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.

Sweet digital tools for a club – Geraldton Kite Crew case study

Sweet digital tools for a club – Geraldton Kite Crew case study

This posts documents a small digital side-project to connect kitesurfers in Geraldton. Some of the tools and approach may be relevant to you, if you run any sort of group, club or team. Enjoy!

Some of our starting assumptions with Geraldton Kite Crew were that:

  • People with hobbies enjoy it more and are safer if sharing with others,
  • Most people want to enjoy their hobby, not administer it for others,
  • Any administration or communication should be as cheap and easy as possible for all,
  • Investing a little upfront in setup will save a lot later in hassle for everyone.

So, for Geraldton Kite crew, we used a bunch of free online tools to make it easy to: find other kitesurfers; collect their contact details, needs and wants; enable them to coordinate sessions with each other; share news and updates as necessary; and, grow a community.

Below are the tools in the order that we set them up and used them. The notes relating to each explain their use, benefits, but also why or how we came to use them. The hyperlinks take you to the examples of our ones, and from there you can navigate to setup your own.


Facebook – a free page was created on a social platform that everyone already uses, so that the group can be found easily. As we’re not actively selling anything or heavily recruiting, we don’t invest much time in the page and content. We’ve customised some buttons and links to encourage people to join the mailing list.

MailChimp – we use MailChimp to send bulk, well-designed emails to contacts who have opted-in to receive them, and can manage and updated their preferences. The detailed analytics (percentage of people who opened etc.) provided by MailChimp allow us to see how engaged recipients are. We’ve also automated some follow-on emails after people sign up encouraging them to complete a survey, join Slack etc.

Google Forms – to understand our members better we created a survey. This is sent to all new subscribers and will stay open to keep collecting results ongoing. After the first time sending out we got a 20% response rate and that’s now up to more than 50%. The survey allows us to data on members age, where they kite, and what other groups they are already part of, and how they can help out with the club. It’s proven really useful data, including help us identify that most members were already on so we didn’t need to re-create that buy and sell or forum functionality.

Canva – this online design software makes it easy to create and tweak a logo and other graphics for social media, posters etc. As with most of the software we use, multiple people can be invited to collaborate. When deciding on a logo we used their new feature to create a web-based view of 7 alternative designs.

Gmail – after initially creating the above accounts with our personal email addresses, we then created an email address for gerokitecrew[at] to use as the main contact point, and update as the default login account for the other software. If you are doing something similar, I recommend doing this step first. We set up forwarding and ability to reply from other accounts, saving administrators from having to remember another login, check or reply from additional accounts.

Slack – our survey and discussions suggested that we needed some way to communicate amongst members, with sub-topics. Facebook, Messenger, Seabreeze discussion topic and other options were considered, but we trialled Slack and it seemed to work. So we’ve created a dedicated ‘team’ and some ‘channels’ allowing local kiters to instantly message the group or specific individuals to organise sessions, trips or share news and tips. – many of the links to surveys and mailing lists are lengthy with random numbers and letters that can make people hesitate to click and the links difficult to remember. We used to create some customised shorter links (like ) and it also allows us to see how many people have clicked on each. – with all these links and info, we needed a ‘home’ on the web to collect them all and direct inquiries. creates single-page sites. While often used for professional’s online profiles it works well for a club or group. It takes only a minute to setup, add some text and links to the mailing list and social media.

Vimeo – in joining other Slack teams and online forums, we noticed the signup process can be a bit tricky, and communicating the purpose and ethics in writing wasn’t that effective. So recorded a short movie with our iPhones and Quicktime (for screencasts) then edited with iMovie. While creating the video took time, we have had zero signup issues, and reckon we have saved many hours (collectively) of: frustration from new members, correcting misguided usage, or administrators having to deal dealing with individual issues. And, we got to communicate the purpose of the group and give it a human face.

Zapier – we’ve used some in-built features in most of the software to link to each other and automate tasks e.g. RSS news feeds from Kitesurfing sites into a Slack Channel, automated folow-up emails to new subscribers. In some cases we want the software to talk to each other e.g. when we get a new email list subscriber send a reminder to an administrator to invite them to join Slack, or when someone joins Slack send them a welcome message. Zapier makes that possible, and has made welcoming people so much easier.

Google Drive – while these tools have reduced much of the administration burden, we do have some documents and things that we need to share. We created a shared Google Drive and set up folders to save versions of our logo, event plans, constitution and the details of all the software and systems so we can all jointly access and edit.

So, there it is – a quick rundown on the tools used to enable communication, coordination and administration amongst our group.

It’s worth noting a few asides or disclaimers to put this in context:

  • I have created or administered other groups using Meetups, Podio, LinkedIn, buddypress, Google/Yahoo Groups, Gaggle Mail, Facebook and others. In this case, none were appropriate as the chosen combination.
  • Luckily there is a basic level of digital literacy amongst the core crew who wanted to make this happen, so it made this all very quick and easy. If you are new to these tools, consider that investing in learning how to use them may prove relevant and helpful in other professional or social contexts.
  • While doing all this does require an upfront investment of time and consultation with fellow administrators and members, the end result has many features and benefits that save future time and effort in the future and hopefully enable those that share our hobby to do so more safely, more enjoyably, together.

Given all that, I’d love to hear any thoughts or feedback on this setup – just post a comment here, or on Twitter.

How can innovation in local communities be of benefit, globally? The next question…

How can innovation in local communities be of benefit, globally? The next question…

Arriving in Geraldton from years in Sweden, UK and traveling, I was holding a question about “the conditions that are enabling of sustainable human communities. My 5 year inquiry has taken the form of action-learning, contributing to projects and ventures that I (and others) assessed as high-leverage contributions to Greater Geraldton moving closer towards being a sustainable community. And, since 2011 my efforts have been primarily focused on growing Pollinators Inc.

In that 5 years, by my assessment, I’ve invested much more in the ‘action’ than then ‘learning’. In the last 2 years Pollinators Inc has grown, gained momentum, and is moving beyond being a ‘startup’ social enterprise (i.e. nearly having a stable business model, with core services mostly independent of grant funding). That growth has taken a big investment of time and energy from a range of individuals and organisations and at times has felt a little…isolating. Strange term to use when we’re growing a ‘community’ that’s very connected, but we have consciously focused on making the enterprise work locally, so the isolation has been relative to the capital city and international networks of coworking, social innovation, social enterprise etc.

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Social and creative enterprises in Bali and Lombok

On my recent holiday with the family through parts of Bali and Lombok I had my eyes open for local social and creative enterprises. While we were definitely tourists this time (not volunteering, researching or working), I felt that the least I could do was be a responsible traveller — aware of the impacts of my behaviour and directing spending towards those enterprises that were making the greatest contribution.
I did a little research before, but mostly just found out about these as we travelled. We visited Sanur (Bali), Nusa Lembongan and Cenigan, and parts of central and southern Lombok. I am sure there are many In the end we didn’t get to personally visit all of these, and I can’t vouch for their complete legitimacy or social impact. Still, I hope this might be a good starting point for others travelling in the same area, and a reminder for myself when I next return.

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Community as Technology

This was originally published on the WorldChanging blog, here.

With new options for collaboration, telecommunications and social networking coming online at a furious pace, it’s worth pondering how society will continue to change as a result. Having the tools in place is, of course, only half the battle. The rest is learning to shift our ways of thinking and working away from models that favor segregated specialties and exclusivity to relationships that encourage and enhance co-creation.

I recently had an experience that underscored just how important our ability to work together will become. As a coordinator and participant in the Hållbarhet2009 Learning Journey and Conference in Australia, I saw firsthand what climate change looks like. As my group traveled for ten days through southern Australia, we came face-to-face with the frightening signs of a warming world: charred landscapes from the worst bushfires on record, resulting in hundreds of human fatalities from vaporized towns, and thousands of kangaroos, koalas and other fauna dead from heat and thirst. Mighty rivers like the Murray, Darling and Snowy were reduced to a trickle in the south while the whole landscape becomes one swollen river in the north. In the midst of raging fires, alerting, helping and being helped by your neighbours was the difference between life and death for many Australians.

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