5 things The Last Jedi reminds us about community management

Warning: Contains The Last Jedi spoilers!

Last weekend I went to see the latest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi, and found myself noting frequently how many community-related themes were threaded throughout the movie. Here are 5 community take-aways from the film.

Christmas on Jakku – better with more community members?
Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/han_shot_first/23890828621/

1. Get to know – and work with – your biggest advocates

As any community manager knows, your community is made up of members with different personalities and activity levels. Your job is to create and maintain a space where they can work constructively together towards a common vision.

There’s been much criticism of Poe in The Last Jedi – the headstrong hero who’s so passionate about fighting for the rebellion that he’s prepared to be increasingly rash in his actions, whatever the cost. But most facilitators of well-established communities will recognise at least one Poe in their midst – the regular contributor who reliably dives in to every single one of the discussion threads, or who happily tells you and anyone else on the Internet who’ll listen how you’ve ruined everything with your latest product update/marketing campaign/editorial the minute it disappoints him.

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Considering Community: a brief history of academic studies of online communities

I’ve decided to start a new series of occasional posts focused on community management tips and related information. I’m tagging these Considering Community and you’ll be able to find all the posts in the series here.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the stages of growth for online communities. I ended up reading a paper that compares the research literature on online communities to come up with a model for the lifecycle that communities follow. While I’m going to blog about that in a future post, the paper also gave a great introduction to how the literature on online communities has itself grown – and the different disciplines that have been involved.

Knowing first-hand that “community” doesn’t fit neatly into one category, this was particularly interesting to me, so I’m going to share the paper’s overview here in case it’s of interest to you too. All text below that is highlighted in italics is taken directly from the paper, which is a much recommended read.

The literature about online communities as 4 waves

The review (published in 2009) describes four waves in the community literature:

i) 1st wave – input from sociologists

During the first wave, which started in 1993 when Howard Rheingold coined the term virtual community, sociology took the lead focusing on online communities as a social phenomenon capable of modifying how people interact in society. Sociologists compared online communities to physical communities and explored the presence of various community-related concepts such as social aggregations, identity, social networks and ties, and social and collective action.

They also studied the impacts of Internet use on individuals and society, such as social isolation, social involvement, and well-being [Carver 1999; Jones and Rafaeli 2000; Cummings et al. 2002; Turkle 1995; Hampton 2003; Hampton and Wellman 1999; Katz and Rice 2002; Kraut et al. 2002, 1996]. For example, Wellman et al. [1996] and Wellman [2005] found that online communication can strengthen face-to-face communication in local communities, as opposed to producing social isolation. Moreover, they found that online interactions can facilitate accumulation of social capital which may enhance civil involvement.

Those interested in the impact of online communities on society found that by facilitating strong social relationships, trust, and reciprocity, an online community may gather enough social capital to engage in social action to achieve a collective goal [Blanchard and Horan 1998; Chaboudy and Jameson 2001; Hampton 2003; Iriberri 2005].

ii) 2nd wave – input from those studying management and business

A second wave in research on online communities started around 1996 with management researchers analyzing the value to business organizations of the content generated by online communities. Hagel and Armstrong [1997] studied online communities as viable business models capable of attracting customers who are searching for information on products or activities of interest to them, and who want to find and build relationships, conduct transactions, or live fantasies.

They suggest that if organizations provide mechanisms to identify and satisfy customer needs more accurately this can then turn into profit for vendors. When businesses provide the space for interaction, vendors can strengthen customer loyalty and also extract customer information to further improve marketing and customer service programs.

Wegner et al. [2002] focused on online communities that emerge in business organizations and are used by employees as repositories of organizational knowledge. In these communities of practice, the knowledge created and stored by members contributes to the organization’s ability to solve problems, create new products, innovate, and ultimately increase productivity [Millen et al. 2002]. This is evident in the widespread use of wikis, electronic boards, and electronic meeting rooms where team members in organizations add content and share online documents, thus reducing by one-half the time it takes them to complete projects [Conlin 2005; Goodnoe 2006].

Stuck on the shelf: How do you translate knowledge from the literature into practice?  Image caption: Flickr user wy_jackrabbit https://www.flickr.com/photos/wy_jackrabbit/4294858160/

Stuck on the shelf: How do you translate knowledge from the literature into practice? Image caption: Flickr user wy_jackrabbit https://www.flickr.com/photos/wy_jackrabbit/4294858160/

iii) 3rd wave – input from psychologists

In the third wave of online community research, psychology researchers focused on members’ relationships and attachments within online communities. Blanchard [2004] and Blanchard and Markus [2004] studied sense of community including feelings of belonging, safety, and attachment to the group. When these feelings are present, members develop lasting relationships with other members, feel attachment to the community, and perceive the online community as a source of social and emotional support.

In one online community of multisport athletes, Blanchard and Markus [2004] found that active participants develop personal friendships that in some cases move into private and face-to-face interactions.

iv) 4th wave – input from information systems researchers

Last, in the fourth wave, information systems researchers integrated previous perspectives, developed working definitions, and created research agendas to initiate a more focused and controlled empirical study of online communities [Gupta and Kim 2004; Lee et al. 2003; Li 2004]. The focus shifted to members’ needs and requirements, development of electronic tools to support online communities, adoption and implementation of these tools, online communities for new purposes such as teaching and, finally, outcome assessment [Arnold, et al. 2003; Kling and Courtright 2003; Stanoevska-Slabeva and Schmid 2000, 2001].

For example, Stanoevska-Slabeva and Schmid [2001] described the activities members conduct in online communities and matched those activities with the technology platform capable of supporting those activities; and Arnold et al. [2003] presented a model to translate member needs into technology requirements.

In the latter years of this fourth wave, the focus of the information systems discipline moved toward proposing conditions that would increase member participation and ensure online community success. For example, Preece [2000] recommended following a participatory design approach, which takes into consideration user needs, and establishing a clear purpose combined with policies of behavior to govern the interactions of members. She referred to the fostering of “tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws” that define the community identity.

Similarly, Leimeister et al. [2005] proposed implementing mechanisms to encourage trust, such as discretionary levels of anonymity, which can help promote lasting relationships. Most recently, empirical studies have been carried out to test independent success factors such as presence of content quality, interaction support, organization of online and offline events, rewards for contributions, volunteerism, and posting of member pictures and profiles.

From communities on paper to communities in practice

I’ve been pondering a bit this past year how much professional roles that involve working directly with communities – whether that’s pure community management, or related activities such as marketing, customer service, and market research teams – apply what’s reported in the research literature in their day jobs. As a research scientist – whether in academia or industry – it’s a standard part of your job to keep up to date with current developments in your field of expertise. While some of that may be done alone, for example, by subscribing to updates from your favourite journals, some of it also takes place in communal activities such as lab meetings and journal clubs. How do you find and share knowledge if you’re a community professional?

There are some resources – from the #cmgrchat that takes place weekly on Twitter to the annual Community Leadership Summit founded by Jono Bacon, but it’s my sense that as a lone individual or very small team within a larger organisation, community managers can often end up feeling professionally isolated in terms of knowing how to develop new skills or where to turn to for peer-to-peer support.

Secondly, where there is useful information available  – such as websites that discuss updates to common tools that community managers use – the focus tends to be on technology updates, or on successful business reporting. Especially within organisations that haven’t fully grasped the benefit of community there can be an emphasis on the types of conversations described in wave ii) above – namely how to demonstrate the business value of online communities, whether those are internal employee communities or external engagement channels. By contrast, I don’t see many articles or other professional development resources that really focus on waves i) and iii) as described above – the sociology and psychology of communities.

Are you a community professional who’s found some resources that I’ve not yet seen, or who has successfully created your own peer network? Do you ever consult the academic literature for a different view on the daily activities that you’re involved with – or is this something that there’s not realistically enough time for in a job that already involves doing multiple different tasks in a given week?

Considering Community: What’s a community anyway?

I’ve decided to start a new series of occasional posts focused on community management tips and related information. I’m tagging these Considering Community and you’ll be able to find all the posts in the series here.

In the first post in this series about online communities, we looked at the different types of communities – from communities of practice to those of place. Now let’s think about definitions from a different angle.

I say community, you say… community?

In recent times, the word community is being increasing adopted by organisations but, confusingly, it can have different meanings. Sometimes it’s a rather vague term indicating “something to do with communicating via social media”. In other situations, community is used as a more “friendly” way of referring to customers – whether that’s customer support, customer feedback, and/or marketing activities. In yet another set of scenarios, community is used to refer to multiple, distinct groups, all of whom may be interacting with the organisation is slightly different ways, and not necessarily online. While none of these interpretations are necessarily wrong, they don’t help to clarify the usage of a word that has ended up feeling somewhat ambiguous.

So, can we be a bit more nuanced in our definition of what we mean by community without using more than the equivalent of a few tweets to do so? And can we use that definition to help us work more effectively with communities? The introduction of a paper that I read recently looked at how a range of disciplines describe online communities; I share its examples and some additional ones below. I then consider an over-arching definition of community and what it might tell us about how to successfully engage different communities.

Defining online communities

  • “Social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.”  – Howard Rheingold, 1993.
  • “Computer-mediated spaces where there is a potential for an integration of content and communication with an emphasis on member-generated content.” – Hagel and Armstrong 1997 (with an emphasis on business models).
  • “Groups of people who interact primarily through computer-mediated communication and who identify with and have developed feelings of belonging and attachment to each other.” – Blanchard and Markus, 2004.

Each of these definitions comes from the perspective of a different discipline (sociology, management studies, and social psychology, respectively). Lee et al., went one step further and combined a total of 9 definitions to come up with the following:

  • “cyberspace[s] supported by computer-based information technology, centered upon communication and interaction of participants to generate member-driven content, resulting in a relationship being built” – Lee et al, 2003

Compare these definitions of online communities to the following from this blog post:

  • “the ecosystem of people that surround a specific business or organization – from customers and employees to fans and partners.”
Defining community - going beyond a Google search.  Image credit: Flickr user dragonbe: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dragonbe/5902516737/

Defining community – going beyond a Google search.
Image credit: Flickr user dragonbe: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dragonbe/5902516737/

Common threads

So, what can we see in common with each of these definitions? Each acknowledges the importance of at least some of the following factors: individuals, online communication technologies, communication among members, content creation, the formation of relationships, feelings of belonging. Perhaps this can be re-written as:

People + online tools + communication –> content creation –> relationships +  feelings of belonging.

There’s an additional point to be emphasised here, which is that community refers to a group where people have relationships with each other, not just one-to-one relationships with a central hub – whether that hub is a leader figure, an organization or a product. Not every member may be connected directly to every other member, but they almost certainly do have interactions with more than one other person in the group.

This inter-connectedness of members encourages us to think of communities as an ecosystem – where the actions of individuals may propagate through the system in ways that cannot be controlled from a central point. As we’ve all seen on social media, you can start a hashtag campaign, but you can’t decide what content gets posted to the hashtag. And this becomes an important distinction from more traditional marketing and customer service models where interactions were more contained.

Implications for working with communities

What can we take away from the factors in this final equation about working with online communities? Admittedly, each of the ingredients would make at least a blog post in its own right, but here are some quick thoughts:

People – Do you know who is in your community or who you’d like to see join it? In order to identify potential new members, you might look for who tweets on relevant hashtags and who uses those hashtags in their online bios. Events are another good place to meet future community members.

Tools – You don’t necessarily need to provide the communication tools yourself, but you do need to be present on the channels that your community is using – whether that’s twitter, a blog network or a listserv. The channels you choose to use will depend largely on what you hope to accomplish through your interaction with the community: if it’s customer service you may need to be in multiple places where the conversations are happening, if it’s about assisting a group to organise an event, it may be that a single, central online home is needed to plan and share resources.

Communication – I think a key question to ask here is: Where can you usefully fill any communication gaps, while also respecting that you don’t need to be visibly part of every discussion? I mentioned above that a community is an ecosystem, and that means giving up the idea of dominating all the conversations and thinking about how you can make useful contributions with any content that you do create. This could be making sure that you’re clear about new developments on the project, visibly introducing and welcoming new members, and sharing details of opportunities for the community to meet in person.

Content creation – What does content creation mean to your community goals? Is it just the back and forth that happens on social media, or something more structured such as guest blog posts sharing tips and activities, or even co-creating a book together?

Relationships: Remember: you don’t control all the relationships in a community! And one way you can add value if you’re hosting a community is to help members to build relationships with each other. People love meeting like-minded people and this will result in a greater sense of belonging within the community as a whole.

Sense of belonging:  Ultimately, this is what becomes very powerful for any organisation or mission-driven group as advocacy grows from a sense of belonging. Once you’ve got an emotional investment, people are more likely to tell their friends and colleagues about their experience – just make sure that it’s a good one! 🙂