep the possibilities open for the community going in new directions.
I’ve kept this brief and pretty high level. Of course I could go into great depth about the nitty-gritty of technical settings and choices about language on different platforms, but that is best done through calls, webconferences or training sessions.
The one example I will share is the sweet digital setup for Gero Kite Crew, because it is already documented. The setup for that platform was very quick, straightforward, and even though the end product seems simple (i.e. just a Slack team) there are so many ways it could have been a complex, inappropriate mess should we have ignored the above lessons and recommendations.
I’d love to hear your insights and experiences, or links to your platforms.