Starting an online community can seem like a daunting task at first. It’s easy to think that you need experience with other online communities to build a successful one for your own organization. However, while communities on a screen seem like a new phenomenon, their goal is to mimic a real-life community. So, rather than seeing yourself as the community manager of an online group, try imagining you are the town planner in charge of helping a new town get off its feet. By putting yourself in this mindset you can set your community, and yourself, up for long-term success.
Ask yourself: does this community fill a need? Colonists built Boston to serve as a safe haven from persecution. Hershey, PA and Gary, IN came about in order to house company employees. Other towns were founded to act as trading posts, farming communities, and mill towns. The common denominator is that these communities all started for a reason, and yours should too. If your community doesn’t fill a need for your members, then you may end up as the only participant.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the old adage goes. No matter how many dedicated members your organization has, you won’t immediately have hundreds of discussion posts and meaningful connections. By starting with a small community you can foster strong relationships that will allow your community to grow in the future.
Consider conducting a soft launch of your community. Pull in your organization’s MVPs to help you explore the viability of the community. Just like the first group of colonists to arrive at Jamestown, this beta-test will help you visualize the needs of your community as you move forward.
Artist Donald Judd came to the small town of Marfa, Texas in the 1970’s and created a haven for artistic expression. Forty years later, the community has become more popular. While it could continue to grow, the town does not flaunt its position as the leader of an artistic movement. Judd created Marfa to avoid the New York City art scene, so the town’s growth might actually compromise its value to the citizens. If the community is fulfilling its purpose, bringing value to your organization and members, size doesn’t necessarily matter -- engagement does.
The California Gold Rush brought hundreds of thousands of adventurers out West, and along with this influx of people came an influx of towns. These “boom towns” popped up along rivers where prospectors sought to find their fortune. One town, Bodie, grew rapidly during this time by only focusing on the natural gold deposits nearby. As a result, when the veins of gold dried up, the people of Bodie were left with nothing and abandoned the town to move on to new adventures. Another town that cropped up around the same time tells a different story.
San Francisco grew astronomically during the Gold Rush. But, by organizing their governance, focusing on new business opportunities, and instituting infrastructure like cable cars, the city adapted and has become even more impressive than it was in the 1850’s. They were flexible with their environment and learned from the other towns and cities around them - and it paid off.
So if you do decide to improve the size of the community, don’t go it alone. Benchmarking reports and research on community maturity levels are thorough resources that can help you learn from the successes (and missteps) of other communities.
While a small community may be able to get by with just a mayor or a handful of volunteers to run the show, a larger organization can usually benefit from a whole team of leaders. Just as a town may expand to include a board of selectmen, it’s important to think about when your community may need to expand to multiple community managers to help you provide the best community possible. It can sometimes be difficult to get executives to agree to the importance of adding more community managers. However, if you work closely with your executive team by setting goals together and giving frequent updates on those goals, the team will be able to see when the job becomes clearly too much for one person to take on.
As a community manager you have to defuse problematic situations when they come up. So, while putting out your community’s metaphorical fires, learn from the people who stop actual fires. Work on cultivating a “volunteer fire department” for your community to save yourself work and be a more effective community manager. Think of yourself as the Fire Marshal who sets the community policies to ensure cohesiveness -- you can’t douse everyone’s fire, though, which is where your helpers come in handy.
Reach out to your community MVP’s and encourage them to keep an eye out for potential issues and help solve problems and questions that they’re qualified to fix. Provide them guidelines and set up a formal training program so that they can work effectively . And remember to recognize them for their hard work. Volunteers fight fires because they care about their community, but it still feels good to be appreciated - and they certainly deserve it!
Successful communities also focus on keeping their communities healthy and clear from clutter. In a town this might look like a garbage collection program or the removal of graffiti, but it can be just as valuable to an online community. By cleaning up your community you help to make a crisp location optimized for engagement that your organization can be proud of.
Towns and counties have a local paper, and your community should too. We have entered the Golden Age of Newsletters and they provide a great opportunity for you to reach your community by cutting through the clutter of your organization’s activities and presenting the newsworthy items that your members need to know.