Building and growing an online community is hard. We’ve worked with lots of organisations on theirs, and we see the same problems come up again and again.
Well, actually, the problems are usually the same: there’s not enough activity. People aren’t using the community to engage with each other. That doesn’t change. What changes is the underlying issue.
Some communities suffer from a lack of direction. Some are what happens when you optimistically put a group of people in a virtual space and say “Go!”. All the problems we’ve seen, though, were eminently solvable, as soon as we knew exactly why that activity wasn’t happening.
Here’s what you should be looking for:
What’s your community for? Who are your users?
Write down what the purpose of the community is. Does it fit on a Post-it? In Sharpie? You’re going to need to be able to communicate that purpose to its members, so make sure you have it clear in your own mind:
- Have you identified something that you need a lot of different people to get together on?
- Are you creating a space for your users to do something they already need?
- Do you just want to gather a group of like-minded people around yourself?
All perfectly fine answers. Just make sure you have the specifics down.
Communities for the world’s needs
Maybe you can see a problem which needs everyone to work together, or it won’t get solved. You want those people to do something, probably for a very good reason. Think about what that thing is.
If you can see that there’s a group of people who aren’t talking to each other right now, but it would be better if they did, isolate the ‘it would be better’. Why? What is ‘it”? How would you know?
We’ve worked with communities where everybody knew sort of why they were there, but because the online space had no clear aim - think SMART goals - its users struggled to take the right first step.
If it’s this kind of community - the kind that’s bringing people together to solve a problem that’s too big for one organisation - there’s a pretty solid recipe for success. As well as having a clear, defined purpose, you’re going to want to put these things in place, too.
- A common agenda - ideally, everyone in the community is on board with the problem, and the approach to solving it.
- A way of measuring success - how will the people in the community know that they’re making a difference?
- Mutually reinforcing activities - you’ll want everyone in the community to do the thing that they’re good at, but you’ll want those actions to be coordinated with what everyone else is doing, too.
- A way of - and schedule for - communicating - trust doesn’t just happen. The members of your community will need to develop relationships with each other before they feel comfortable working together. Talking is how those relationships get built.
- Coordination - all this doesn’t just happen. I’ll talk about this in more detail later, but you’re going to need to put some solid effort into facilitating all of this. More than just building the platform and sending out some invites.
Communities for users’ needs
If you have a bunch of users, and you think they’d benefit from talking to each other, nail down exactly why.
We do a lot of work with third sector organisations, so the reasons we identify tend to be pretty similar. Sometimes it’s just emotional support (yes, this counts), sometimes people want to know what a particular therapy is actually like, sometimes the community is a place to easily access an expert.
You’ve heard the phrase, “every decision is a design decision”? Well, it applies here too. Every decision you make about the online space you’re creating will have an impact on what it’s like to be in it. You’re designing the experience of the community. Make sure you’re lining those decisions up against the things your members want to do.
How does your community feel to newcomers?
During our last online community project, one of my fellow researchers had a brainwave. “It’s like a bad networking event!”, he said. DING DING DING! That was the breakthrough moment of that research project. Online spaces are (obviously) very different from physical spaces, but the person experiencing them is still a person. They still need the same kind of things.
If you were running an in-person networking event, there’d be a whole lot of things you’d be thinking about. Who’d host it, and how attendees would find the host once they arrived. How to make people feel welcome. Ways of getting them to have useful, interesting conversations. Snacks.
We feel disoriented by new spaces. We look for clues about how to act. We are, usually, more comfortable if there’s some kind of agenda, and if we’re not expected to strike up conversations with terrifying strangers.
What norms are you establishing?
Think about the last time you walked into a local pub for local people. Remember the four silent men at the bar, turning slowly around and staring at you until you went away? Don’t do that to your users. They will go away. (Or, worse, they’ll join those men at the bar, and stare silently at the next person who comes in).
You’ll be one of the first people in the room, and probably the single most vocal person for a while, so it’s up to you to establish what it feels like to be in your space.
When new members arrive, they’ll be looking at what’s already happening for clues about how to behave. Don’t worry if you have to be a bit artful about making sure the things happen that you want: a good event organiser knows to seed a couple of questions in the crowd to get things going. Let people know it’s OK to dance.
What’s the agenda?
So, you’ve established how to behave. Do the people in your community know what to do?
Probably not. Back to our networking event metaphor: have you gathered a bunch of people who’ve got similar needs or expertise, and just… put them in a room together?
At a physical networking event, it’s super awkward to just stand in the corner clutching a plastic cup of warm white wine, because people can see you. That’s the driver to go and talk to people, however intimidating that prospect is.
Online, someone can stand in the corner for as long as they like. It’s up to you to let them know: this is what we’re doing now, and this is who we’d like involved, and here’s why.
In almost all of our work, the people in the community want to contribute. They know that they know stuff that it’d be useful to share. They believe in the power of shared knowledge. They just don’t know exactly which bits of their knowledge other people need, and posting it all without being asked for any of it is a bit ... big headed. You can remove that obstacle. Make specific requests, set up spaces for particular things, tag the people you know have the things you need and invite them to tag each other, enable users to ask each other questions.
Do people have the chance to actually meet each other? With every digital community we’ve worked on, people have been really keen to have physical meetups. Let that happen, if only because meeting face-to-face is a hell of an accelerant, relationship-wise, and those there’s no point in a community if there aren’t any relationships in it. We’re designed for faces, after all.
“Collaboration” is a countable noun
Collaboration is having a bit of a cultural moment, isn’t it? It was second in the World Economic Forum’s list for 2015, and it’s still on there for 2020. We’ve been talking about teams, and diverse teams in particular, for ages. We can probably all agree by now that collaborating leads to better results, and so there are a lot of well-meaning people trying to make more of it happen, quite sensibly.
In the context of online communities, though, this misses the point. A collaboration is a thing. Think of how we use the word outside of the digital context. It’s a noun, not a verb, and it’s singular - “a collaboration between X and Y”. Two parties have identified a skill or resources gap, or found someone that they admire, and worked together to produce something specific.
That diverse team you’ve carefully crafted? You’ve given them a job, haven’t you? With defined outcomes, and deadlines, and things. They know exactly what they’re producing, together, in ways that members of your online community probably don’t.
Instead of designing for “more collaboration,” design for “more collaborations”. How does that change what you put in place? How will you help people find and make contact with the people they’d want to work with?
A collaboration isn’t something that just happens. A collaboration needs definition, a structure, a point, identified participants. You can make that happen.
You probably have a people problem, not a technology problem. We often get invited into conversations around the time our clients are wondering whether to move to a new platform. Maybe people aren’t using the platform because the login process is too hard; should we try a different version? The answer to that question is, almost always, no.
There are always outliers. There’s always that one guy who insists he “can’t get onto” Whatsapp. He can. He just doesn’t want to. Don’t let him derail everyone else. If most of your audience is already on Facebook, stay there - unless you’ve got a really good reason not to.
Starting an online community is hard. It takes effort. Your effort, to be more specific. Or at least someone’s effort. Starting conversations, recognising interesting contributions, even just being an audience: these are all human jobs. It just doesn’t feel the same if what’s saying ‘thanks, that was super interesting’ is a robot.
If you’re struggling to find the time to be the host that you want to be, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you hire someone to do it. Ideally, even a relatively small community (<100 members) should have a full-time community manager.
And as a general rule of thumb: that community manager will need to spend around six months plugging away, encouraging and modelling interaction, before there’s enough activity, content, and social structure for those interactions to start happening naturally. And that’s OK.
What are you measuring?
Be reasonable. And kind to yourself. That six months thing is important. There’s a bunch of data out there on what a healthy online community looks like, activity-wise, and it’s often a surprise to our clients.
It’s common to imagine that everyone who’s coming to an online community - potentially even going to the trouble of logging in - will want to join in. Why else would they be there? Starting from that assumption, it’s pretty disheartening to see that less than half your users are joining conversations, and only a handful are actually starting them.
But that’s exactly what you should be expecting. The Pareto principle observes that often, 20% of causes account for 80% of effects. Within online communities, that separation is even starker. Roughly 90% of users don’t tend to participate much, if at all. 9% will comment, and only 1% will post original content. So, if you’ve got a few hundred people in your community, the amount of users you can expect to be contributing new stuff is … a few. That handful we talked about a minute ago doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?
This is sometimes called the 90-9-1 rule, if you want to drop it into conversation casually.
And remember that that’s an established community. So, if you’re only a few months in, or you haven’t hired yourself a community manager yet, and you still have a handful of people dropping new stuff into your community: well done. That’s a win.
Too often, the people setting up online communities (or their bosses) are going after totally unreasonable engagement figures, and beating themselves up about not getting them. Don’t be that person. Be kind to yourself. In this case, as in all cases.