10 Tips for Creating Successful and Sustainable Online Communities

August 7, 2013

NingI have set up a number of online communities throughout my career. Here are my top 10 lessons learned over the years:

  1. An initial time investment of 25 hours to get your online community set up is not unreasonable. It’s easy and fast to sign up, but there’s more to it than setting up an account and a profile. In the beginning, you need to build a foundation for ongoing and sustainable social interaction between your members. You need to create a community that provides value, resources and a sense that time there will be well spent.
  2. You also need to collect and add some quality content to populate the site from the very beginning. Do not wait until you have a critical mass of members, assuming that high quality content will simply appear. Set the example for what type of content you expect by populating the site with some initial contributions yourself.
  3. Most popular content includes “how to” information, tips, lesson plans and very practical hands-on type information. Avoid lengthy diatribes, theory or “heavy” philosophical material. Multi-media content is also popular.
  4. It’ll work best if you “seed” the community with at least half a dozen (or more, if you can get them) key individuals who are well-known in the social group. These “founding members” should be hand-picked by the administrator. They are folks who will be seen as trusted authorities or influencers. Get at least half a dozen founding members fully signed up (including their profiles and photos) before sending out a mass public invite. You may have to follow up with them once or twice to nudge them, but it’s worth it. Seeding your site with a few key influencers can help build the online community quickly and effectively.
  5. People will have a look to see who else is part of the online community before they sign up themselves. If they see people they know, trust and like on the list of virtual community members, they are more likely to sign up themselves.
  6. Ask each of your “founding members” to contribute one piece of content — an article, a blog post or something that will bring value to the community. Part of the success of your Ning will depend on having quality contributions from a variety of members.
  7. Plan on updating your online community at least once a week. One of the biggest downfalls of online communities is that they stagnate because no one contributes.
  8. Approve new members. Human spammers or spam bots may try to sign up for your online community. Some services that offer online communities give you the option to require that new members be approved. If your service offers that option, I recommend accepting it. It’s a little more work upfront, but it keeps the quality of your online community high… which will keep your members happy.
  9. If you do get spammers in the community, eject them immediately. No apologies and no questions asked. If necessary, you may need to apologize to community members for spammer activity and let them know that you have taken steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
  10. Invite contributions from members on an ongoing basis. Send out periodic and personalized e-mails to members letting them know that you have showcased their work or you’d like to invite them to contribute. Avoid sending form letters or messages that are not personalized. Sending occasional personal e-mail communications will be more effective than mass mailouts or “blasts”. By the way, this goes beyond a form letter that simply has the person’s first name in the salutation. That no longer counts as genuinely personalized communication. Add a comment about the person as human being. Ask about their spouse, kids, pets or latest project or vacation, using specific details that lets the sender know it is not really just another form letter.

Over the past few years, I have noticed a curious trend. Five years ago, fewer people knew what online communities were all about. Those who knew signed up without much resistance and contributed generously. Now, more people know what online communities are and understand how to participate in one, but at the same time, people are getting pickier about what they sign up for. Even though more people have higher technology literacy levels when it comes to understanding both the concept and the “nuts and bolts” of online communities, that does not necessarily correlate to a willingness to sign up for one.

The trick to creating a sustainable and successful online community is continually providing value to members, without overwhelming them. You must respect their time, their privacy and their willingness to engage. Time and energy are valuable personal resources. If you want someone to spend time and energy in your online community, make it worthwhile for them.

An online community is not a sales platform and nor is it a space for one person to broadcast their ideas or opinions. A community — whether it is online or in real life — must be interactive, engaging and supportive for everyone.

Ning is my favorite online platform for online communities, especially for education and non-profit. There is a cost, but it is minimal. The Ning name is also trusted and well-known. I don’t think you need to budget tens of thousands of dollars to have a custom-built platform.

(Note: I have no affiliation to Ning and receives no financial or other benefits from promoting them. I just think they are a good service that’s worth recommending.)

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


How Community Conversations Create Powerful Possibilities

February 23, 2013

The other night we held a “community conversation” as part of our “Creating Space for Strength” project. Together with my two colleagues, Lee Tunstall and Vilma Dawson, the three of us were thrilled to facilitate the evening for this amazing group of Calgarians.

Representatives from Calgary’s North Central Communities

Over 40 people attended the event, including local elected representatives, Hon. Teresa Woo-Paw, MLA for Calgary Northern Hills and Calgary Alderman, Jim Stevenson.

Creating Space for Strength - Panorama shot

Citizens from a number of Calgary communities attended:

  • Harvest Hills
  • Panorama Hills
  • Coventry Hills
  • Country Hills
  • Hidden Valley
  • MacEwan Glen
  • Sandstone Valley

World Café format

We used a “world café” style of conversation. We started off by explaining that the purpose of the meeting was to find out what mattered to community residents. Then, to take the first steps towards envisioning what the community could look like in the not-too-distant future.

People worked in groups of 5 or 6 at small tables, using key questions to guide their conversations. We asked them to jot down their key ideas and points on sticky notes. Later, volunteers collected the sticky notes from all the tables and grouped them into common themes.

We asked four key questions, framed in asset-based community development (ABCD) way:

  • What is good and strong about our community?
  • What could be better?
  • What would you like to see the community achieve in the next 5 years?
  • How do we get there?

Creating space for Strength - community conversation 1

Community-driven

Even though a team of 3 of us consultants facilitated the evening, the whole event was planned, organized and promoted mostly by Northern Hills Community Association.

This picture shows two volunteers from the community association grouping the sticky notes from each question into themes.Creating Space for Strength (Moraig and Paul)

The community association booked the space for the event (a meeting room in a local grocery store) and arranged for food and beverages. They ordered wraps, veggie and fruit trays, cheese and crackers and sweets.

They kept in mind that the population living in their communities is culturally diverse, so they were careful to pay attention to dietary restrictions such as having beef and pork products separated from other foods, and offering completely vegetarian options. The provided a variety of water, juice and soft drinks, too. There is something that brings people together over food and so this was an important element of our evening.

The community association also took the responsibility of buying all the supplies for the evening, including hundreds of sticky notes and enough markers so that everyone could have one to use.

Results

We have yet to formally analyze the data from the event, but informally I can say that by the end of the meeting, the room was buzzing with energy. Residents stayed for a long while after the event wrapped up. They wanted to talk more about their community and how to improve it.

A number of attendees took the initiative to exchange contact information and ask how they could get involved.

Overall, it was a great night that ended on an energetic and inspired note.

As always, we want to acknowledge the organizations that are making this work possible:

Project Origins – Northern Hills Constituency

Project Funders – Government of Alberta (CFEP Grant); United Way of Calgary and Area; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association

Project Supporters – Northern Hills Constituency; City of Calgary; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association; United Way of Calgary and Area

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Community Conversation – Creating Space for Strength in Calgary’s North Central Communities

February 21, 2013

Creating space for strength in Calgary - Eaton International Consulting Inc.Tonight we are gearing up for a big event for our community development project. Here are the details:

Community Consultation – Creating Space for Strength: An Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) and Research Project for Calgary’s North Central Communities

The purpose of this community assessment is to find out what our communities’ strengths and assets are, what can be improved, and how. Identifying current resources, as well as needs, is a key step toward maximizing the potential for building an effective, locally relevant, and evidence-based community action plan.

We are interested in hearing your voice. We want to know what you think is working well in your community, what can be strengthened and how we can achieve the goals we set as a community.

This is an open, public consultation. Everyone is welcome. We’ll e using a “world cafe” format for the conversations.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the organizations who made this project possible:

Project Origins – Northern Hills Constituency

Project Funders – Government of Alberta (CFEP Grant); United Way of Calgary and Area; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association

Project Supporters – Northern Hills Constituency; City of Calgary; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association; United Way of Calgary and Area

Here’s a link to our Eventbrite site: http://creatingspacecommunityconsultation.eventbrite.com

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If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or leave a comment. Thanks!

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


How checking things off your “to do” list is different than solving problems

December 7, 2012

I am in the middle of a small war with the management company of our condo complex. As the board president, I constantly liaise with our property manager about problems that need to be solved on the property. A recent issue is an excellent example of the difference between management and leadership.

There are 110 town homes in our condo complex that are approaching 40 years old. Structural wear and tear is starting to be a problem. This year, one unit had a major ant infestation. We got an exterminator to deal with the problem immediately. He said that the ants were entering through small holes under the kitchen window and in addition to his extermination services, he recommended that we fix the exterior by plugging up the holes that the ants use as entry points to the house.

Since the beginning of August I have been sending in requests to get the holes around the exterior of the windows fixed. I am not an expert in windows or building envelopes or exterior structures, but it was pretty clear where the holes were. I sent in a request to have the caulking around the outside of the window

The property manager has a construction company that they send out on a regular basis to do jobs on the property. I have met them and they are actually great guys. They know what they are doing. They arrive on time, they do a good job, they clean up after themselves, and they are pleasant to all the residents who live here. It doesn’t really get much better than that.

But this ant issue has recently turned into an all out war.

Last month I said, “I have been asking for this to be done for 3 months. Please have the work done.”

His reply, “I have talked to the contractor. He says the work has been done.”

Yesterday I looked at the unit. The entry points for the ants are still visible.

I wrote again, saying “Four months have now passed since I sent in this work request. This work has not yet been completed. Please have the work done.”

The reply came back, “The contractor assures me that he has caulked around the window. Can I give the contractor your phone number and you can deal with him directly?”

I went outside and looked. Indeed, the area around the metal frame had been caulked, but the entry points for the ants were still wide open. I took some pictures. I highlighted the areas where ants were entering:

Ant photos.001

Here is the second photo:

Ant photos.002

I sent the photos together with this letter:

Dear John:

I’ve been thinking about this. If you say to a guy, “Go caulk around the window.” He’s going to come over and caulk around the window. The job is done because the job was “to caulk around the window”.

 If you say to the guy, “This place has an ant problem. The kitchen wall is covered with thousands of ants. The exterminator says they are coming in from outside, specifically from around the kitchen window. Go over there and have a look at the outside of the kitchen window. Figure out every possible entry point for the ants to get in around that window. Plug each and every last one of those holes up, so the little buggers can’t get in.”

The job is done when the window is turned into an ant version of Fort Knox. No one — not one little ant — gets in.

That is an entirely different job than, “Go caulk around this window.”

The job we need to have done is the second one — plug up every possible entry point for ants from around that kitchen window.

If you need to give the contractor my number to explain that, then go ahead, but I’m pretty sure you get the idea about what we are after here, which is a solution to the problem of blocking how the ants get into the unit.

Every time you send a guy — or a couple of guys — to our property to do a job, they are not just checking off items from a “to do” list. They are solving problems for the people who live here. In doing that, they are making their life better.

I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, but every time one of your guys comes to our property to fix a problem for a resident, they get a chance to be somebody’s hero. They do that by solving a problem that the owner can not solve by themselves, because they either do not know how or they do not have the skills, expertise, materials, or maybe just the time. That’s one reason people live in condos.

I guarantee you that the single lady who lives in that unit does not have the skills or materials to fix this problem herself — or she would have already.

Your guys have all that — skills, talent, expertise and materials. We rely on you to hire smart guys and you do that. We see it time and time again. They’re smart, they’re capable and they can solve problems. In a small way, they can be somebody’s hero.

So tell your guy that this is his chance to be a hero for Marilyn, the lady who lives there.

Thanks,

Sarah

When it comes to leadership, it is important to give people all the information they need to solve a problem. If you hire smart people, then do not simply give them items to check off their “to do” list. Engage people’s skills, expertise and problem-solving abilities to make them part of the solution. In doing so, you are likely to make their work more meaningful… and both they — and their work — will have a greater impact on those they are helping.

I believe deeply in people’s capacity to solve problems, help others and do meaningful work.

Checking items off a “to do” list does very little to connect the work to the people who may benefit from it. Besides, work that only involves checking items off a “to do” list often lacks meaning, especially when that list is assigned to you by someone else.

Engaging smart people to develop sustainable solutions helps everyone over the long term.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


We have power

November 1, 2012

Sarah Eaton, blog, leadershipI don’t normally share things I find on Facebook on my blog, but this one touched me in a deep way. This photo was posted today. with the caption “Recently seen in Hoboken, New Jersey.”  That area is among those devastated by “Frankenstorm”. If you can’t read the sign attached to the fence in the photo, it says, “We have power. Feel free to charge your phone.”

You can see the power bar and extension cord coming from the residence. You can also see people gathered around, with mobile phones plugged into the power bar, so they can charge their devices. Once charged, the phones can be used to communicate family and loved ones who are far away, or even those who are close by.

This is an excellent example of people in communities coming together to help one another. It is a simple, small gesture of generosity can can ripple across continents, as loved ones far away can receive a message that says, “We are safe.”

The line on the sign “We have power” means so much more than “We have electricity”.

When we help others, we always have power.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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