Diversity is a global topic that deserves attention. These days, most people know diversity and inclusion is important for a culture and community to thrive, but it can be hard to back up that claim with solid answers -- beyond just knowing, morally, that diversity is important. Since your online community is an extension of your organization -- whether comprised of association members, customers for a certain product or service, or just die-hard fans of a movement -- it makes sense that maintaining diversity in an online community is important, as well.
When someone asks why diversity is important for your community, how should you answer? How can diversity benefit your online community?
Let’s start with what “diversity” means. Diversity goes beyond gender, race or sexual orientation -- in your community, it can include geography of members/clients, age, roles in your organization and experiences. This may seem basic, but Deloitte recently published a study showing that millennials and non-millennials think about diversity differently. Where older generations tend to think of diversity in identifiable demographics (race, religion, etc.), millennials look at diversity more broadly, to include identities, unique experiences and ideas. If you only think about diversity one way, it may not satisfy everyone, harming your efforts right away.
Now that we’ve gone over different definitions of diversity, how does it help your community, day to day?
Just think about it -- if only certain people feel comfortable joining your community, you’re cutting out potential members who don’t feel comfortable participating -- or even signing up to begin with. This is one common argument for gender parity in the workplace and schools; if only 50% of the population are seen as viable candidates, you’re cutting out 50% of the pool that is probably filled with talent. In the end, you’re just short changing your community members.
What if your industry is pretty homogenous and your community reflects that homogeneity? Don’t assume right away that all your members/clients are the same. When you think of a super for a big apartment building in Manhattan, what’s your first thought? Probably a man who is really good at fixing everything. Well, The New York Times recently profiled several unionized supers who are women (and really good at fixing everything). If the supers’ online community is geared only towards men, how likely are these women, with decades of unique experience, likely to participate? By unintentionally excluding any one group or demographic, you and your members are missing out on that expertise. Even if it’s a small group, they’re still important. And, if that group feels comfortable in the community, it will attract more groups and outliers to the industry, helping your community and organization grow even more.
A primary role for any community manager should be to make sure your members feel both supported and challenged (respectfully). If members aren’t supported and able to express themselves, then they won’t contribute. That’s why support and autonomy are important to cultivate. Once members/clients have a level of comfort, they’re able to have real conversations with each other, even challenging and creating tension within the community. Don’t tamp down or avoid those conversations when they start bubbling up -- they’re good for the community, increasing its value and showcasing its maturity.
If diversity -- of opinion, perspective, age, etc. -- isn’t supported and allowed, these important conversations will never arise. How helpful (really) is a community if everyone is always on the same page? Since members find value and learn from these types of conversations -- where several perspectives are shown, where assumptions are questioned and alternative ideas are presented -- it’s no wonder autonomy and diversity help communities grow and retain members.
Diversity not only supports and enhances your community now, ensures longevity and future growth. Millennials, the largest generation in American history, are also the most diverse generation in history. The recent book,, When Millennials Take Over, posits that, since millennials grew up surrounded by diversity, they expect it wherever they go. If you want to make your community feel modern, welcoming and open to Millennials as they continue to flood the workplace, being diverse (and supportive of diversity) is critical.
If you’re using your community to learn more about what your customers really want, then diversity is also key. Not only will an accepting community make people more comfortable to join the group, it will elevate the discussion quality, allowing you to learn more; thus helping the client/customer increase their own satisfaction.
A recent episode from the podcast, This American Life, demonstrated the power of diversity in creating a better product. The story’s producer Zoe Chace sat in a room with a group of seasoned marketers as they taste-tested the next big sandwiches for Hardee’s. During the taste test, she suddenly suggested that hotsauce would really help one sandwich. The marketers, who have tried who knows how many sandwiches, loved the idea and decided to expand on it. If she hadn’t been sitting there, with her own set of diverse experiences and unique taste buds, who knows what would’ve happened. If the second round of development and tasting goes well for this sandwich, we may have her to thank for the next big thing at Hardee’s -- the buffalo mac and cheese burger.