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The Power of Online Community Forums When The World Changes

5 minute read

March 18, 2020

There is something about that old curse "may you live in interesting times". 

We live on precipice of science figuring out how to reverse aging, tourists going to Mars and self-driving trucks. We are also in the scary time of a major pandemic, with unprecedented consequences. The longer COVID-19 is a real threat and our normal routines are changed, the more there will be elements that will become part of our habits. For example, I thought I was a frequent hand washer before, but now knowing how unclean so many places are, I think more hand washing will be in my future. Hopefully companies come up with a better way to keep the hand moisturized after so many washes.

There are also other lessons, though, and important ones for you and your online community. Ones that can be helpful now and after. Let's jump in.

Don’t Ignore Reality

Do not be the tone deaf community leader. People’s lives are changing. They are hearing about COVID-19 from all over the place. Disruption is the new normal. I recommend you recognize this fact in some way within your community. In our Success Community, for example, I’ve created a space for CMs to share how they are handling things with their community and also offer private channels to provide advice for those that are not comfortable sharing publicly or are looking for guidance.

As people are instantly becoming remote workers, not everyone is coping with it as well as others. The introverts are having an okay time with this, for the most part. However, for many extroverts now confined to their living quarters - and with social distancing - are finding it excruciatingly hard. They want to talk. Make sure your community offers them a place to do it.

I understand not every community may feel comfortable or be willing to create such a space, but I really urge you, at the very least to send a message to your community that you realize things are not normal. Don’t bury your head in the sand.

At the same time, though, if your community is being hijacked by COVID-19 discussions, it’s within your rights to restrict those kinds of conversations, especially if it’s unrelated to the core mission of your community. Venessa Paech has recently given some really good advice on this here.

Online Community & Events Always Matter

Even before COVID-19, we wrote about how you could use an online community for the transition from live events. This now takes on a greater urgency, as many long time events  are now being forced to cancel their 2020 events and go virtual. But how can you create the intimacy of an in-person event through a virtual meeting?

Well believe it or not, there are many ways! 

Before your virtual event, you can create excitement, building spaces for people to connect and share. There are tools like IceBreaker and Zoom you can use to create calls before an event and give people a chance to interact with one another. You can create spaces to allow people to do AMAs with speakers, have discussions around topics of interest and create a more social space. We have customers who have very active social categories, and even some who have a dedicated “bar” forum - that really allows members to talk about whatever (within reason) is on their mind. And the best part of the online event? People who may not have the monetary means to participate in real life events, such as your brand advocates or fans,  can now participate as well.

The events themselves can use numerous tools to host talks, besides Zoom, which you can look into, but I won’t get into those beyond mentioning some I have seen that are interesting to explore: HeySummit.com, engagez.com, workcast.com and on24.com.

But what about after events? 

Community is a great (and mostly forgotten) space for you to allow people to share what they've learned, delve deeper into topics and have meaningful conversations with your experts. Make sure you direct people to these spaces after the event DURING the streams, so those watching the recordings later still have a place to participate.

Working Remote - Using All The Tools

Vanilla Forums, as you may have heard, has implemented a work from home policy due to COVID-19. Now, we've always had a couple of remote team mates, but now more than ever, we are all experiencing their reality - just as I’m sure many companies are.

Communication, at this time, becomes even more important. There are a combination of tools that we are using which can help companies and communities. We are using Slack, Zoom and our forums. Each has its own use. Slack has always been great for immediacy - and moving things forward. Zoom has been a nice way for the extroverts in us, to see others and check in during a twice day scrum to make sure we aren’t feeling so isolated. Finally we are using our internal forums for discussion on policy, more long term conversations and where true collaboration is needed no matter the time zone.

This is something that bears repeating. Slack is a great tool for immediacy, but it is not a replacement for something with a bit of permanency. Have you ever tried to search in Slack to find a conversation? Or what if the teammates you want come in at different times? Thank goodness for the linearity of forums, where you can follow the conversation properly.

Even before the pandemic, we saw communities using all these tools to better effect. We had a cruise company using forums for international teams to collaborate, because email was highly inefficient. We have one customer with a super user online community, and their top level has also a dedicated Slack for urgent and special real-time chat. Another community I know does weekly super user Zoom calls to share ideas and really feel part of a larger team.

The main lesson here is to consider the tools you use and how you can make collaboration greater - by leveraging as many channels as you can.

Things will go back to normal - but let’s keep the learnings

I am ever optimistic that at some point, this period will be behind us. Nevertheless, let’s make sure we take the lessons we've learned during this time and apply them as we move forward. Let’s make sure we continue to collaborate with our remote co-workers and our communities, using all the tools available. Let’s make sure our events offer an online and virtual component, and finally, let’s make sure we are sympathetic to the changes going on in our community and we don’t ignore them. The power of community is something that can help us make it through the most trying times - but as a community leader, you have an enormous impact on how we do so.

On a separate note, if you’d like to connect with me, ask questions privately about your community or brainstorm on your challenges, please don’t be afraid to send me a note on Linkedin. All I ask is that you add a note to your Linkedin request, so I know how I may help. Stay strong friends - we’ve got this!

Community News

Adrian Speyer

Written by Adrian Speyer

Adrian Speyer is the Head of Community and Lead Evangelist for Vanilla Forums. Besides spending many years in digital marketing, Adrian has been building communities of all sizes for over 20 years.

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