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None of the technology released in the past five years has made us better at building communities.
It’s made it easier to build communities, but it hasn’t made us better at building communities.
In fact, much of it has proved a costly distraction that has reduced the chances of us succeeding.
We say that with confidence. We’ve crunched, munched, and otherwise stared at numbers until our eyes bleed. Technology tweaks, barring a correction for an earlier mistake, rarely have a big long-term impact upon a community’s level of growth and activity.
We’ve had organizations invest millions (the record was $2.1m) on a new community platform to revive a fading community. That’s a lot of money to waste. That’s at the ‘ people getting fired’ level of money.
There is a far better approach to making our communities more successful. It doesn’t involve big technology overhauls or spammy marketing pushes.
It’s creating a sense of community.
In this post, I’m going to outline why the sense of community is the missing piece of the community puzzle, the power of a strong sense of community, and how we can use social science to guide us.
The closest thing we have to a silver bullet
Sense of community is the idea that community is experienced (or imagined).
The only people in a community are those that believe they are, not those that have completed a registration form in 30 seconds.
When people are really members of a community, they feel a strong psychological connection to that group. They sacrificepart of their own identity to accept, embrace, and then defend the group identity.
Sense of community has been shown to significantly increaseactivity, increase customer loyaltyandbuying behaviour, higher levelsofbrandadvocacy, increaseknowledgeexchange, and reduced tendency to engage in negative behaviors.
The research here is about as conclusive as the existence of gravity. This can lead to only one conclusion, that we absolutely must be developing a sense of community among our members.
It’s not a silver bullet for community professionals, but it’s the closest thing we will ever get to a silver bullet.
The problem at the moment is most community professionals completely ignore this. They don’t try to create a strong sense of community among their members. Those that do don’t understand the principles of doing so. They hop from one idea to the next hoping each new idea will give them the sense of community explosion they crave.
Let’s change this. If we want to immediately be much better at building communities, let’s master the core principles of fostering a sense of community.
The four foundations for sense of community were highlighted in a landmark article published David McMillan and David Chavis in 1986. These are:
3) Integration and fulfilment of needs
4) Shared emotional connections
Membership is the feeling that an individual has a right to belong in the community and can identify other members who also have the right to belong in a community. It comprises four attributes:
2) Emotional safety
3) Personal investment
4) A common symbol system.
You can intentionally add (or manipulate) each attribute to your community.
Boundaries separate insiders from outsiders. Boundaries are what separate your community from mainstream society. They allow members to be themselves and emotionally open to the group.
Boundaries can be real (think gated communities) or imagined (common experience). They can include rituals and traditions. The higher the boundary, the stronger the sense of community.
The easiest way to increase the sense of community is to raise the boundary to being an accepted member of the community. This usually means developing a more narrow focus for the community. We can use Ramit Sethi’s two-qualifier method here.
The best communities are those for x who do y. Where x and y are demographic, habits, or psychographic variables (who we are, what we do/have done/can do, and what we think/feel). See the table below:
You need to pick at least two.
If you have an existing community and want a stronger community, simply add another boundary to the focus of the community.
This is why smaller communities typically have a stronger community (and more active membership) than the larger behemoths. If we look at the different types of community, we see a LARGE number of communities with multiple qualifiers.
The RockAndRoll tribe is a community for middle-aged (demographics) people who love rock and roll (psychographics). Not for those that love rock and roll, not for those middle-aged, but a very specific group that feel a strong sense of community with one another.
Below, BackPacking Light is for travellers (habits) who want to have the lightest possible backpacks (psychographics). This crowd completely geek out on shaving a few grams off their backpacks.
If you have an existing community, it’s quite easy to increase the sense of community by adding a common shared goal to the group and making this goal explicit.
Most communities, especially those created by organizations, are aimless. Ask 10 members what they want to achieve in the future or what they fear and add that as a boundary. E.g. ” This is a community for HR professionals who want to embrace collaborative learning. ”
If that’s not possible, look at age, location, or experience factors. If say only people with five years’ experience in the field can join, everyone with 5+ years of experience will want to join. That’s powerful.
The community for StudentDoctors, for example, might not look like much – but it hosts almost 15m posts from 419,224 members. That makes it more popular than almost any community for doctors. This group has common goals, experiences, and shared connections with one another.
Our own community, CommunityGeek, only accepts community professionals with a strong track record in the social sciences. It’s the two qualifiers that ensure we feel a strong connection to one another.
We can also embrace a process known as boundary maintenance in communities. This is a process by which boundaries are made more visible and reinforced by references to it and, most importantly, rituals and traditions.
In college groups, this used to be the reason behind hazing. Sadly, this isn’t something we can do in our communities. However, we have a ritual we make new members go through. We usually ask them to share their biggest mistakes.
This is a powerful discussion for three reasons. It’s usually funny and interesting to new members, most people can identify with the mistakes, and it makes people emotionally open to the group.
It’s also a discussion that almost anyone can participate in. Guide people towards these discussions as opposed to the generic and tedious introduce yourself discussion. Make the introduction process fun and part of a ritual your community uses.
Alternatively, use an experience-based discussion. For example, BaristaExchange, below, asks members to share how they learned to roast. You can adapt this to any community you’re working on:
How/where did you learn to x?
When did you become interested in y?
2) Emotional safety
Communities should be a place where we can talk about things that we can’t talk about anywhere else. Sometimes that is a ferocious 40,000 word debate about whether to capitalize the I in Star Trek: iInto Darkness. Usually it’s about discussing the geekiest or more hardcore topics.
There aren’t many places you can discuss current detection an a Allegro ACS756 on an ATmega328. Luckily, the terrific Element14 community (by Premier Farnell) is one of them.
You should push your community to discussing the things they can’t discuss anywhere else. It might be being frustrated at how difficult it is to lose weight with diabetes.
Communities should be a place where feel comfortable discussing the most difficult, geekiest, or most hardcore topics in our space. Very often, this means you need to initiate exactly these sorts of discussions.
Some communities, like GAIA Online really want to discuss who would win in a fight between Kirk and Spock. This gives them a feeling of emotional safety within the group. It leads to strange sounding posts like these:
Make sure your community is the place to discuss the geekiest and most emotive topics in your sector.
3) Personal investment
Members want to work to feel they have earned their place in the group. The more they have invested their time, resources, energy, emotions into the community they more they will continue to participate to avoid cognitive dissonance.
The more we have invested into the success of the community, the more we feel a connection to that group. The challenge is provide people easy, but meaningful, methods of investing in the group at the beginning. We want to work to fit in and be accepted.
There are a few simple tactics you can apply here. One is to turn your community’s registration form into an application form. This is a nifty act of psychological ju-jitsu. The community becomes a place that you can join to a place that you might be able to join if you’re good enough. People that apply are far more likely to participate. We use this in CommunityGeek.
Another simple tactic shown above is priming members to be in the participation mindset when they join.
We ask new members what they can offer the community when they join the group. This forces them to think what skills and experiences they have and how they could contribute them. Once they are approved (if they are accepted), they know what they can do. They know what investments they can make in the community. They also feel they haveearned their place in the community, as per above.
Don’t send your newcomers aimlessly into the group. Guide them towards positive actions they will convert them into regular members. Josh Elman’s talk at the HabitSummit is worth watching here (skip to 20 minutes in).
The most highly converting action we know of are self-disclosure discussions. These are bonding-orientated self-discussions where we reveal information about our experiences, our thoughts/opinions on different topics, or information about who we are.
These discussions make people feel a stronger sense of connection to the group, especially a virtual group.
The BaristaExchange example above is a good idea here. Some types of discussions tend to work in all sectors. For example:
- How did you first become interested in topic?
- What was your biggest success in topic?
- What was your worst mistake in topic?
- Who do you most admire in topic?
- Show off your best topic-related thing
Feel free to use your own. The goal is to guide a member to participate in this discussion within the first few minutes of registering for the community.
You need to indoctrinate them into the social aspect of the community. Guide members to participate in exactly these sorts of discussions via your post-registration page, confirmation/welcome e-mail, autoresponders, and in any personal messages to newcomers.
Update and rotate the discussion on a regular basis to keep it fresh.
Once someone participates they’re more likely to visit again to see the response to their contribution. They get caught up in the notification cycle of visiting, contributing, being notified of a response, and visiting again.
Via this process they also become socialized into the community. They get to know the other members.
The community membership lifecycle is fickle; you need to offer members the opportunity to make the right investments at the right time. These investments gradually build up until a member becomes a regular participant in your community and feels a strong sense of connection to the group.
4) Common symbol system
A big problem facing branded communities is the community feels like an inauthentic marketing attempt to peddle whatever the organization is selling this month.
You get companies initiating conversations like this:
I don’t know “MB_Melissa”.
She might genuinely be looking forward to hearing what you think.
She might be on the edge of her seat, refreshing the page constantly in anticipation of the impending eruption of responses. But I doubt it.
I’ve never seen a member initiate a discussion using the phrase “Product Discussion“. Those very words conjure negative connotations. The body of the content will make members cringe. The half-hearted and unnatural segue into a discussion feels repulsive.
Inauthentic symbols undermine any possible sense of community. The only way to overcome this is by bringing common symbol systems into the community.
You need to identify the words, images, ideas, and signs that have a unique meaning to community members and spread them liberally throughout your community.
This means mentioning them in content, naming the community after them (e.g. Element14 is quite literally a symbol here), and naming parts of the community after them. I don’t know much about the Coconut Monkeyhead Fun Club, but it’s very popular in Carnival’s terrific community.
Talk to members of the target audience and pay special attention to the expressions they use which have a unique meaning to them but not to outsiders. Then use these symbols throughout the community.
This also means replicating their tone of voice and language style. That can be difficult for many organizations to accept. This is why communities initiated by amateurs are far more successful than those initiated by people paid to develop them on behalf of organizations.
- Raise the boundary to being an accepted member of the community.
- Encourage more personal investments of time, energy, emotions, and resources.
- Introduce a ritual to the newcomer process.
- Introduce shared symbols to the community content (and name)
People only participate in a community if they feel they can influence the community. Notice the word feel in that sentence. Not everyone will be able to influence the community, but everyone needs to feel they could influence the community.
A big mistake of branded communities is they don’t offer members enough influence. We have efficacy needs to satisfy. To create this feeling we need to do two things.
First, we need to create plenty of opportunities for members to have influence.
Second, we need to amplify the influence that members do have.
Creating opportunities for influence
Communities should provide members keen to be more involved with a simple process of becoming more involved. If members want to write a regular column, help run areas of the site, interview experts, organize events, approve and welcome new members or lend their expertise, the community should have a place where they can do that.
You can also interview the key members in the community that aren’t putting themselves forward but would benefit from the influence they then receive.
Feature contributions. Prominently feature the contributions of members on the community platform. If a member makes a great contribution, mention it in a news article and encourage the member to write a column based upon the topic.
Write about your members. Use your content to write what members are doing. Talk about their milestones. It might be a work achievement, a topic-related success or even a lifestyle success. If a member is getting married or has a child, is climbing a mountain congratulate them. Profile members that are doing interesting things.
Promote existing expertise. Find members who are already experts in a niche topic within your field and invite them to have their own Ask Me areas in the community.
This both encourages the existing members to participate more, shows other members that they too could have their own ask me area, and gives other members a reliable source of expertise on a particular topic.
Or, if you have high-profile people in your sector, Reddit’s AMA (ask me anything) is an alternative approach that is usually entertaining and helps bond the community into a group.
Just be careful that the interviewee fully understands the concept.
Once people have had an influence, amplify and showcase the influence to the rest of the community. Write case studies, add it to your community’s epic community history, and mention it in your news posts and your newsletters. Shine as big a spotlight on the influence members have had as possible.
The needs of the community and the individual need to align in a manner that’s beneficial to both. Too many communities focus on pumping out endless content. This attracts a lot of people to read, but not to participate.
This doesn’t satisfy our needs to be a part of a group with a strong identity.
We want to join groups that make us better than we are today. We want to associate with the best, brightest, smartest, or otherwise most valued people in our sector. We want to feel they have the same-shared values as we do.
Status of being a member
Being an accepted member should be a status symbol that members can embrace. You need to raise the profile of the community outside of the platform. Make sure it gets featured in relevant media. Set goals for the community to achieve, and achieve them. The more you raise the profile of your community, the more members want to join.
People do not join communities they don’t feel will succeed. If your community looks quiet/empty, you need to remove the dead areas of the site set small milestones the community can achieve early on. Concentrate activity in as small an area as possible so the community feels active.
In CommunityGeek, we have no forum categories at all. All the activity takes place on the landing page of the community. This makes the community feel very active very early on.
If your community is highly active, then show off this high level of activity. Highlight the quantity and quality of comments in the community. Make people they are participating in something they has momentum and is successful.
The frontpage of FetLife, a community for people with alternative sexual lifestyles (NSFW), posts the numbers to all members on the landing page of community along with testimonials about the site.
You need to attract and retain talented and knowledgeable members.
People want to be in a community with the best and brightest. You need to attract them (appeal to their ego – weekly columns, interviews etc…) and keep them engaged in the community. You need to ensure your community is the best fountain of knowledge for your topic in your industry.
The best method of attracting key figures is to appeal to their ego. Interview them, write about them in news posts, feature their work, create community awards you can give them, or rank.
Alternatively, make the community exclusive and only for the best people in the topic. All the best people in the topic will want to join (but pretend they don’t care about it).
Members have to feel that fellow members share the same values. One method of doing that is creating a constitution or purpose statement for the community (mission statement has negative connotations). This outlines why the community exists, what the community believes in, and what the community intends to achieve.
You can send this out to all new members when they join the community to begin indoctrinating them into the culture of the community.
Overcoming Bias, for example, posts the following statement:
This highlights to newcomers why this site exists and the purpose it serves its members. Your community should do the same. It’s usually best to base the community around one of BJ Fogg’s motivations[xlv]. It should be based around pleasure, reducing pain, hope for a change in the world, reducing fear of something bad happening, social inclusion, or avoiding social exclusion.
The communities with the strongest sense of community oscillate at the same emotional frequency. They are happy, sad, and angry at the same things at the same time. Developing this shared emotional connection is difficult.
A shared emotional connection comprises of several elements. These include regular contact, good quality of interactions, shared experiences, shared history, and emotional openness.
Ensure regular contact
The more people interact, the more likely they will like each other. This is based upon the mere exposure effect. The more we are exposed to something, the more we like it. In the contact hypothesis, the more frequently we come into contact with other people, the more likely we are to like them.
Your members need to regularly interact with each other. Don’t wait for these interactions to happen, proactively do things that drive these interactions.
Initiate regular weekly online discussions. Have live discussion topics around different issues, interview VIPs in your sector live, organize online and offline challenges or quizzes. Make sure your members are interacting with each other as frequently as possible.
Make the interactions meaningful
The interactions have to be meaningful. Exchanging information is fine, but limited. Introducing and highlighting (via sticky threads etc…) bonding-related or status-jockeying discussions will improve the quality to discussions.
Don’t try to overly control what members want to talk about or force members to talk about the topics you want to see more of. Let members lead the discussion and see where it goes. At the British Medical Journal’s Doc2Doccommunity, we found most doctors didn’t want to spend their spare time sharing medical advice. In fact, they want to debate ethical dilemmas.
The most popular ever discussion was this one below; was it wrong to use medical care to track down Osama Bin Laden?
This means you need to allow off-topic discussions. If members can only ever talk about the topic, they will never get to know each other personally. If they can’t personally get to know more about each other (or even remember previous contributions of members), they’ll never feel a strong sense of community with that group.
This is why it’s common for the off-topic discussions to be the most popular discussions in the majority of communities. People want to connect and get to know more about each other. Don’t shut these down.
Ensure your community has an epic and explicit history. Write it down. Talk about the major events and activities that have taken place within the community. Make sure all newcomers understand the narrative of the community their joining and their place within it.
Nostalgia is good here too. Subtle reminders to positive events which have taken place in the past reinforce the community identity.
Provoke emotional discussions
A final tactic is to introduce more emotionally provocative discussions. Members are likely to feel the same way about the same things at the same time.
If you can provoke those discussions, members are likely to share their feelings with one another about the topic.
If you begin introducing the above elements into your community, you should begin to notice members feeling more familiar, the tone and the language chances, and the overall sense of community begin to develop.
Measuring the sense of community
Measuring something as intangible as the sense of community is difficult. It doesn’t show up in Google Analytics. You have to survey a sample of members using the sense of community index (SCI-2) developed by David Chavis atCommunityScience.com.
Don’t invite all members to compete the survey. This will lead to a non-response bias. Those most likely to feel a strong sense of community are also those most likely to complete the survey. You need to segment your community in four groups and obtain a sample from each group which broadly represents the community.
We do this every quarter with some of our client communities. Here is an example:
This is an example of an average sense of community result for a former client.
However this only paints a broad picture of what happened in the community. The index allows us to identify which aspects of the sense of community are present and which need further development.
Here you see that the sense of community was initially low within this client’s community. We decided to tackle one aspect at a time and improve that. In this case, we chose influence. We decided to give members as many opportunities to feel influential within the group.
This means we sub-divided the community into smaller groups, we increased the number of interviews, we created opportunities for members to interview one another, and we began mentioning the names of members in every single news post we published in the community.
The level of influence rose immediately. Next we would tackle the shared emotional connection with positive (although not quite as impressive) effects. The power of this index is in identifying specifically what you can improve and then using the tactics above to improve it.
Do you want a community that lasts for 30 years?
Last year, I had the opportunity to meet John Coates. Most people haven’t heard of John; he’s the world’s first ever online community manager. He was the community manager of The WELL – the first online community. The WELL was founded in 1985.
When you listen to John speak, you realize that throughout the entire history of the community they have always had an incredibly strong sense of community among the group.
Developing a powerful sense of community is the most effective thing anyone managing a community can do to increase the level of growth, activity, and value over the community over the long-term.
Developing a sense of community will give you a community that lasts for years, maybe decades, instead of month.
Developing a sense of community is something each one of us is able to do among any group of people. Once you know and understand the elements above, it’s easy to use them to build any number of successful communities.
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