No two communities are the same, but there are still a number of standard ingredients which are essential for any type of community to become a success. One of these is for instance the presence of a community manager. This article will tell you which other elements are needed.
1. The moderator or community manager
Every group of people needs a leader or leadership. Without it, the purpose for bringing the group together will become snowed under by all manner of social processes which will arise in the group. Over time, cliques will form in every group. For example, Wikipedia currently has a shortage of female editors. This shortage is a result of the prevailing old boys’ network, which excludes other types of editor in subtle ways. From a New York Times article:
The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally — trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change
Without community management, the conversations in online communities will degenerate. The tone may harden and even descend into exchanges of abuse and name-calling. In other cases, conversations can take on a sexual tone. These tendencies were what forced IMDb to close message boards:
Targeted harassment, sexism, homophobia and racism have been longstanding issues in most comment sections and IMDb readers have pointed out the company’s community wasn’t much better.
And IMDb is far from the only one. Various online media and newspapers (including in the Netherlands) have had to shut down their commenting features as a result of trolling.
To make sure that new members are not left to their own devices, every community needs a good onboarding process. What on boarding means is that there is personal guidance for new members from the moment they register for the community:
- Other members (‘greeters’) welcome new members to the group and tell them about its culture and customs. They will also tell new members about the history of the community, and the members and discussions that are important.
- New members are made aware of what they can bring to the group. What was the objective for starting the community, and how can an individual contribute to achieving this objective? How can they exert influence?
- New members are referred to a page containing all the instructions needed to help them utilize the community to its fullest: How can I create a blog? How do I send a message to another member? And so on. This page is also referred to as the tourist office of the community. Just as any new town has a tourist office to help you on your way, so does a community have a virtual version thereof.
- When new members contribute something (post a question, create a blog post), the rest will recognize their efforts. Research has shown that if there is no reaction from the group following a first contribution, the chances of someone posting again are close to zero. This is why established members will make sure that initial questions are answered properly and that contributed content receives some form of appreciation.
3. Core members or ambassadors
Every community has a core group of active members – we call them the ambassadors or leaders of the community. This core group has an above-average interest in the goings-on in the community, and comparatively takes on the most work within the community. To keep them engaged and supported, it is important to involve them in the strategy of the community. They are the ‘conscience’ of the group. Are you, as community manager, unsure of whether to carry out an action or not? Put it before your core member group.
You’ll also want to make sure that this group has the right communication tools for leading the community. These tools can for instance be WhatsApp or text groups, mailing lists or scheduled Skype sessions. In a community everyone is equal, but core members are just a bit more equal than the rest.
A lounge is a space where the outside rules don’t apply. An online community needs a space like this, where everyone can get together regardless of rank or position. The lounge is the space within a community where members are free to experiment, and is also referred to as the regulars’ table, coffee corner or café. These spaces are intended for connecting people from all walks of life with each other. Where in-depth discussions create a strong group connection (where ‘amateurs’ and fellow professionals find each other), you also need a space where diversity rules. Young or old, male or female, everyone should feel at home here.
Tweakers has a lounge like this. It’s a space which is reserved for people who have been members for over six months and who have upheld a good reputation:
The Tweakers Lounge is a place to relax and have fun on Gathering of Tweakers. We made it as an added bonus on top of the regular forums. It is however also a forum for serious discussion. A place where people can talk about personal issues, like problems in their love life. So, although you’ll no doubt have fun amongst all the entertaining topics, there’s also a serious side, and it is in no way a trivial forum.
5. Shared culture
A shared culture is often also what creates a sense of connection in a community. Outsiders will often be baffled by the in-jokes and specific customs of such a group of people. For this group however, this is what binds them together. A community manager’s job is to record this culture, as it is a way of providing entry points for newcomers to become familiar with the culture. It also creates artefacts and symbols which will further emphasize the singularity of the group.
Long-running forums for instance develop their own vocabulary. In the VIVA forum the word ‘mustard’ indicates that the answer has been given before, and ‘deck chair’ means ‘let me pull up a comfortable seat to watch this discussion’. Geenstijl has the richest vocabulary, which its ‘reaguurders’ (anonymous, unpleasant commenters, akin to internet trolls) keep adding to. The best example of this is the word ‘reaguurder’ itself, which has even made it into the van Dale Dutch dictionary. Geenstijl provides a glossary of these terms.
Some of the Geenstijl reaguurders’ vocabulary
6. ‘Building blocks’ of activity
It’s safe to assume that a tiny minority (1%) of community members will ‘create’ (start projects, organise events or write blog posts). The vast majority of members (99%) will only jump on board once these building blocks (blogs, events) are in place. This majority’s contributions consist of:
- Liking the blog post or discussion
- Sharing an event or project
- Supporting a project
- Commenting on a blog post or discussion
- Reading or downloading files
- Editing texts
- Voting on ideas
So what the creators (1% of the members) are really doing is giving everyone else a stepping stone to build upon with their own actions. On Wikipedia, this would be an article stub. The group of people that will then expand upon this rudimentary piece of text is much larger. They will spot language errors, add images, correct factual errors, and so on. All small tasks which require less motivation. The hardest part of Github is making the initial application. After this, it’s relatively plain sailing for the programmers making so-called pull requests or discussing the project.
This goes to show that it is important in every community to pay attention to the active 1 percent. They are the driving force of your community, since they create the base for the rest of the community to build upon. Unfortunately, too many communities focus all their energy on trying to convince the large majority to become more active. Not a good strategy.
7. Offline community
In the past we’ve written about the importance of offline activities for an online community. Trust between people will encourage them to share their experiences and start conversations with each other. Meeting each other in real life is still the best way for people to become familiar with each other. You will also reap the benefits of these meetings online. People who already know each other will be quicker to comment on each other’s questions and problems.
Do make sure that people work together in small groups during offline gatherings. Communities are formed between small numbers of people, never between dozens at a time, so be sure to alternate people between groups so that everyone gets a chance to meet everyone. You’ll also want to provide fun activities, such as friendly competitions. These activities will allow people to get to know each other in a completely different way. I recently heard about a community manager who organized chess competitions between her community members: a great idea!
Every community needs a space where members can talk about the community. Where are we taking the community? What are the wishes of the various members? What kind of tooling do we need? Tweakers has a dedicated discussion for feedback about the community, called Tweakers Feedback.
Stack Exchange also has a meta-discussion like this, where users can post questions about the software, guidelines and customs of communities. Here, you’ll find questions about the best way to use key words, who the moderators are, and questions about the background of a user who goes by the name of ‘chicken’.
There are various defined roles within a community. A community of practice for instance has mentors who share knowledge within their field of expertise. In addition to these mentors, there are learners who ask questions in order to improve their professional knowledge. A standard exercise in every community is to clearly pre-define these roles. It is important to ensure that each role has a clear workflow, so that the end user needn’t put too much thought into completing an activity. Such a workflow can be made explicit by means of a clear UX, guidelines and support. In addition, make sure that there is a ‘reward’ for each role upon completion of their task. This reward can be intrinsic: the question I posted has given me new insights because of the useful feedback I received, or my request has resulted in new social contacts. The reward can however also be extrinsic: my action will result in recognition, credits or peer appreciation.
The workflow should echo the habit loop as described by Charled Duhigg, who posits that new behaviours are established by so-called habit loops which are self-reinforcing and are thus anchored in the brain. Each habit loop starts with a cue – a trigger which indicates that it’s time to start a certain behaviour. Every McDonald’s looks the same because this serves as a trigger for customers to start their (bad) eating habit. In an online community a standardized UX is such a trigger. The second step in the habit loop (the routine), in the case of McDonald’s, is the food, followed by a reward (dopamine reaction in the brain). The rewards in an online community are then the above-mentioned extrinsic or intrinsic rewards upon completion of a task.