This post is part of a series looking at what I believe to be the five key principles for creating long-lasting community connections at scale. You can read all of the posts in this series in this archive.
The second of the five principles for creating community connections at scale is support. This includes support in multiple areas – both internal and external to the community – so let’s dive into what that looks like for a community at scale.
You need to ask yourself…what do my community’s members need?Tweet
As with the first principle, safety, this may seem like a fairly basic thing to focus on, but it’s far more nuanced than you might initially expect. You need to ask yourself – what do my community’s members need? How can I support them as they become more active in the community? How can I support them in their endeavours outside of the community?
Those questions are really broad, so here are some key areas to focus on as you work on providing greater support to your community members:
Growth within the Community
The first and most apparent focus area is the community itself – supporting your members as they become further involved in your community. This includes things like onboarding, documentation and anything else that can assist people in becoming more integrated into the life of the community.
There’s a lot you can do in this regard, so long as you remain intentional about how you engage with community members. Here are a few practical ideas for implementation:
Joining a new community is frequently an incredibly daunting experience. For any new member, there’s a lot to take in when they first join – the UI of your platform, the rules for engaging, the channels for different topics, the number of ongoing conversations, and so much more. These things may seem straightforward enough for you, as the community manager, to handle, but you have a unique birds-eye view of it all – very few other people in the community will share your perspective on these things.
In order to combat the feeling your new community members can have of being intensely overwhelmed, you need to carefully evaluate what happens when they first arrive in your community spaces and be thoughtfully proactive about creating smooth onboarding flows for them. A great way to start this process off is by signing up for a new account yourself and getting a feel for how things currently stand. Better yet, ask a friend to join your community platform, watch them do it, and ask them to give you feedback on how it feels – this is commonly referred to usability testing and is a great way to get a real sense for how people interact with a digital space.
Pay attention to what you learn from these experiences and then be intentional about making the processes as smooth as possible.
Do people get overwhelmed by number of channels available to them when joining your Discord server? Consider revealing new channels to them on a schedule rather than all at once.
Are there multiple platforms for people to interact in your community? Create a landing page that highlights the differences and benefits of each one.
Is your Slack group so active that the live conversations are too much for newcomers to keep up with? Create channels that are dedicated to discussions for newcomers and only highlight their use for all new accounts.
There is plenty you can do here and it all starts with real usability testing to find out exactly what needs to be improved in the new member experience. This post from Andrew Claremont on the Commsor blog is a fantastic resource for some practical onboarding ideas.
A smooth onboarding flow is no doubt incredibly valuable and it needs to be followed up with a smooth flow of greater involvement. The best way to get started with creating this kind of ongoing flow for your members is by showing them just what further involvement looks like. I like to do this in as visual a way as possible so people can see at a glance how they get from where they are now to where they want to be in the future. An apt visual metaphor for this is a ladder of involvement – here’s an example from the WordPress community – that illustrates the different levels of involvement and shows you how you can move from one level to the next.
Some other visual metaphors for this are circles of commitment and, one that I find particularly effective, the community commitment curve. I’m not going to go into each metaphor in depth here since those links already do a great job of explaining them, but the core of the matter is that you can pick whatever imagery you like to display this concept to your community. The important thing is that it is accurate, clear, and well-documented – people need to know what the stages are and how they can move into each one.
So you have your onboarding flow established, and you and you have your ladder of involvement laid out along with all the necessary documentation to make the whole process as clear as possible. You could stop there and pat yourself on the back for doing a fantastic job of making your community involvement path incredibly clear for both new and existing members, but you’re a community manager so let’s be honest – you know that your work is never truly finished.
Start a community forum.Tweet
The next stage here is something that I’m going to repeat throughout this post: start a community forum. Or, if you already have one, dedicate portions of it to fostering deeper engagement practices. A community forum not only provides an ideal location for asynchronous communication, it also relieves a lot of the pressure that new members often feel from live interactions. Dedicating a portion of your community forum to onboarding and engagement allows your community members to ask and answer questions more thoughtfully than a live chat platform does. It also allows people in your community to help each other out in tangible ways – this will have a significant impact on connections between community members.
Since I’m all about open-source, here are some wonderful open-source platforms you can use to host a community forum at a very low cost and still own your community platform without giving away your content to a third-party host: bbPress, Discourse, Forem, and Invision Community.
Supporting life experiences
A community is about so much more than people connecting over a shared interest. I mean, it is that, but as people connect over that interest they will find more and more common ground. They will discover multiple ways that their lives overlap and many areas where they can support and care for each other. Another great way you can support your community members is by supporting their life goals and experiences. Aside from simply helping people through life, this will make your community a more personal and meaningful place for them – it will increase their engagement and deepen their connections with other in the community.
That all sounds great, but what could it look like in practice? Here are some ideas for how you can offer this kind of life support to your community:
I told you this would come up again in this post (and it won’t be the last time). if you haven’t already launched an asynchronous forum for your community then now is the time to do it. The option to communicate asynchronously with no limit on the length of responses does so much for the ability of your community members to form intimate connections with each other that you’ll wonder why you never did it sooner.
In the context of supporting each other in life experiences, a forum allows for nuanced discussions focused on specific topics, provides the ability to communicate across time zones, and allows for people to communicate more easily in a non-native language. Live chat platforms are highly limiting in all those areas, so if you want to foster a sense of support between your community members then launch a community forum. You know you want to.
A forum is a great place to start, but to make it truly effective you need to be thoughtful and intentional about how you structure the topics and sub-forums. You can do this regardless of your community platform – create Slack channels for particular topics, create forum categories for certain things, or whatever method your platform provides for this kind of thing. In fact, if your community platform does not provide this feature then I’d highly recommend finding a new one – the links above will be a good starting point.
Sub-communities, or segments, within your community space provide a way for people to hold more focused discussions about a broader range of topics. It allows them to discuss things that are entirely unrelated to your community’s focus area and to guide those conversations themselves. Providing these kinds of spaces is essential to enabling community members to be supported through all of life’s experiences.
Finally, when enabling the creation of sub-communities, you also need to consider allowing for private spaces where people can engage with each other. This may initially feel antithetical to building transparent communities (I know we really struggled with this in the WordPress community program) but private spaces do a whole lot to encourage safe discussions that otherwise would not take place.
If people know that their conversations aren’t going to be public they will naturally feel more comfortable sharing intimate details they may not publish otherwise. This is an excellent way to give your community members a chance to support each other in all areas of their lives and shows that you have been purposeful and considerate when designing your community space.
Growth in the Community’s Focus Area
We’ve looked at supporting people’s growth within the community and more broadly in general life experiences, so for this final section we’ll look at something of a mix of the two. Every community has some kind of focus area – a topic or shared interest that created the initial impetus for the community to be formed in the first place.
No surprises here and I don’t think I need to extol the virtues of asynchronous forums a whole lot more in this post…but that isn’t going to stop me. Again, the focus here is creating sub-communities within your forum – give people a space where they communicate about the topics that interest them the most. The key difference here is that you need to be intentional about the spaces you make available so you can foster conversations that encourage educational engagement that relate to the focus area of your community. Pick out topics that you know are relevant to the interests of your community members and seed discussions that lead people towards mutual learning. I’ve written before about seeding conversations and will be talking about community learning later on in this series.
While this topic will come up again in this series as an aspect of one of the five principles (spoiler alert!) it’s especially relevant when talking about how you can support your community members. People join communities to connect over a shared interest and, in many cases, that shared interest is a core part of their career or livelihood. If you can provide educational materials and a learning experience that helps them to learn new skills in that focus area then you’ll be showing them real, tangible support that goes a long way to fostering deeper connections between community members.
Couple those available materials with focused sub-communities and you’ll be winning. You’ll be providing practical training for your community members that you know will help them succeed beyond your community, since you’ll be focusing on the reason for them joining the community in the first place. In 2020 I made some predictions about what communities will look like post-COVID and this kind of educational integration is a core element of that forecast. It’s also something I’m actively engaged in for my current work.
If your community members know that you care about their wellbeing and lives outside of your community spaces then you’ll immediately see huge progress towards greater engagement and deeper connections.Tweet
I’m sure you already have a strong desire to support your community members, so I hope this has given you a framework for thinking about how you can practically implement supporting features in your community platform. At the end of the day, if your community members know that you care about their wellbeing and lives outside of your community spaces then you’ll immediately see huge progress towards greater engagement and deeper connections.
Move on to the next post in this series, covering the third principle of shared experiences.