For a little over a year I have had the pleasure of designing and facilitating a specific public health program focused evaluation community of practice. I have had a great partner in this work and have learned a lot about virtual community building.
Today’s post highlights just some of the tips I have learned through experience.
1. Build the Community First.
Far too many online “communities” are not much more than a virtual lecture series serving a defined audience. There is little space made for peer to peer engagement. Is it really a community if the people within don’t know each other or have the opportunity to interact?
One of the biggest challenges building communities in a virtual space is that you don’t need to just replace the lecture hall, you also need to replace the interactions that occur in the hallways and the line for coffee. Communities are built through interaction and engagement, not just a shared interest in a particular topic or membership in a particular group.
Design activities that don’t just serve your audience, but give your community members the space to learn about one another.
2. Show Faces.
We all want to belong to groups that include actual human beings. Communities of practice are built so that individual members can learn from “people like me,” not a disembodied voice from on high.
That means not just including the community in conversation, but also offering ways to see their faces. Regular, informal, “camera on” group conversations via zoom can help. So can including faces on your webinar invitations.
It’s easy to hide behind the keyboard, so plan your way around that.
*But don’t require videos be turned on during webinars, and don’t do it all the time for everyone. With so many people juggling household responsibilities (taking care of kids and other family) while participating in professional activities, requiring cameras on can alienate certain members of your community.
3. Bottom up, not top down.
The goal of a community of practice should be to draw upon the expertise of the community. Don’t just think about what they would like to hear, ask them what they would be willing to contribute.
It is certainly easier to just come up with a list of webinar topics and run with it. But sourcing expertise from your community is the best way I’ve found to increase ongoing participation. It takes time and trust building, but ultimately it builds a better community.
4. When asking less can be asking too much.
We are all worried about taking up too much of people’s time. But don’t be afraid to ask for something big, like webinar presenters, instead of something smaller, like blog posts or comments.
Asking a community member to present during a webinar sounds like a really big commitment. But often they are presenting from their own personal experiences (without needing much in the way of planning) and there is a well-defined deadline. Plus, it feels good to be asked for your expertise.
Asking a community member who doesn’t participate much in the blogging or social media world to comment on a blog post, while a relatively easy ask, can often fall totally out of their comfort zone.
5. Assembling your community tech stack.
I get asked a lot, “so what technology do you use?” The answer is a list, not any singular tool. And it always depends on the community.
I think it’s better to think of your tech as a bundle, not a single tool. Here are my go-to tools. Keep in mind, there are many alternatives for each that work just fine.
- WordPress – for the community hub.
- Zoom – for webinars and other virtual gatherings.
- Mailchimp – for a regular email newsletter.
- Eventbrite – for webinar/event registration.
- Teachable – for hosting self paced learning modules.
- Canva – for designing communications materials.
- YouTube – for hosting webinar recordings.
- Slack – for member to member communications.
- Dropbox – for communal resource libraries.
You don’t need everything for every community. If you are not a techie, and don’t have the money to hire someone like me to handle things for you, I would certainly advise you to start small.
6. Developing a content strategy.
Regular content is important. Just how regular depends on your community.
Don’t make the mistake of creating a forum and expecting your community to just show up and fill it up with great content. Most of the time, this just leads to dead forums and little to no participation.
Instead try to set a content schedule. Not sure where to start, how about a monthly webinar? This requires you to create a registration page, put out an initial announcement blog post, sharing that announcement and post through email, sending a follow-up reminder email, creating a recap blog post after the event, posting the recording, and sharing the recap/recording through an email.
As you can see, even just one webinar a month can fill a content calendar. Especially if you add bonus content/downloads in the prep stages and the recap. Put it all down on a calendar, and repeat each month.
7. Mixing your engagement methods.
Try expert seminars, panel presentations, informal roundtables, expert Q&As, and other engagement methods. There is no rule saying you need to stick to one and only one format. Experiment until you find the right mix for your community.
8. Evaluating your efforts and determining needs.
Once you get an active community going, needs assessment should become easier. But it takes time to get to that point, and early surveys might see very low response rates.
Early on in your efforts I suggest forming an advisory group (drawn from your membership) to help guide your ongoing work. Try to get a group that represents different facets of your overall community. Then set up a regular virtual get together once a quarter or bimonthly.