This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts in which I seek to articulate some of the lessons I feel that I’m learning with colleagues about community management, based upon our work to look after and run the National College’s online network. These observations and recommendations are not necessarily things that we have practised to date. Rather, they are are some personal lessons based on our experience so far, good and bad.
1. Anticipate the unanticipated
Whether your online community platform is bespoke or off-the-shelf, you will have designed or positioned certain parts of your service to anticipate and encourage certain types of behaviour. However, other behaviours which you had not anticipated or encouraged will happen too. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The unanticipated behaviour need not ever be negative. It’s simply likely to be behaviour you hadn’t set out to encourage. You need to be prepared for this, which leads me on to point 2:
2. Respond to emerging behaviour
Developing your service in response to emerging behaviour is good, solid practice for software development. It’s also a sensible way to develop your approaches to the management of your community. In the early days of an online community, it’s very important for you to get a real feel for the tone, the behaviour and motivation of your community members before you really solidify your approaches to how the community is to be managed and nurtured. It’s also vitally important to set the tone of the community where possible. Nevertheless, the behaviour you had not anticipated might be behaviour you want to promote or even behaviour you need to intervene to modify. Either way, it’s important in the early days of a community to reflect very regularly about the value for your members in the emerging behaviour you are seeing and to evolve your community management practice in response to that behaviour.
3. Create space and opportunities to feature, promote and editorialise
While community managers should seek to model appropriate behaviour and tone in their individual contributions within the community and in their various communications with members, it’s the spaces and opportunities you have available to you to actively promote certain content and to editorialise which will have a greater impact on the tone and the engagement within the community. While you can build the whizziest dynamic system designed to promote the discovery of the new and the most popular user-generated activity across your community, the consequences of lesson 1 – the arrival of the unanticipated – mean that those channels and menus can be populated by stuff that is not necessarily in the best interests of your community. So, make sure that you have some simple ways to really promote activity and content, some of it your own editorial, that is going to enhance engagement and take your community in the right direction.
4. Promote member-generated content as early as you can
A no-brainer really. Early on, when you’ve got some really substantial, stimulating content contributed by members – a great question asked, a meaty discussion begun, a purposeful group set up – give it your backing and promote it prominently to all members. In so doing, the members who contributed to the activity gain some recognition, the tone of your community is influenced by the authentic voices of members and the content promoted gains more feedback and contribution from other members.
5. Reduce the barrier to entry to your community
Not all of your potential constituency are necessarily comfortable entering or participating in online community spaces. If the first step into your community is to join an online group or to contribute to an extensive public discussion, that may be a step too far. Can you offer a type of activity or content or functionality in your community space that’s more lightweight, that allows a potential member to engage quickly and easily without laying themselves on the line or making a substantial commitment? It could be a vote, a tip of the day, a place to ask quick questions, a way to indicate approval of something or to follow or be alerted about something. From small acorns oak trees can grow. Are you making it easy for your members to take small steps into your community? And once they have, do you have a plan for how you might engage them further?
Image CC BY Surian Soosay