Show and Tell

Share your case study and content strategy from last week’s assignments.

Encouraging Commitment and Contribution

Launch Strategy: Build Membership Slowly

Many people, perhaps most, dislike joining an online community that is small. They’d rather join once it’s bouncing with activity, especially if their friends are already there. And their friends won’t join for the same reason. So how do you get to that point, from zero members?

One approach is a slow build at first, then escalate growth. This can—and should—all be done without press releases and paid advertising.

Here’s a strategy proposed by the book, The Secrets of Successful Online Communities by Dean Shanson.

Growing a community from nothing is not a numbers game. Your community won’t—and shouldn’t—begin with lots of people. It should start with a handful of people who really care about the community and about its topic. Don’t try to attract 10,000 people in the week that you launch.

  1. Define what kind of community you want to build:
    • Action communities campaign for social change.
    • Local communities focus on a small area. Neighbors can exchange news and information.
    • Professional communities let people who do similar work get together.
    • Circumstance communities share a particular situation, such as parenthood or a specific medical diagnosis.
    • Interest communities are focused on a specific passion or hobby. This is where many brands build a community around their product(s). However, there is often already a great deal of competition for the hobbies that may align with your products.
  2. Based on the type of community, decide which people to approach. Don’t cast a wide net yet. Create a list of about a dozen to twenty people who you think will likely be interested. This may take several days. Here’s where to look:
    • People you know personally.
    • Three to five medium-size bloggers who write about your topic, who blog consistently, and who won’t be too busy to get involved.
    • Commenters on those blogs, who leave the most helpful and intelligent comments.
    • Book reviewers in your field, such as on Amazon.
    • Owners of medium-size Facebook pages who are keen to attract a larger readership.
  3. The initial launch will consist of emails, phone calls, and blog comments. This initial series of conversations will not only invite them to the group, but discuss with them how to run the community. Make each point of contact personal and friendly—avoid a formulaic email that spams everyone. Begin reaching out to these people about a month prior to launch.
  4. Once people have signed up and are contributing, push for referrals. Ask your members if they know anyone else who can contribute to the site. All you need is an email address or phone number, and you’ll do the rest of the work.
  5. If someone joins early on but isn’t contributing, reach out to them and ask them why. You might give them a topic that you want them to write about.
  6. View yourself at this stage as a sort of party host as well as community manager.
  7. Once the conversations have picked up to a lively pace, suggest that people mention the community on their blogs and social profiles.

Once your group grows to 100 or so members, you should see a majority of them being active and engaged. They add to they community and participate, rather than lurking or leaving.

Building Group Identity

Once your community begins to grow more quickly and organically, it starts to move beyond your control. The community has to get strong enough to hold the people who join. The best way to do this is to give them a sense of pride for being members.

They should come to feel that their identity as coders, sports fans, or knitters depends at least in part on their activities in your community.

A community that does this well has a unique brand unto itself. It feels special and different and exclusive.

Discussion: Have you ever felt this way as a member of an online community?

Sometimes, making participation in the group a little harder to attain makes it seem more valuable. On, for example, you cannot share your own work broadly until an existing member previews your artwork and decides to invite you formally to the community.

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As the group grows larger still, there is a threat of your topic broadening to the point that original members may choose to leave. It’s important to tighten the rules about off-topic conversations. This may be a good opportunity to create spin-offs into separate forums!

Communities aren’t for everyone who wants to join them. If they don’t have a strong sense of identity, they will have weak engagement.

Increasing Participation

Boredom is the enemy. When members are bored, they stop contributing.

Discussion: When have you felt this way within a community?

It is key to understand why members participate in online communities:

  • Anticipated reciprocity. If I comment on your post, I expect you to comment on mine in return.
  • Self esteem. I post as a way to make myself more visible, and to appear or feel important to other members.
  • Influence. I feel like I’m influencing the direction of the community when I write posts, organize events, and respond to others.
  • Attachment. I post as a result of my association and loyalty to my community and its members.
  • Need. I need to acquire specific advice or information.

Some of these motivators can be manipulated. Here are some suggestions:

  • Run a contest that encourages engagement with each others’ content.
  • Thank members for suggestions or advice that improve the community and the lives of its members.
  • Solicit suggestions from members about improvements.
  • Ask the community leaders (usually your most active members) to take questions at a certain time about a certain topic.

Members should feel that they are missing out if they’re not logging in and participating every day.

Discussion: What other activities can a community manager take to further motivate members to engage?

The Role of the Community Manager

Once a community is mature, it will largely be self-policing and self-sustaining. The members will:

  • add content
  • bring in new members
  • help new member find their feet
  • flag people who cause trouble

But it doesn’t always work that way. So your community needs one or more managers. These people need to care about the community, its members, and its goals. Here are the roles your manager(s) must play:

  • Community builder. This includes identifying and inviting the first members and managing the momentum of the group.
  • Community police. Following a clear set of rules and guidelines, a manager must enforce “the law”. High level rules often prohibit obscenity, spam, trolling, and rudeness. The rules should also specify which  activities can get your post deleted or you banned.
  • Community manager. This is the activity in the prior segment that encourages engagement. It may also include sending personal emails or private messages when someone has disappeared. They may introduce members who have similar interests. They may post a link to an earlier discussion, when a similar conversation is started. They are still party hosts, even when the party gets quite large.