Eons ago (i.e. before the internet as we know it today) I was a volunteer (read unpaid) Marketing Director for a large national computer users’ group supported by the largest computer hardware and software maker of the day. Corporations paid an annual membership fee to belong and sent attendees to three annual conferences a year to learn about the latest technologies and hopefully influence the large computer giant to develop new products or modify existing ones to better address their needs. We were a community, albeit mostly a face-to-face one, quaint as that may sound nowadays. Needless to say, a big part of my time (and all volunteers’ time) was spent doing content planning. In “Buzzing Communities”, Richard Millington relates how his virtual gamers association grew once he discovered that community content needed to be “content about the community.” As I read his thoughts, I experienced a severe case of deja vu back to my days as a users’ group volunteer. According to Millington, content has 5 goals:
- Create a narrative for the community to allow members to follow what’s happening
- Provide a reason for members to visit the community frequently
- Develop a sense of community among members
- Establish a social order among the community
- Subtly influence the community by emphasizing activities that you wish to encourage
Narrative for the Community
The narrative for the old face-to-face model of community was paper-based communication. Our user group was divided into groups by topics. The conference as a whole and each topic group would produce a newsletter between conferences reviewing the previous conference and highlighting key speakers and events at the next conference. Today, of course, newsletters may be published online, and are more likely to be a series of posts on a social media platform rather than a single publication.
Reason for Members to visit the Community Frequently
Under the old model, we focused on driving attendance at each of our physical conferences; consequently, much energy was spent around determining the correct theme for the next conference based on some emerging trend in the computer industry that our members would need to know about. Similarly, today, community managers must continually be thinking about new topic and discussion themes that can be raised within their communities to keep their members engaged and returning for the “next great thing”.
Develop a Sense of Community – Unique Identity
Within our user group, the different topic areas would try to “recruit” new members. Attendees at the conference would indicate their topic area of interest on their application form and when they arrived at the conference this would be denoted on their name tag by a color coded sticker. This allowed you to see at a glance whether the person standing next to you had some of the same interests and made striking up a conversation with new people easy. The night before the opening keynote, an open bar event was held in a large open conference room with large placards scattered around the room letting you know where to meet other “birds of your feather”. As people gathered around a group dinner would be arranged and you’d go out for dinner together. This was repeated every night of the conference and helped to build strong communities. I believe that this aspect is perhaps harder to build in today’s online communities because of the lack of food and drink, but creating an inviting place that helps “birds of a feather” find each other and “flock together” is still the key.
Establish a Social Order
In the old physical world, at each conference the “President’s Award” would be given to one or possibly a few people who had been long-time contributors to the community and had done something outstanding for that particular conference. The entire volunteer organization had a hierarchy and your status was identified by ribbons attached to your name badge. First time attendees received a special pin for their name badge to recognize them and encourage old-timers to help them out. In the online community our awards are handed out by the community manager through recognition of a job well done or being mentioned in the community news. The structure is less hierarchical, but anyone visiting soon gets to know “who’s who” in the community.
Influence the Right Activities
In the user group, we wanted to convert attendees into volunteers and help them work their way up in the organization. We gave a special presentation at each conference on how what they should do so that they could bring value back to their organization in order to get funding and commitment to return and become a regular attendee and “wear a ribbon”. In online communities, we “like” good posts and comment on postings that engage us and make us want to return to the community, thus encouraging the poster to continue doing what he or she is doing.
What similarities and differences do you see between the old and new community models? Is there anyway to replicate food in the online community?