To many, community building may seem like a relatively new discipline. However, the truth is community builders have been around for a lot longer than many might think. In fact, the first software user group was at IBM in 1955.
As technology got more advanced, so did the ways we connected with one another. It started out with message boards, online threads, and chat rooms. These days, there are endless options for those looking to connect with others.
Really, that’s what’s at the core of any community. A group of like-minded people looking to connect and share with one another. To put it another way: community has always been about the members.
Following that core belief, we’re sharing lessons from a long-time community builder – Sarah Cogley – to help keep your sights set on what matters most, and share ways the tools of today can help enhance those efforts.
Sarah spoke at Super Forum 2021 about creating a member focused community, and we couldn't get enough of her message. Check out her full session at the bottom of this article!
When Sarah first started out in community building it was the 90’s. There weren’t Facebook groups, or subReddits. There were conference rooms and community centers. Sarah’s job was to find all the user groups working around Europe and get insight into what they were doing.
They were private groups, separate from IBM. At first they figured out ways to bring people together in physical spaces. However, as technology advanced and the internet grew, Sarah saw a unique opportunity. Instead of connecting in a physical space, she decided to connect them in a digital one.
Sarah quickly found the connection the groups had wasn’t simply based on their shared interest in software.There had been an earthquake in Japan, where some community members were. Instead of just talking about software, people started supporting each other during that disaster which brought them even closer on a human level. “I think people were really moved by that experience,” said Sarah.
The lesson she took away from that is you need to help people connect person-to-person. “I’ve always been laying technology solutions to facilitate human interactions.” And how well you facilitate those human interactions will directly impact how successful your community building efforts are.
Don’t Burn the Toast
Building communities takes a lot of time, energy, care, and attention. If you’re not actively paying attention to the community, and taking steps to maintain – and grow it – there’s a chance you’ll “burn the toast,” as Sarah says.
Not only do you need to give yourself enough time and resources to build the community, you also need to arm them with tools. For example, once your community is past a certain size you might want to bring in a moderator to keep an eye on member conduct.
Also, if you have some power users in your community, you could even consider giving them some sort of status to lead a group, or sub-section of the community. The additional help can make maintaining things simpler, and also encourages those members to invest even more in the community.
As the primary community builder you should consider a specialized tool created with community at its core. For example, Higher Logic is built expressly with community building and management in mind, meaning your toast comes out golden brown every time.
Drink Your Own Champagne
Lots of people working in the software world may be familiar with the term “dogfooding.” For those who aren’t familiar, dogfooding is when someone uses their own product to better understand it and find any potential issues.
Though Sarah agrees with the practice, she never liked the term and instead refers to it as “drinking your own champagne.” What it comes down to is looking for tools your community members are using that you and your team could use, too.
By doing so, you’re better able to truly understand their experience. It can also give you insight into areas that you can improve. To put it another way, it would be very difficult to understand what putting a piece of furniture was like by only reading the instruction manual. As they say, “experience is the best teacher.”
Consolidate and simplify
The goal of most communities is to grow. Whether that be in scope, size, or both, any type of growth makes a community more complex. Similar to a garden, if that growth isn’t checked, it can eventually run wild and become an unmanageable mess.
In order to combat that, Sarah suggests taking the approach of consolidating and simplifying. In practice what that means is instead of having lots of disparate groups, you should have one core group and then create subsections beneath that group.
You can think about it like a filing cabinet. The cabinet is the main community. Everyone is contained in it. However, within the cabinet are drawers. These could be larger topics in your community. Then, within the drawers there are folders, which would be even more specific subsets of those groups.
By doing so you keep everyone connected, but also give flexibility to dive deeper into the areas where they’re most interested. It also makes it much easier for any new community member to navigate the landscape.
Use data to make discoveries
Some people think of data as an endpoint but, really, it should be the beginning. This is especially true with communities. Instead of trying to push some sort of agenda on them, you should consider letting them show you the way. “If I was starting a community again, I would start with finding stakeholders and business goals and start from there,” says Sarah.
There are a few different ways you could go about collecting data from your community. First, you could simply ask them directly. “We use lots of surveys at IBM,” says Sarah. You could also interview community members and other stakeholders to get insight into what they’re trying to accomplish through the community.
You could also collect data through observation. Paying attention to things like what threads, or discussion posts are most active is a good place to start. You could also see what sub-groups are growing at the fastest pace. Both can be indicators of areas you should invest more in.
By letting community members lead the charge you’ll be able to stay more closely aligned with their needs. And the better the community is for them, the better they’ll be for the community.
Keeping the band together
No matter if you meet in a conference room, or a chatroom, all communities' most important assets are the people that make them up. And the only way to build a successful community is to internalize that fact.
Create space for people to connect on a deeper level. Encourage your team to do everything they can to better understand the people in your community. Ask them for their feedback and advice. By focusing on the people first, you’re better able to create a space that serves them and their needs. It may not be easy all the time, but when you get it right it’s quite the sight to behold.