Creating a Community from Thin Air and Potential

When a major, private foundation asked me early this year to help launch an online community, a bunch of questions swirled in my head. Why would this group—over 900 current scholars and fellows from 18 different programs—want to participate in this community? What is the value for them? Do they think of themselves already as a community? If not, how do we alter that mindset? Can we move a group that typically sticks to its program silos to connect across disciplines?

We are eight months into this effort, and don’t have all the answers, but I have a few lessons to share from the work, so far, for anyone looking to build a similar community.

Focus on the one-on-one. Building a community is much like running a high-end hotel. You need to provide exceptional service to everyone, reaching above and beyond each time. Every email to the community manager (me) gets a quick response. Every blog or discussion comment gets an online response from me so the member knows someone is listening. After reading some great advice from community expert Rich Millington at Feverbee, I’ve been personally emailing each new member as they register suggesting just one thing they can do to get started. Sometimes it is to write a few sentences in the “Introduce Yourself” discussion thread. Sometimes it is to vote in a current poll or join a current discussion. I try to tailor it to the member’s background and interests. I also suggest, when I can, members with similar interests the new member might want to connect with. About one-third take me up on the suggestions. With the others, I know I’m building good will for the future.

Build on successes. Last month, we stumbled on a topic that runs near and dear to the hearts of our members. More than four times the normal number signed up for an online chat we were organizing on that topic. Bingo. You can bet we are now shamelessly brainstorming other content and events to offer around that subject matter. Finding that sort of winner is like striking gold, it offers tremendous insight into the needs and passions of your members. (They’ll tell you their interests in conversations, but there’s nothing like the confirmation of seeing it played out as activity.) When you find it, keep mining that rich vein for all its worth.

Follow the members. The foundation has laid out clear goals for this initiative: 1) Help the scholars connect with each other more effectively and 2) find ways to tap into the wisdom of this group to help the foundation reach its goals. That is all well and good, but what truly matters is what the members want. Giving them what they need from the community is the only way to drive participation, and without participation there is no community. When we find a topic the members care about (see above), we run with it. When a member posts a discussion topic asking for help, we promote the heck out of it to help boost responses. We focus our content around the specific goal of fostering connections because that is what the members have asked for. (Hence, updates about scholars who are in the news for their work, a blog series where current scholars interview alumni.) The community is for the members and they vote with their fingers on the keyboard. The only true measure of success (or failure) is their participation, so always keep that in mind.

Stay patient. Building a community from a group that didn’t previously see itself as a community is no simple task. You have to keep plugging away and, like a football team Tuesday morning, honestly assess wins and losses. We’ve canceled online chats when there was no interest. We’re experimenting with different chat formats to see which ones attract the most participants. We carefully monitor traffic numbers to see what gets looked at and what gets ignored. We’ve learned that posting open questions to the community does not work as well as posting something they can react to. Every community is different. You have to find what works for your group and what doesn’t.

One smart man I’ve been working with points out that building a community, early on, is “a game of inches.” You need to keep groping for small wins each day, and, when they come, grab on to those wins with all your heart.

What about you? Any lessons learned from community-building efforts? Examples of successes or misfires?

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