Digital Community Organizing Tips from Silicon Valley Startups

In the wake of the 2016 election, many community organizers have been inundated with support and the communication channels that worked for them in the past (a modest Facebook or Google group) have become overwhelmed. When organizers look for help, recommendations on how to scale these communication channels are few and far between. To look for solutions organizers must look further afield, and when it comes to scaling and managing digital communications, there is no better place to look than Silicon Valley startups.

Email Transparency

About 4 years ago, Stripe posted their initial blog post on “Email Transparency”. Over the next 2 years a number of other startups followed suit. The key insight was that opening up email to everyone improved information sharing and allowed for greater self-organizing within the company; exactly the kind of traits that community organizers look to create. What follows is a set of recommendations, based on the experiences of these startups, and applied to online communities of various sizes.

Founders (1–10 members)

In the initial stage of a new community, communication is often ad-hoc, done via one-off emails to all or a subset of the other founding organizers. At this point, this level of communication is all that is needed. There is a high level of shared context and everyone knows who should be involved in which conversations.

Initial Interest (10–50 members)

Once the organization gains traction adding a mailing list, such as a Google group, becomes important for two reasons. First, as new members join, it can be easy to accidentally omit them from an email thread. These oversights are understandable but can be off-putting to folks as join your organization. Additionally, having an email list allows new members to go back and look at previous conversations, allowing them to quickly come up to speed.

Beginning to Specialize (50–100 members)

Once the group hits this they often begin to broaden their focus. Committees or interest groups begin to form and the communication channels need to reflect this new structure. The key here is to make use of a simple naming scheme that can scale as the organization scales. The organization should already have a myorg@groups.google.com email list and we can extend that by creating a new set of mailers that includes the committee's name e.g. myorg-committee@groups.google.com. The benefit of the naming convention is that committees are easy to search for within email inboxes or Google Groups since all the email lists start with the same prefix. These new email lists are for communication within the committee and help reduce the amount of traffic on the main email list. Any important information that the committee needs to share with the rest of the organization can be done over the umbrella distribution list.

Its also worth noting that individual members can use the Google group’s email delivery preference to help limit the noise. Members can chose to get a daily summary email or a combined email update email rather than getting an email for each and every every new message.

Google Group Email Delivery Preferences

Managing the Noise (100–500 members)

As the group continues to grow, and the committees become more active and numerous, a new issue crops up. The committee specific Google groups helped to separate out the communication within each committee, but at this scale the volume of email between the various committees becomes overwhelming. All the various committees posting updates to myorg@groups.google.com begins to render that list unworkable and members find themselves sifting through a mountain of email to find the updates from the few committees they care about. Additionally, the inter-committee conversations start to make up a sizable amount of traffic on the individual myorg-committee@groups.google.com lists, making it hard for the committees to focus on their committee projects without being overwhelmed by external requests.

To solve these issues we can supplement the committee Google groups with two additional types of email lists; an announce list and an ask list. If our initial committee email list was myorg-committee@groups.google.com we now add a myorg-committee-ask@groups.google.com and a myorg-committee-announce@groups.google.com email lists.

The committee’s announce list is where they publish any organization wide information. By moving this content off of the general myorg@groups.google.com list, organization members are able to subscribe to just the committees they are interested in and main list is freed up for more valuable conversation. The committee’s ask list serves as a location for anyone to go “ask” a committee for help or information. A few committee members should be designated to monitor and respond to “ask” requests so as to not bother the rest of the committee. By moving these “asks” off the committee’s myorg-committee@groups.google.com list, it frees up that list for more valuable committee communication.

Marketing to Your “Customers”

A final piece of this puzzle revolves around active vs passive members. Many organizations will have a core group of active members and a broader group of passive members who may show up for events but are not involved on a regular basis. The former group can be thought of as “employees” and we’ve touched on a number of techniques for scaling “employee” communication above. The latter group is better thought of as “customers” and organizations are best served by taking a marketing approach with them. While there is a never-ending well of content marketing resources online, starting with a simple newsletter tool like MailChimp can be extremely effective. It is free for up to 2,000 users and 12,000 emails per month and it comes with signup forms that can be added to an organization’s website or Facebook page. Additionally, MailChimp includes email automation capabilities that allow you to create “drip” campaigns that automatically welcome and follow-up with new members who sign up.

Stealing from Silicon Valley

Hopefully, these relatively straightforward patterns, pulled from the experience of Silicon Valley startups, will help community organizations scale while maintaining low communication overhead and keeping both their “employees” and their “customers” engaged.