I am lucky to have collaborated with hundreds of organizations on their community building initiatives. That experience gives me a breadth of visibility that very few have had, allowing me to see both the similarities and differences across contexts. Communities are very much like the Leo Tolstoy quote about families “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
And like all failures, we learn a lot more by those communities that are struggling than by looking at those that are thriving, where people happily putter on almost unaware that they are in the fortunate state of being surrounded by support and stimulation.
Here are five of the biggest lessons I have learned over the last decade
1. Communities generate compounding value by changing behaviors
Do you know what behaviors generate the value you are hoping to see? If not, you are likely overwhelmed and have a hard time prioritizing what engagement and community management activities are most valuable. If you don’t know, a good place to start is to understand and diagram out the workflows you hope to impact and how engaging in the community improves those workflows.
2. Communities need different approaches at different stages
New communities need a lot of hands-on, direct relationship building effort. As communities start to thrive and generate their own value, the task of community management changes to governance, infrastructure, and measurement efforts that enable others to engage easily. These two types of work are quite different and often need different resources.
3. Shared value is critical for a sustainable community
We talk about purpose a lot and shared purpose is needed to attract the right set of people to a community. However, if the community is not supporting the creation of value, people will not stick around. The only way to sustain engagement is to continually deliver value that cannot be generated as effectively anywhere else.
4. The risks of not having explicit community management are significant
If no one is responsible, no one is responsible and organizations leave themselves open to all sorts of risk, including communications crises, unacknowledged product and service issues, festering frustration, competitive threats, and more. Communities do not inevitably become toxic environments – they devolve because no one is responsible for ensuring they don’t.
5. Most community management activity is not visible
A misconception of community management is that community staff are responsible for engaging the community themselves. They are, of course, but not in the way many people assume. To be effective at letting the community do its own work, the community team necessarily has to enable people in it to engage each other and solve their own problems, rather than always stepping in themselves. In fact, communities don’t gain efficiency and effectiveness unless the community management team steps back from the limelight. Their primary role is to ensure others in the community are connecting, engaging, and leading rather than doing so themselves.