We come across the same concern again and again from organisations: will investment in online communities take us out of our control comfort zone. It often comes up when we are discussing the Ambix system and how this powerful intranet can help a membership organisation or business community to add value for their members and encourage collaboration and networking.
In the Community Roundtable’s 2014 State of Community Management Report, experts identified a series of developmental stages for an online community.
If you read between the lines, these four stages follow Tuckman’s group development phases: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. To release the synergies of an online community you need to make this journey.
When you first start your online community, its behaviour will be quite conservative. Content will be formal and structured, and individuals will be familiarising themselves with the platform and the information they can access. This stage takes a lot of time investment from you, the managers and administrators. You need to create a compelling reason for people to engage, be creative about driving them to the community, and lead your members into new behaviours. Don’t assume that if you build it, people will come! (Read more about the keys to building a new community).
As the group matures, it goes through a difficult phase as members test the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable. This is where the owner organisation has to be ready for change. It’s no use imposing strict controls and trying to keep a lid on group development – to perform, your online community has to pass this stage and set its own norms within your flexible framework. If your community starts to storm, you can limit the explosive reach in a number of ways – although your priory must be to act quickly! Don’t be afraid to take the conversation out into the “real world” and contact the problem users by email. This is your private community, after all, so there is no anonymity from administrators. Find out what the grievance is, and respond with empathy. If that doesn’t resolve the problem then enforce user terms and conditions – a ‘five strikes and you’re out’ policy could serve you well in this phase. You want all your members to benefit from the community, so don’t let the actions of a few spoil the party.
Peer to peer networking and collaboration increase, and a group culture emerges. As a moderator, the hard work is over. Discussions threads self-moderate as unpopular content is pushed out by regular new content. Interest groups gather a momentum all of their own. You start to gather meaningful statistics about engagement – but there’s one more stage to navigate.
If you want your community to really perform, this is where management participation has to start. A community has to have leaders and stand-out members whether it’s online or out there in the real world. It’s time to remember the organisation’s original goals when setting up the community, and align them with management behaviour. For example:
- Your organisation wanted to increase membership? Community success adds value to membership and attracts new people.
- You wanted to increase revenue?. If your community is really stand-out, there may be revenue from subs and well-chosen advertising.
- You needed to demonstrate collaboration to secure a funding round? If you can show that member businesses are represented by senior decision makers, the chances of business coming from your community are increased.
- You wanted to respond to the needs of members? Your online community is the best source of real information about what your members want.