Participate, Inc.
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Participate, Inc.

6 Strategies to scale (and engage) your community of practice

Whether you have an established community of practice or you’re just getting started, these six strategies will take your engagement to the next level.

Organizations of all markets and sizes are facing a unique challenge: how to engage stakeholders, volunteers and/or members online. Moving programs and events online as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic was the first step, but what do we do after the initial novelty wears off? How can we continue to build community enthusiasm and create a safe space where members see value and want to engage?

Whether you are apart of an organization with an established online community or are just getting started, use these six strategies to take your community to the next level:

  • Design with the end in mind.
  • Group or cohort your members.
  • Know your key measures of success.
  • Choose a community platform that focuses on creation, not dissemination.
  • Leverage synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities.
  • Empower community members as leaders of the community.

1. Design with the end in mind.

Communities, at their core, should be tied to a common domain or purpose. They should inspire members to take action with what they have gained from the community, all while building meaningful connections and being a space of collaboration.

When developing an engagement strategy for your community, start with the action you want members to take. This concept, often referred to as backward design, encourages community managers to consider the impact on practice before and after, not just during, an event or experience. Instead of approaching engagement by starting with content (what information will we present or how can we structure our community) the backward design process helps map out the intentional outcomes of your community.

The stages of backward design are:

Stage 1: Establish the purpose and desired results.

  • What knowledge or skills do you want your community members to have?
  • What will your members be able to do as a result of your community experiences?
  • How will they apply what is learned in their own lives, careers and communities?
  • What is the ultimate call to action for this experience?
  • How will this experience help them solve problems that matter to them?

Stage 2: Identify the evidence of learning and engagement.

  • How will a member demonstrate a level of understanding and engagement?
  • How will you know if a member needs additional support?
  • How will those pieces of evidence be useful for the member’s daily practice?

Stage 3: Plan the activities and resources.

  • What activities, experiences and lessons will lead to achieving the desired results and will spark community members to take action?

Source: Ubd in a nutshell, Wiggins, 2006

2. Group or cohort your members.

As communities evolve, their members’ needs and interests may also evolve over time. Members who have been in your community for months or years may be at a different point in their learning journeys than new members.

Use group or cohort features within your community platform to group members based on interests, involvement in specific programs, volunteer groups, etcetera. Once you group members, engage them in the content and experiences most relevant to them. Members are more likely to participate in the community if it provides value to them and creates connection. Group and communicate with members in a way that sparks conversation and relationship building.

3. Know your key measures of success.

When most organizations set out to create an online community, they envision success as the number of members, discussion thread comments or likes. But not all measures of success are quantitative. Think about the shareability, impact on practice and what a member does as a result of what they have learned from the community, not just what they have clicked on or read. Track that members are taking action and changing their practice as a result of the community. Consider how your organization’s breadth and name recognition have grown as a result of their impact too.

4. Choose a community platform that focuses on creation, not just dissemination.

One of the biggest differences between building an audience and building a true community is a focus on practice. Anyone can use a Facebook group to grow a user base. But not many can engage that user base to take an action if members don’t feel connected or that they have a voice. In Communities of Practice, however, a community’s purpose is to nurture and encourage an impact on an individual’s practice. From crowdsourcing ideas around climate change to engaging educators on teaching strategies, each Community of Practice should aim to be a space of new knowledge creation.

Transforming your idea of a community as a space for creation, not content dissemination or knowledge management changes the mindset of members too. When members are encouraged to share ideas and network with others, they will be more engaged than if they simply came into your community space just for information. At Participate, our Community of Practice platform supports partners of all sizes and social impact initiatives to create CoPs that inspire new knowledge and create a lasting impact.

Illustration of a Community of Practice approach

5. Leverage synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities.

Online and in-person events each have their own unique affordances and, as an intentional community designer or facilitator, you can leverage those affordances for impact.

The matrix below helps identify the ways in which you can engage community members through various mediums, collaboration styles, independent or collaborative projects and more.

Asynchronous vs. synchronous activity chart for a Community of Practice

As you design experiences for your members, consider the synchronous and asynchronous activities that will help members understand concepts, inspire creation and spark conversation. When is it best to let people go through things on their own, at their own pace (Asynchronous Individual)? If you are bringing people together at the same time, how can you take advantage of that and allow members to build off of each other’s ideas (Synchronous Collaborative)?

For example, if you are hosting a monthly virtual Zoom call to talk through a new initiative of your nonprofit (Synchronous Collaborative), how might you provide a space for discussion and collaboration after the call to keep the conversation going and spark further ideas (Asynchronous Collaborative)?

6. Empower community members as leaders of the community.

One of the best ways to create sustained engagement is to empower and train community members to become leaders of your community. Build cohorts of leaders who can take on community responsibilities, alleviating your work while also supporting further growth of those members.

A way to get started with this idea is to celebrate member achievements on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. See which community members are most engaged and use that to your advantage. Highlight those members in spotlights, organizational newsletters and/or social media posts, and invite them to be facilitators and leaders of the community. They will know firsthand what members are looking to learn or connect around and can design experiences and discussions based on those needs. Empower these leaders to become peer mentors for other community members, relying on them as a guide and cheerleader through community experiences.

With these strategies, your online community can increase engagement, deepen connections and create impact.

Mark Otter is CEO at Participate, Inc. Follow him on LinkedIn or on Twitter @markjotter.

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