You may have just started your journey to build a community and laying the foundation is your first step! Lucky for you, the concept of “online communities” has been around almost as long as the internet itself. Online communities began in forums typically on news sites or in AOL chat rooms 😉 We have come a long, long way since those days to say the very least, but the foundations are there and many lessons learned by others exist to help you think strategically.
It’s “easy” to build an audience because an audience is just a large group of people casually paying attention to your brand, but building a community takes long, hard work for one very big reason – belonging.
Types of Community
Most commonly online you’ll find five types of communities (and some can be a hybrid) as you think about the foundation for why someone is apart of your community.
- Action (members want change)
- Circumstance (something brought members together)
- Interest (things in common such as hobbies or entertainment)
- Place (members met at a particular spot such as college)
- Practice (professional or development related)
People join communities to feel a part of something, to network, and/or to learn something from a peer or thought leader. The most successful communities will be densely connected and frequently visited, and may even have offshoots of smaller communities over time. When you’re just starting a community identifying the need early on is critical. Your “need” will help define how you create value for the members in your community and how you will provide the best solution to create a true sense of belonging. For example, the foundations of a few different community types:
- A nonprofit organization may start a Community of Action. Gather people to discuss information surrounding a particular cause, and gather those individuals together for protests
- A university may start a Community of Place in another city for alumni to gather and reminisce (and maybe also donate)
- An entertainment brand focused on comic books may bring people together in a Community of Interest for members to discuss artists and characters
Knowing which community you have will allow you to think about the proper features you may want to offer in your community online and how to engage members.
The Community Commitment Curve
Understanding and perspective is half the battle. Because once you internalize the foundation of the community you’re creating, you can strategically align the best way to excite and activate the people inside your network to drive engagement.
One of the best tools for this is the Commitment Curve, which divides up a timeline for you beginning with discovering and onboarding and then engaging and leading. Attached to those steps are the types of engagement you can expect from your members. Carrie Melissa Jones, Community Strategist, has assembled an example of what this looks like for community building:
In the beginning you may have to set low expectations and low barriers of entry your members. Having them follow you on social media accounts, signing up for newsletters, finding your website and reading the content are all first steps that start this process and lay the foundation for what you can build on in the future.
The next steps on your members’ journey is to begin types of engagement that may look like creating their first post, or attending their first event; both of which are still easy tasks but require a bit of confidence on the members’ behalf. Many members may stay in the discovery and onboarding area for a very long time and that’s ok! Only a select few may move on to the last phase which requires high commitment to lead activities. Try creating your own Commitment Curve related to your organization which might include different tasks.
The Community Maturity Model
As you’re putting your plan together, defining the type of community you want or expect to have, and are outlining the commitments necessary in your curve, the last tool in your toolbox will be putting together the overall structure.
The Community Maturity Model was created by the Community Roundtable in 2009 and has been modified over the years to represent what we know about building community from beginning to full growth. This model aims to plan for and assess the community performance over time. It’s possible that building can take 12-18 months before you begin to see the last two stages of community and network through repetitive behaviors and constant nurturing. For our purposes of launching a community and laying the foundation, we’ll focus on stages 1 and 2.
In the beginning (Hierarchy) much of what you will do as a community manager is feed the conversations and create the environment. You’ll provide structure and rules and expectations early on. It is not expected that the members will be very talkative or active as it’s still very new. As new members join it’s important that their onboarding experience is easy and they are encouraged to start posting. The Community Manager may get to know people and ask them to take on tasks or post on their behalf. As more and more people do this, you should begin to see a dialogue and more activity and over time the community manager can take a back seat.
There’s a lot that goes into the beginning stages of community building that truly make your foundation something special. Taking the time now to research will help you plan, prepare set you up for success to increase the connectivity and happiness to the people you care most about; ultimately achieving your goal of creating a true sense of belonging.