Growing great digital communities: 7 Mistakes and 7 Recommendations

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 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.

Innovation at edges: four facilitation principles

Innovation at edges: four facilitation principles

I have a refreshed sense of the relationship and importance of edges and convergence in enabling the emergence of new ideas and innovations. A fine awareness of the dynamics at edges (of disciplines, geographies, ecotones and comfort zones) seems necessary to facilitating successful convergence – whether that be at a conference or in a coworking space. In this post I suggest a few principles for consideration if are doing something similar.


The main prompt for contemplating this topic were the the Groundswell events in Geraldton. They included an investment showcase event that brought together diverse innovators and investors, a lead-in program for early-stage and high-growth ventures, and a weekend trip to the Abrolhos Islands focused on kitesurfing. The activities exposed investors from big cities (San Francisco, Sydney) to regional ventures (Geraldton, Carnarvon, Mt Magnet), and took local ventures outside their normal discipline to learn alongside others (artists with farmers, app developers and tool makers). The events happened in Geraldton and at the Abrolhos. Both are isolated locations where temperate, tropical and desert landscapes meet. Notably, many of the activities ran with parallel streams meaning few participants had the same experience.


The feedback from others who participated is that this ‘convergence on the edges’ experience was special and highly-valued. A common reference point for the contrast was comparing it to the experience of being in the ‘middle’ of a big city, in a big conference, amongst hundreds of others like you in your work roles. In converging at the edges instead of meeting in the middle, there was a tangible sense of spaciousness, looking outwards, mixing in unknowing, discussing unexpected topics, and forming new relationships through interactions in meetings, over meals, in the water and in small aeroplane cabins.


On the back of that experience, I’ve suggested four enabling dynamics and what that implies for facilitating future events.


The first thing about edges is the sense of isolation and space that enable openness. When you are in the middle of something, all you can see around you is an abundance of more of the same – it’s dense, you are buffered, there’s a tendency to ‘focus’, and many people feel the need to compare, compete and assert their uniqueness. As a physical equivalent, when I’m on the edge of a continent, cliff, obscure edge of a discipline, or at the limits of my comfort zone or skill level, I am more open, aware, and sensitive. Exploring on the edges has a riskiness that encourages simultaneously more careful, more adventurous engagement, and collaboration with those around you.


A practical implication may be in the physical setting of an activity. As an example, imagine changing the physical setting of your next meeting from a closed-door conference room buried in a building within a concrete city, to the upper deck of a boat where the sun and wind stream through, and the shared view is the endless blue horizon.


The second thing about edges is taking both an inwards and outwards perspective. If you in the middle of something you can’t see the edge, or out. You can see more of the same, could presume it’s like this everywhere, and that this is ‘normal’. In contrast, on the edges you can see both the dense middle but also outwards to, and beyond, the edges. From the edges it’s easier to see there how the middle is not the normal, just an aggregation place for ideas or people with common assumptions or preferences. Because you stand on the edge, it means you have experience, or can imagine, where those assumptions, rules and givens are different.


What this could mean for facilitating convergence is selecting participants who have deep expertise, but in at least two disciplines. The multi-disiplinary experience is likely to mean you have people who: habitually or deliberately move across boundaries, see from inside and out, and are well-practised in empathy for other perspectives. They are more likely to drop their assumptions, more comfortable shifting location, and see opportunities for innovation that those ‘in the middle’ might miss.


The third thing about edges is, basically, weirdness. Out on the edges is where you find the outliers, curmudgeons, laggards, prospectors, pioneers and by definition, stuff that isn’t popular. You can’t know if they are really barking up the wrong tree or are early trendsetters about to strike gold. This unknowing is part of the attraction to edges, and the very energy that powers risk-taking mindsets and entrepreneurial innovation. Often, people at the edges are making deliberate and independent choices to be there, not going with the crowd.


A practical implication of this for facilitating convergence is how you invite participants. The content and channels for attracting a single eccentric to an event is very different to how you attract the populous masses: a hand-written note or conversation at the beach, compared to a mass mailout and boosted social media campaign. Attuning to and appreciating the passion, insight or persistence of those at the edges (while others write them off as idiots) is a necessary skill to facilitating convergence.


The fourth thing about edges is mixing. As an ecological equivalent, the Abrohlos islands are where currents from the north meet with cold southern oceans, swirling around the islands, creating eddies and niches for an amazing diversity of co-located tropical and temperate ecologies. There’s something in that – the edges aren’t ruler-straight, and beyond them isn’t emptiness, there’s an ecotone, a littoral zone, a transition where mixing naturally happens: where Google Analytics ends behavioural economics begins, where geographic information systems blends into big data visualisation, where dryland ecosystem regeneration blends into micro-nutrient supplementation.


The practical implication for facilitating convergence is about an agenda and program that allows time for mixing around deliberately-chosen topics that sit on the edges of participants expertise. It brings to mind the dynamics in the mentoring sessions at Groundswell or ‘open space’ ethos, where the ventures stood up as ‘islands’ around which investors, mentors, bureacrats and politicians mixed in an otherwise open agenda. It was a little awkward, which is perfect, as from discomfort or unfamiliarity comes new behaviours: moving, reaching out, mixing rather than concreting into a familiar position.


I think there’s something important here for some types of event organisers, and a deliberate point of difference between events in inner-city hubs, and outer-region islands. Facilitating convergence is different from just ensuring diverse and representative participation, sending out a one-size fits all invitation, building massive crowds and momentum, or creating an agenda that leads to a neat wrap-up and conclusion.

Facilitating convergence of people at their edges, beyond the boundaries of their disciplines and in remote natural environments is more effort, a riskier investment, with uncertain outcomes…and isn’t that just perfectly appropriate for innovation?

Social change by changing socially

Social change by changing socially

Does social change, require changing socially?

Every thought-provoking tweet, crowdfunded project or inspiring social impact conference brings new ideas to our attention and catalyses interesting conversations. But have you ever wondered whether and how effectively sharing inspirational ideas and asking big questions really affect change in our social context?

During a recent conversation with a friend, we both made a recurring distinction: the response an ‘individual doing social change’ vs the response of ‘being the change in a social context’.

This post is dedicated to a few examples from that conversation. We’re curious to hear if the distinction we are making, the different way we were paying attention is noticeable and share with others?
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Eight Insights for Alliances

Eight Insights for Alliances

If you’re trying to change a system or build a new one, collaborating with like-minded people with aligned interests is a likely occurrence. Whether it’s growing the social enterprise ‘sector’, an ‘ecosystem’ of support for startups or government alliance to improve regional economic development, cooperating with others on advocacy, investment attraction and learning from each other makes sense.

These new alliances are often formed through frustration at current institutions or culture, a vision of something different and willingness to invest a a lot of intellect and energy in addressing it. However despite often being comprised of the brightest and most successful talent in a sector, success in ‘coalitions of the willing’ is far from assured. I’ve written previously about the conditions enabling of successful collaboration within alliances, and this post is to share share some insights into how these alliances can be effective in their mission and context.

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Geraldton as a Shareable City?

Geraldton as a Shareable City?

I’ve just returned from a conference on coworking, which gave me reason to revisit the relevance of the ‘sharing economy’ and ‘shareable cities’. While we’re seeing a huge upsurge in sharing of spaces, vehicles and everything else through clever use of technology, not all of it is positive. It’s timely for Geraldton to consider the question: “If we are going to benefit from more sharing, how do we ensure the outcomes are positive for our local community and economy?” While no-one may know the answer to that question yet, but we need to be asking it or risk being surprised by the downsides of sharing in our city.

Continue reading “Geraldton as a Shareable City?”