“What does [connectivity] and [community building] look like?” was a question on Satya Nadella’s mind at the height of the pandemic. Nadella reminisced about the two minutes before or after meetings when he would connect with colleagues and build the rapport that is vital to every strong relationship and cohesive community.
As we relish this gradual return to normality, we know that society as we knew it shall never be the same. A large part of society and culture has to do with the networks we are a part of: it is in our nature to cooperate, form tribes, band together, and simply, to be part of a community. “Communities” refer to groups of people who share some common characteristics, traits or experiences. These can be formed anywhere, from schools to workplaces, from parks to bars. As being part of a community now inevitably comprises some virtual interaction of sorts, the challenges of community building have become more nuanced, and therefore, more complex. A singular approach will no longer be effective.
The problem with webinars
Let’s consider the community event: a cornerstone of the community building playbook. The formula has always been obvious — create the environment for spontaneous pre-event chatter, deliver strong content to engage the audience during the event, and provide post-event refreshments to increase “dwell-time” and “networking opportunities”.
The bad news is that every premise behind the components of a successful event is being challenged by behaviours cultivated by Covid-19 webinars.
Firstly, our communities have become decisive in their punctuality. They log on and off at precisely the ordained hours for the event. Secondly, our communities are shorter with their attention spans and tolerance for uninteresting content: recall the number of webinars during which we conducted other tasks. Finally, we would be mistaken to believe that events can revert to physical gatherings without a virtual alternative. Our communities have tasted the functionality of the virtual world and expect the option to be the norm. It has become more difficult than ever to encourage ‘dwell-time’ once the main event has concluded.
The problem with not being able to meet
The above is only one aspect of how our lives have been stripped of the community experience. It applies to communities of all shapes and sizes: social and religious groups, student groups, colleges, incubator programmes, corporate and trade associations, etc. In these instances, meet-ups are the essence of connectivity and community building.
Let’s use college communities as an example. A collegiate experience is as much social as it is academic. With the prevalence of home-based learning, the academic train chugs on with the help of established learning management systems and the use of video conferencing tools for online delivery. However, the social aspect is lost: how does a first year student make friends if she has not met anyone on campus? As with the insufficiency of webinars as a substitute for events, online classes do not fully replicate the offline experience of being on campus. Slowly, social isolation will creep in and the sense of belonging shall be chipped away.
However, while the pandemic may have changed our behaviours, it has certainly not changed the fundamental principles and objectives that we have as community managers:
- To facilitate interactions within the community.
- To enable the members to take advantage of, and contribute to, this community.
- For the members to achieve a sense of belonging.
Therefore, our role as community managers in this new world is to rethink the way we achieve these objectives starting from first principles, and rebuild from the ground up. Trying to build a community using pre-pandemic approaches and tools for a post-pandemic world would merely be squeezing a square peg into a round hole. Should we fail to meet these objectives, the raison d’être of the community is lost and people will leave the community.
The answer to meet these objectives is not simple Zoom, or better equivalents of Zoom. Video conferencing and webinars were a necessary stop-gap for the crisis. We had lost physical meeting rooms as a medium for exchange and communication, and those tools became our remedy. While online delivery channels address the immediate connectivity needs (the one-way consumption from producer to consumer) the long-tail risk of churning members remains. In this new world, we must go deeper than just substituting one medium for another — or as Nadella described, “replacing one dogma with another dogma.” Rather, we must challenge ourselves to achieve those unchanged objectives with both rigour and creativity.
What do we need to meet these objectives?
The clues to what we need can be found in communities that have endured challenges arguably greater than Covid-19. Religious groups, educational institutions, and trade associations have found ways to re-invent themselves over the centuries to enable community building. What have they learnt?
- Maintain a private network: With a single recognisable identifier of membership, it creates a private network of qualified people (e.g. no Zoom-bombing).
- Provide / facilitate content exchange: People are innately curious and are interested in relevant, frequent and engaging content — pique their interest and members will keep checking in (e.g. updates, posts, talks).
- Foster an open community: So that everyone in membership can interact easily, to create occasions or channels for convenient communication (e.g. student dormitories; weekly ‘cell’ groups or bible studies; monthly trade association meetings).
- Understand communities are functional and social: People get together for various reasons and are not 100% functional (e.g. Nadella wanting that two minutes before and after meetings; universities being social as much as academic; churches and mosques being about friendship as much as it is about faith).
- Recognise communities transcend geographies: In a globalised world, groups are no longer limited to physical proximity (e.g. a regional trade association; a global accelerator programme; an MNC).
How do we meet our objectives in a post-Covid world?
As Benedict Evans describes in a recent piece, “at some point many of [our] meetings will turn back into coffees…but video will remain.”² Our solution to post-pandemic community building will inevitably be technological. But the answer is clearly not just video-conferencing tools. There must be more on offer if we are to apply what we have learnt from communities that have endured over time. The answer must be found in technology designed specifically with community building in mind.
In real terms, we see this service as a SaaS solution that is able to replicate offline communities online, or more precisely, a “Community-as-a-Service” (CaaS) solution.
It is table stakes that a CaaS solution inherits all benefits of a SaaS. It should be a turnkey solution out of the box where we would not need to worry about what is under the hood. We should not need to develop and maintain our own platform. The works!
How would a CaaS look? Simply, it would comprise product features that mirror what communities have learnt are essential to community building, virtually.
- Authenticated platform: A singular platform for an entire managed community to be on. A private authenticated network accessible only by qualified individuals of a community.
- Social as a core tenet: Social network functionality to post and share interesting content on a feed for content discovery.
- Optimise with data: Ability for community managers to keep tabs on their community and inform strategy via real-time insights to keep track of engagement by way of session time, user logins, trending content, etc.
- Centralised communication hub:
(i) Community manager to members: To disseminate community updates via custom push notifications; pushing different content to different sub-groups within the community (think email mailing list functionality, just not via email).
(ii) Members to members: Native chat for community members to connect with other qualified members via a searchable directory (without having to add a person as a friend / connection). This fosters an open community and overcomes the issue of not having first being acquainted in person.
(iii) Members to community manager: Instant feedback through survey and poll features (quantitative), and native chat for members to DM their community managers (qualitative).
What’s out there?
The idea of CaaS was relatively new to us until Luke’s involvement with Raftr. Since joining, he’s had many conversations with community managers to better understand how they’ve adapted with Covid-19. The “chat group + social media + webinar” combination appeared to be the default. For larger communities, Slack and Discord were popular paid options of chat to overcome unwieldy chat groups on WhatsApp. As for social media, Facebook groups were generally go-to options (though not in every country). However, many commented that engagement was low, often attributing it to the fact that they were competing for their members’ attention from a slew of unrelated posts. Some dedicated private networks (often those organised around common interests) used TeamSnap or GroupMe to manage their groups.
Raftr is optimised for college communities and has tools for college administrators, faculty, and student leaders to engage with their student bodies. Its mission is much deeper than simply creating a better online service; rather, it addresses some fundamental human needs and wants. It is a mission more pertinent than ever in this post-Covid world. And should Raftr succeed, we might, perhaps, begin to answer some of the intrinsic questions of humanity that Evans poses in his article — Why, exactly, are we sending someone a video stream and watching another one? Why am I looking at a grid of little thumbnails of faces? And most importantly of all, why am I on the call in the first place?