Growing great digital communities: 7 Mistakes and 7 Recommendations

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: learning across contexts.

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 some people are now calling ‘communities’. Community characteristics include:

  • Boundaries that signal a different online ‘space’ from other adjacent spaces;
  • Peer to peer connections communication as a shared norm, more than just users commenting on information or posts from a single 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.

7 Mistakes

It could be embarrassing to ignore the way others (and I) have failed. I can tell you from experience that trial and error is ok as an occassional tactic, but a poor general strategy. Don’t make these 7 mistakes!

  1. Putting the platform first. Shiny features on slick platforms are no substitute for good people, interactions, content and consistent effort.
  2. Proceed with invalid assumptions. Assuming people will behave and interact a certain way without observing, testing or experimentation is a recipe for failure.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. Misalign the mindset. The norms of a spiritual, surfing or star-gazing community will likely differ and be particular. Align with them, don’t try to copy and paste culture from another context.
  6. Attract the audience later. Attracting an audience after launching is not recommended. Find and grow them where they are with what exists, already.
  7. Assume self-sustainability. The earth needs solar energy, gardens need water and nutrients, Twitter still loses money, and momentum doesn’t equal perpetual motion. Growing and sustaining communities requires initial and ongoing investment.

7 Recommendations

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 straightforward, energising and beneficial, rather than a depletive, messy hassle!

  1. Clarify intentions. Get clear about the results, impact, benefit that you want it to have, and that the audience will appreciate. Communities generally form in response to a common purpose, circumstance or context.
  2. Have a business model. Figure out who will pay for costs. Test your assumptions about how much people will pay and get input from your audience. Asking them for feedback can be community-building in itself and will likely reveal those who are the ‘early adopters’ and ‘advocates’ who can help grow momentum.
  3. Assess against criteria. Make your intentions and assumptions (e.g. audience, business model, user experience) explicit (e.g. write them down!) and use them as criteria for decisions (e..g. which technology platform, what type of content). You can then use those same criteria to measure progress over time, or if it’s not working, review them. These working hypotheses can complement your intuition, guide experiments and give a context in which to consider user feedback.
  4. 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. Trying to do everything for everyone (or just that audience) can mean resources are stretched too thin to really create compelling value.
  5. Grow with integrity. Be true to yourself, your passions and people this exists for. As an example, if it’s a kitesurfing forum, make sure you still go kitesurfing and connect personally with people and your passion – don’t get stuck at home fiddling with administration or technology when the wind and waves are perfect!
  6. Create a culture. Provide guidelines and embody behaviour that creates a culture that is particular and appropriate. Without explicit guidelines people will make assumptions, mistakes, offend each other and perhaps will feel unsafe to express themselves. Guide the community’s values, encourage good behaviour and make the consequences for bad behaviour very clear.
  7. Enable evolution. Through technology, administration and how you respond to feedback, keep the possibilities open for the community going in new directions. If it goes well, it won’t be ‘yours’ for long – people will own it as theirs, experience it as ‘ours’ and take it to places you can’t have imagined.

I’ve kept this brief and pretty high level. Of course I could go into great depth about the nitty-gritty of illustrative examples, technical settings and choices about language on different platforms, but that is best done through calls, webconferences or training sessions – so get in touch if you’d like to engage further.

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.

And, thanks to Carmen Smith from Scitech for her editorial input to this post.

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