If you you’d like to be able to answer “Yes” to each of the questions in the Community Checklist, a good start would be to look for a platform that has the following features. Or, if you’re building a platform for your cause, brand, movement, magazine or blog then you should consider building or licensing this functionality.
I’ve presented it as a matrix so you can use it when building/finding a platform. You can use it as a Feature Checklist for your community. And I’ve used TuDiabetes.org, which is on the Ning platform, as an example. It’s a very high-functioning community that uses many of the available Ning features.
A brief description of the feature and why it’s important follows. And I’ve clustered them into broad groups: ‘Interaction Tools’, ‘Content Tools’, ‘Do I Belong? Tools’ and ‘Organizational Tools’. Many of these tools occupy more than one category, of course, but you’ll get the general idea.
|Do I Belong? Tools|
|Rich Member Profiles||✔|
Here’s a bit more detail about each feature.
‘Do I Belong?’ Tools
These are the tools or features that potential recruits can consult to see if this community is right for them. Specifically:
a) Will I fit in? Do the other members look OK or there lurking axe-murderers? Is the membership a bunch of people I could get along with? Or (even) will they reject me?
b) Why should I bother joining? Will I get something out of it? What are the benefits I can expect? What are the goals of the community?
Also, they’re the kind of tools where existing members can use to double-check that it’s still the right place for them. And to help keep the community on track with it’s goals and purpose.
A good, clear and succinct Purpose should have several ingredients (covered in more detail here):
- Declare the goals of the community
- Describe the benefits of belonging
- Be clear about who should join and who shouldn’t
- Be clear about its values.
- Be clear about what’s expected of the members.
A Purpose has at least two ‘purposes’:
- For recruits, it tells them why they should join, what benefits they’ll get, and whether they are a good ‘fit’.
- For existing members it is the lodestone that keeps the organization on track. It keeps the focus on the goals, makes decisions easier about who should join/stay, reminds members of the values, and describes what’s expected of them.
I favor making the Purpose of the community fairly obvious so potential recruits can find it easily. Many relegate it to the ‘About’ section of their site.
2. Rich Member Profiles
These should walk the line between being burdensome to complete, and give enough of a clue about what this person is like so that:
a) A potential member can see what kind of people populate this community and whether they’re likely to get on with them, learn something from them, have fun with them etc.
b) Existing members can check whether this is a person they can have a relationship with, providing a gut check before they send them a message, friend them, follow them etc.
3. Member List
A list of members that potential and existing members can scan and find people they want to connect to, or dive and ‘sample’ what the membership is like. A one sentence ‘headline bio’ of the person a la Twitter and Quora is helpful too.
People join communities for a reason…often to “Do something, learn something, share something or change something” as Meetup claims on its homepage. Make sure you have as many ways to post content as are needed by your members and to provide rich and varied forms of consumption. Ideally, much of this content will be posted by your members, thereby relieving you of the burden and, of course, creating a sense of ownership by members.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
1. Resource Pages
This is the bare minimum. There should be a place where people can find useful links, download informational pdfs etc.
Both a source of content and a means of interaction, Forums are the classic place that people can glean tips, useful member experiences and advice.
Whomever is running the community should probably have a blog. It can be a way of bringing alive the Purpose of the community beyond a simple mission statement. It helps develop a voice and personality for the group. And it is a useful tool to impart critical information to the members in a much less invasive way than the ‘all-member’ email blasts that are sometimes necessary.
4. Member Blogs
These do much of the same job, but of course vastly increase the amount of content plus involve the membership in a way that creates a real sense of ownership of the community.
These are of course a rich form of content that enable members to share experiences, record in a vivid format group events, and document what the community is up to. It’s often what potential recruits will consult first to get a fast read on what the community is about and whether it’s for them. Pictures and video also just make a community’s home page look interesting, vital and engaging.
As I’ve said many times on this blog, without interaction there is no community. Getting people to engage with each other is critical. Without it there will be no stickiness. They need to have venues and tools in which they can learn from each other, hang out with each other, offer advice, give tips, mobilize or simply have fun. And there needs to be a way for people to find, connect, message and form deeper relationships with each other.
The bottom line is that when people form relationships, loyalty is created. Relationships are the glue that binds the community together beyond the utility that a community may offer (learning Spanish, practicing belly dancing etc.).
Forms of interaction should be made available that range from low investment to high investment. More on this in the next post when I’ll plot them on the Commitment Curve.
They really can’t be beaten. There are more sophisticated tools now available (see below), but the sheer simplicity, familiarity and low barrier-to-entry of a chat room/forum means that anyone, no matter how tech literate they are, can read, comment and participate, feel like they’ve contributed, maybe learn something and certainly felt the presence of other members of the group.
If the community is working well, people will inevitably want to reach out and connect with specific members and form a deeper relationship because of a shared interest or need. Messaging allows a ‘no commitment’ way to introduce oneself (and of course is an ongoing useful communication tool). Following is a low investment/low commitment way of keeping in touch with someone’s activities without necessarily having forming a two-way relationship. Friending can actually mean something and enable a two-way relationship if you choose to build the right tools.
3. Live/Recorded Video
This is really the next-big-thing in terms of member interaction.
Being able to see body language, facial expressions, hear voice intonation…especially when it’s live…is the richest form of communication bar meeting up face-to-face. It’s how we’re wired to communicate after all (writing and especially typing came very late in human development!)
Google Hangouts is just one of many ways these tools are being used. Yackit (full disclosure…I’m a co-founder) enables 4+ people to have a live topic-based conversation that can be watched by millions if you so wish. Asynchronous video conversations (such as on the VYou platform) are another way to go. All are probably further up the commitment curve (see the next post) than traditional forums and blogs/commenting but I predict are going to take off very rapidly given the opportunity for rich and vital interaction.
As a community grows, inevitably offshoot communities will spawn that more narrowly satisfy people’s needs and shared interests. For instance, the original NYTech Meetup (now 24,000 members strong) has spawned hundreds of Meetups that cater to those who have a particular interest in video tech, tech for Brands etc. If you can, enable your membership to satisfy more narrow needs whilst staying within your larger community. Tudiabetes.org has 467 sub-groups that cater to Women with Diabetes, those suffering from Neuropathy and so on.
5. Local Groups
Similarly, as a community grows, people who live within the same geography my want to come together, meet and run events. This is to be encouraged! Face-to-face contact is rich and can be the basis of strong enduring communities. There are now Tech Meetups all over the world (NY Tech Meetup was the first and is the largest). Smart Car lovers have a lively community at the heart of which are 247 sub-groups, most of which are local chapters of enthusiasts who get together and organize local events.
6. Event Tools
Getting people together face to face to share in an event is an important engine of enduring relationships and a long term, sustainable community. Meetup is the platform for anyone starting a community predicated on, well, meeting up. Its event and membership tools cant’ be beaten (more full disclosure…I used to work there and am a ‘Meetup Fellow’.) But other platforms have rudimentary event-organizing tools that can be sufficient.
These are the tools that enable the creation of a successful organization. Once you get beyond five or six members, you’re likely to want these things.
1. Leadership Structure
This can be as simple has having one person organizing or running the community or as sophisticated as having assigned roles for a leadership team. As a community grows it’s highly likely you’ll need a Membership Director, an Event organizer, a financial person, a Greeter of new members. Whatever the roles, look for a platform that enables you to create a leadership organization.
Every functional community has rules of some kind that set the norms of behavior of its members. You could try and get by without them for a time, or evolve them over time but at some point you’re likely to need them.
3. Membership dues tool
This is optional. But some communities benefit from having membership dues not just because they provide an income for the community to finance activities, staff etc. but because can be a useful ‘gate’ into the community that accepts those that are likely to be contributors and committed enough to part with even a token amount of cash.
4. Event fees tool
Not unlike membership dues, charging an event fee up front can increase the chance that people actually show up. Many communities make these fees refundable when you do show up which lessens the headache for the organizer who’s gone to the trouble to organize a venue, transport etc.
5. Activity Feed
This is often used to give a sense of vitality and action within the community plus give a sense to members of ‘the others out there’ who also belong.
6. Mobilization tools
If your community is a non-profit that’s fighting for some cause, then tools that enable petitions to be signed, donations collected, house-parties organized and so on is a useful option.
7. Member Categories
Categorizing members into groups with badges and status can be done for many reasons, at least one of which is to create a hierarchy. If your egalitarian soul shrieks at such an idea, remember that people often love the idea of earning status within a group. The whole trend towards gamification is predicated on this. The truth is that smart community leaders have always known the power of belonging to ever-more exclusive inner-circles based on merit.
If you’re community grows to the point where smaller local groups become necessary that ‘chapterization’ can be an option. Using a platform with local group functionality can be a way to do this.