There are many free and paid technology options for starting an online community. While choosing software it is important to consider: 1) ease of use rather than just a feature checklist, 2) access to data, and 3) compliance with the regulations and standards of your industry.
We have seen time and again that building and sustaining a vibrant community is much harder than just starting one, so plan accordingly. Anything that takes more than 1 to 2 clicks to join tends to have less uptake by potential community members. While choosing a solution, it may seem like getting more people signed up to the community is the main task that will get a drum beat going, but what tends to be more important (and challenging!) is to get those who do sign up to come back again and again. Make sure you budget your resources in terms of community management and content strategy accordingly and that you consider ways to make your community “sticky” for its members. We’ve seen that the most important thing is that the community provides value to its members in exchange for their time.
Having a steady stream of posts or new content for community members to interact with seems to be key, and the easiest way to build and maintain that is to find ways to encourage your community to be both the consumer and supplier.
Over time, you will find that knowing who is “disengaged” is more important than knowing who is most engaged. Typically, these less engaged community members are your most “vulnerable” and at risk of disengaging entirely (i.e., finding a new job, dropping out, abandoning your product). It’s important also to recognize that “engagement” is often way more complex than meets the eye. Looking at a community “feed”, it is easy to tell who is overtly engaged. You can see these people posting or commenting with others.
However, imagine someone who logs in 10 times a day to read posts and comments, but who rarely actively participates. These types of people are often referred to as “lurkers” because they are interested in the content and learn from it, but interact little with others. This kind of engagement shouldn’t be dismissed as unimportant.
In fact, it’s actually somewhat critical for people in a healthy community to listen more than they talk!
Having a clear data access plan is also important. Planning ahead will save you headaches over data collection, will help you learn how best to manage your community, and will make it so that you can properly justify (or question) your investments in the community. Some forethought about your community data will also put you on a much safer path towards regulatory compliance. You should definitely be aware of local regulations that are relevant to your community, such as FERPA for universities in the US. After doing the work of getting a good community going, you do not want to find out your use is non-compliant. On the topic of regulations, you should also consider whether the platform is compliant with user accessibility standards in your area (e.g., ADA and WCAG 2.0 AA compliance). A number of American universities have settled large lawsuits related to failing to provide accessible experiences for their students.
The Ground Rules:
Even the best communities need some leadership to sustain themselves. It is important that you set up community guidelines before you launch. Communicate what is acceptable and what is not. When considering a product, look for options to automatically block certain content, for reporting tools that community members can use to self-enforce community standards, and for ways to bring down disruptive posts and comments. If you create a healthy community, the number of times you need this functionality will be minimal, but easily being able to moderate your community will reduce the negative impact of a random bad actor.
You will be surprised how well communities behave once the “ground rules” and “intent” are set and, most importantly, as community members begin to feel like they are part of a valuable community.
One strategy we have seen work well is to assign community managers to each community. These are often best assigned from a pool of active users with some seniority or previous use within a similar community. For example, we have seen communities of incoming freshman benefit immensely from sophomore community managers who were active in their cohort community as freshmen. The job of managers is not to police or to take a heavy hand in directing the community, but rather invigorate good conversations and help forge more connections. They should behave like community members and think about ways their behavior can drive better and higher engagement from other members. We have also seen that it helps to define and measure their impact to assess the outcomes of their various engagement strategies. Some people will naturally be better community managers, but measuring their impact can help them improve.
Part of the reason for having a data plan is to enable community “health checks”. We would suggest that administrators access data on usage (i.e. unique users, number of logins, content views, posts, comments, reactions, etc.) to understand whether the number and activity level of community members is growing or shrinking. Surveys and polls in the community can also be a good way to get direct user feedback on your strategies and how you might add more value for your community.
Listening to your community, both in terms of the data it is producing and their direct feedback, should be the single most important focus of these health checks.
If you are using communities in formal learning environments (i.e., courses), it is imperative that adequate support is provided to faculty and students. There are bound to be questions around what is expected or how best to use a technology platform, and a poor support system might sour the experience quickly. Depending on the number and size of the communities you expect to manage, we would recommend using a ticketing management system to manage customer support issues. Many vendors offer differing levels of support, and it is important that you consider the expected level of user support as you establish your community. It may go without saying, but it’s difficult to have a thriving community if your users can’t solve technical issues that prevent them from participating.
Brian Verdine, Ph.D. is the Head of Client Success at Yellowdig. Brian received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. He went on to a postdoctoral position in the Education department at the University of Delaware where he later became, and continues to be, an Affiliated Assistant Professor. Write to: email@example.com