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Starting a community. From scratch, really?
“It’s not easy for a group of individuals, who do not know each other, to work collaboratively from the onset. It is even more difficult to ask that this collaboration occur online when the participants are not in the habit of working on the Internet. The practice of sharing needs to be joined with the tools that work for the culture. Finally, strategy includes the leadership, direction and project management of getting things going to work collaboratively online.
It’s important to get participants/members first used to processing their information flow online. A framework such as Personal Knowledge Mastery can be used, but each person must be given time to practice, connect and get feedback. The community also needs to be nurtured, one relationship at a time, as the creators of Flickr realized:”
“(…) Because culture is slow to change I would recommend starting with the simplest tool-set possible. Turn off most functions and only enable new ones when people start asking for more. As with tools, the same minimization principle goes for content. It is more important to build relationships and to draft the right people than it is to build the best content. Community trumps content online. Therefore, the focus should be on building connections.” —Harold Jarche
I can relate to what Harold wrote in his post when I recall my commitment to a startup when I worked and supported a network of offline facilitators of learning programs or circles. There was an academy to develop and hone the pedagogical approach to deploy and facilitate learning programs for organizations. A Slack was also used internally to connect the startup team and the facilitators to learn from each other’s facilitation experience in the trenches with the customers.
Still, the focus was on content and not so much on community, though. So how do we weave and wire members to learn faster and better together?
Building, & they will come. Not really.
Which approach do you use to start a community? Do you start with a community strategy and roadmap? Do you go straight to the selection of an online platform and get the ball rolling? I hear what some experienced community professionals say when it comes to starting a community.
“The traditional way to start a community was to find a forum-based platform and invite your members to join. You initiate discussions and hope things take off.
And this is still the main approach for most brands today. The traditional approach gets the most attention not because it’s the best, but because it is the most visible when it works.
Yet your approach might be completely different – and that’s probably good. If you can’t reach a few thousand people, trying to launch a new community from scratch through a public forum probably isn’t the right approach. Increasingly, you get better results from targeting fewer people. And that’s probably going to mean using a non-traditional approach too.” — Richard Millington
Build, and they will come. I have experienced and observed as an internal community manager or just an active member of some online communities – learning communities or communities of practice -different scenarios regarding using an online platform for the community. The community platform is the technology that hosts your community network.
Scenario 1: The platform as an enabler to power the community
The community platform is already existing before I join the community. So, I got an invitation via email to join after I met the community leader in person through a video call or in person. The onboarding is seamless. I felt welcome, heard and seen one conversation – live and asynchronously – at a time. The host of the community is available and inclusive. We learn within the community continuously and growing organically. It lasts over months, quarters and years. It becomes one of the important ways to develop ourselves, make sense of the world and our experience, reflect and decide better.
Scenario 2: The platform is here. What’s next?
There is no community platform yet. So, the community leader has set up a new one to test the water and invite new members to join the club. Sometimes the architecture of a sandbox is done and is even tested with beta testers. Sometimes nothing is done at all. All the default features of the community platform are activated.
So, the members could be lost as there are no virtual peer assistance to onboard or support the members to navigate the platform, find the correct information to join the conversation on video calls or chats, and post something and connect with the members. It becomes a ghost town or desert because the community manager hasn’t worked on the content, event, and engagement programming and built a relationship with one member at a time.
Scenario 3: Ain’t no platform, so what?
No community platform is used. Instead, there is a combination of email to announce events, share news and knowledge through a newsletter, video calls for meetups, webinars, conferences and sometimes workshops. I see different intents here:
Gaining attention and traction from the participants who can be customers, partners, or thinkers in a host’s network.
Carrying on the business and personal relationship of the network through paid events or products to connect to specialists and generalists, access resources (ebooks, curated knowledge, workshop), recording of conversations, text chats, transcript, additional resources (blog posts, newsletters, Q&A).
So can we have a great community experience without having to spend a lot of bucks for a community platform by combining Slack or a WhatsApp group, a blog for announcements, and Zoom for meetings? Is it possible to build an audience via those tools if we start from scratch a community? Do we need to consider upgrading with a professional community platform to have better search traffic, follow discussions, and share information seamlessly?
How about letting know people about the new community experience you have? How is that the knowledge is lost or not findable in one day? People keep asking questions, find it hard to follow the conversation when they use Slack or IM messaging tools?
Which scenario(s) have you encountered with your internal community for your organization or as an individual? By the way, what the heck is a community? The Community Roundtable defines community as:
“A community is a group of people with shared values, behaviours, and artefacts.”
Starting small & with the needs
What are the conditions to make communities work from the early days of their birth and launch? Are there any cells or gems of a community before a host or community manager comes and gather the group so that they can learn, grow and become independent together? Then, who can be in touch with you to know that you instigate a new community?
“If you’re starting a new community, you need to invert this thought process. Spend the first two hours of your day reaching out to and engaging with prospective members of the community. Simply tell them you’re launching a community soon and are keen to learn from their expertise. Then squeeze in all the other activities around this” — Richard Millington
Before getting in touch, it starts with knowing the folks, their identity, intent, superpowers, needs and possible contributions? Rachel Happe, founder of Engaged Organizations and The Community Roundtable, wrote in the Community Manager Handbook:
“Starting small also made it easier to build online and offline trust, which was critical to the research value of the community. Adding members to a trusting community proved much easier than establishing trust in a large community would have been. “Do the right thing for your members and your community, and build the business to support that,” says Rachel. “Then have confidence and patience to let it succeed.”
Patience and confidence. Things don’t happen overnight. It takes efforts, time and serendipity to see the low hanging fruits of trusted relationships, possible collaboration and cooperation, support between members. What I have experienced through some global communities since the pandemic hit.
And it starts with the needs first, rather than focusing on features of a technology.
“Starting with your needs, rather than features, is the smart approach.
“Different types of community structures will have very different platform requirements. Size, purpose, technical skills, support and security needs and other factors will all play roles in your choice.
But starting with your needs, rather than features, is the smart approach. After all, in the end it’s not about choosing the right platform. It’s about choosing the right platform for your community.” — The Community Manager Handbook
Enhancing your community potential
“Working across boundaries – any boundaries
Brings such rich potential – wide experience, differing thought & ideas, diverse perspectives, creativity …
Relies on generosity of spirit, humility, curiosity, listening, open minds, kind hearts, meaning & purpose
Rests on trust.” — @brigidrussel51
“If people want to create shared meaning, they need to talk about their experience in close proximity to its occurrence and have a common platform for conversation. They need to see their different views about the experience as richness and a prerequisite to learn what is going on.” — @EskoKilpi
“… the system and self are very much connected and we can not change the system without changing ourselves as well. That means learning to slow down, be present and show up with an open mind, open heart and courage to embrace uncertainty, unlearn old behaviors and learn new ones.” — @sonjak18