Many online communities exist solely to serve a very serious business purpose.
Technical support, communities of practice, employee intranets...all are there for a specific reason that doesn't involve kittens.
Don't you love it when your doctor's office has balloons for your children? When you attend a business conference and they have a photo booth with crazy sunglasses? When you see people enjoying their serious jobs, like this dancing Dover policeman?
Just because your community is serving a serious purpose doesn't mean you can't have a little fun. In fact, getting to know the real people behind the avatars is a solid relationship-building tool. It's much easier to work with Joe from Accounting if you happen to know he's into geocaching.
Here are tips for incorporating some personality in your business community:
Create a special off-topic area, whether it's a "Just Conversation" forum or a "Watercooler" chatroom. They're going to be talking about the latest episode of House of Cards anyway, why not give them a way to do it within your community?
Be sure to set some ground rules and clear expectations, especially if it's a workplace community. Do you want to discourage profanity, political discussions, or non-constructive criticism? State that up-front.
Imagery rules. Make a space for members to share photos and videos of their adventures. Perhaps you could even mix in some corporate event pictures, if you have a company retreat or events away from your workplace. Shared memories are critical to building trust.
Show your corporate personality as well. Try not to hide behind generic avatars and an "Administrator" title. Let the people who are managing the community reveal themselves and become part of the conversation.
Allow the community to name the off-topic area, so that it reflects their shared interests.
Do you run a business community? How do you build relationships between your members?
“What if someone posts naked pictures on our site?”
User-generated content should always be subject to Ronald Reagan’s favorite Russian saying, “trust, but verify.” Allow your visitors to share content, but always make sure someone is monitoring in the background. And provide tools so that your members can report inappropriate content when necessary.
“What if my competitors join the site and spy on me?”
That’s why God invented private communities. If your community content is full of things you don’t want your competitors to see, lock the front door and vet the members when they register. Better yet, use single sign-on and tap into your existing customer database for logins.
“We’re in a regulated industry. The lawyers won’t let us have a community.”
Listen, the legal team has a tough job. They’re just trying to protect you while following the gazillion different regulations that might apply to you and your community members. Why not bring them into the process at the very beginning, so that they can help you build a community that meets the standards, rather than seeking approval after it’s live? My friend Gigi Peterkin of the NephCure Foundation offered that fantastic insight based on her experience with communities in regulated industries.
You may hear the fears expressed above, or different ones, when you start to build your community strategy. Don't let that deter you from using one of the most powerful tools in your marketing arsenal. An online community can be a valuable resource for your customers, partners, and fans.
This blog post was written as part of the Spin Sucks Scavenger Hunt. I hope you're playing along...you could win some cool prizes. Welcome new visitors!
As an extra bonus, purchase a copy of Spin Sucks the book, one of the best resources on PR and communications I’ve read in the last couple of years. If you buy a copy before March 4 and email a copy of your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org, they’ll send you a little package of surprises, including a sticker, a personalized/signed nameplate for your book, and other fun goodies.
Disclosure: I was given an advance free digital copy of this book for review purposes; however that in no way altered this blog post or my previous review. My personal story of guerrilla digital PR is mentioned in the book.
She's running a community of practice with a very important mission.
Jane Stevens is the Founder/Editor ofACEsConnection.com, a thriving community of practice aimed at preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and changing systems to stop traumatizing already traumatized people.
She shares the story of how her community became the impressive resource it is today.
Tell us your “founding story;” what made you decide to start ACEs?
Research has shown that adverse childhood experiences are the No. 1 cause of most of our chronic diseases, as well as mental illness, being violent and a victim of violence. That comes from 20 years of research that’s prompted a new understanding of human development and how toxic stress from adversity experienced early in childhood actually affects our behavior and becomes incorporated into our biology. So, as a science journalist, when I began to report about this, I knew that if communities were to achieve their health goals (reducing obesity, smoking, drinking to excess, drug abuse, domestic violence, heart disease, cancer, etc.), they would need to learn about this and address it.
There was no central place to learn about the research or how people were implementing it, or a place to share information about it. So, in January 2012 I launched ACEsTooHigh.com, a news site for the general public, and ACEsConnection.com, a social network for people who were implementing — or thinking about implementing — trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on ACES research.
What do you think was the spark that made your original community get traction and thrive?
ACEsConnection grew slowly, as befits a community-of-practice social network. By May 2013, we passed 1,000 members at the same time that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sponsored the first National ACEs Summit. That was an important turning point. More people learned about it, and as more people became involved, it became more useful. In addition, RWJF learned about ACEsConnection. Early last year, they provided significant funding to grow the ACEs Connection Network, to give it the support we needed to continue to grow. By May of this year, we should be 4,000 members strong.
We continue to focus on slow growth, so that we can continue to respond to the needs of members and provide the resources they need to make changes in their communities.
You migrated from the Ning platform to Hoop.la; how did you handle that transition with your members? Any tips for others who might be considering a platform move?
We began alerting them to the move a month prior, provided updates in all of our communications with them (we do a daily digest, a weekly roundup, plus additional posts on the network), and sent out an email to all members twice before the day of the transition.
Once we made the transition, we sent out an email alerting them to the new platform, with instructions on how to sign in again. We posted a few how-tos, to which we’ve been adding since.
A week after the transition, we made sure that people knew we were available to assist.
Advice: Don’t change how the site looks right away. That’s what people seemed to be most worried about. If you’re planning on making design changes, make sure people get used to the platform first, then make changes gradually, if you can.
The transition went SO smoothly. Great wonderful kudos to the Hoop.la team, who answered all of our questions promptly, guided us through, and were very patient with our (continuing) learning curve. Our community is SO much happier on the Hoop.la platform. The more I use it, the more grateful I am that we made the move.
What’s your daily routine like? Are you proactive in keeping the conversation going on the site?
Our network comprises a daily digest of news, reports and research about adverse childhood experiences and trauma-informed/resilience-building practices; a weekly roundup; a resource center, and groups. The groups are the part of the site we’re focusing on growing this year. There are interest-based groups (ACEs in Education, ACEs in Pediatrics), and geographic-based groups (cities, counties and states).
The network is less about conversation than people working together on projects. We support a lot of work that occurs offline in communities. Last year we established our processes for starting and launching groups; this year we’re focusing on how to grow groups, with that combination of offline and online work. This week, for example, another community manager and I met with a large group of people in San Diego to officially launch the San Diego County ACEs Connection group. Two community managers joined the monthly meeting of the Sonoma County ACEs Connection group.
Our online activities include cross-posting blogs from the main site into groups whose members would be particularly interested in the information; providing links and contacts for members; posting comments to members’ posts; adding information to the main and groups’ resource sections; recruiting new members; helping communities build their groups; planning for in-person monthly meetings, etc. Members use the discussion section to post questions to members, which we include in the daily digest. Any discussions that occur usually appear in comments about a blog post. We plan on doing surveys and chats in groups this year.
What’s been your proudest moment as a community founder?
Many proud moments, when people tell me that they found a person, or received support or found information that they needed to move ahead in their communities with educating people about this research so that they can take the first steps toward implementing trauma-informed and resilience-building practices in all sectors of their community, including health, education, juvenile justice, business, faith-based and civic.
What’s your biggest challenge?
At this point, learning how best to grow the groups. And, of course, finding more hours in the day.
How are you measuring the success of the community, are you using any metrics? (If you’d like to share any numbers, we’d love it!)
Our site is less about the number of discussions or comments than it is what people do with the information, and if it speeds up their efforts. Those are more difficult metrics to figure out, and we’re working on how to do that.
Does your community have a big goal for 2015?
To grow the groups — we hope to see another 50 or 60 community groups start this year.
(Jane, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us! ~Rosemary)
We've started work on a major new upgrade forHoop.la,UBB Forum, andQuestionSharkthat will make all pages completely "responsive". If you are not familiar with the term "Responsive Design", here are some resources for you:
In a nutshell, it means that the user interface automatically adapts to fit any size of device. It also means a much better user experience.
This is becoming increasingly critical as we see the continuing evolution of smart devices. Phones are getting bigger; there are constantly new styles and types of tablets; and then you have hybrid devices that combine tablets with a desktop experience. People want to access content in lots of different ways and so our platform needs to be able to automatically adjust, to be future-proof, if you will.
Currently, we have a "mobile" interface that is automatically accessed by anyone using a mobile browser. But having one mobile interface is problematic because even among mobile browsers there are vastly different screen sizes and resolutions. The mobile interface provides a decent experience with more focused choices for users, but it is also very limiting because many features are missing in the effort to keep things simple for the smaller screens sizes.
By switching to a truly responsive approach, however, we can design our interfaces one way and have them adjust automatically depending on the screen size, without any loss of features as you scale down to smaller screens. Thus, there will no longer be a separate "mobile" interface at all when we roll this out. Ultimately, this will also lead to faster development of new features in the future, as well.
We actually made our product websites for Hoop.la, UBB Forum, and QuestionShark responsive last fall, but it is a much bigger undertaking to convert entire applications like ours... and that is why this will be one of our most ambitious (time-consuming) software releases.
We're literally going to have to redo every page in the system. The underlying HTML will be different. The theme editor you have now will be much different. We will have all new CSS. This means that when this change happens, you'll need to create a new theme and new custom CSS (if you use custom CSS). But, fear not, we'll give you plenty of time to make such changes via a staging area that we will make available to everyone prior to actually doing the upgrade. And we'll also be here to assist you as much as possible as you get your site ready for the transition.
Our themes and underlying CSS will be cleaner, easier to understand, and more flexible. And your community site will of course look AWESOME no matter how your community members are accessing your site.
All of this is said now to warn you that our software update cycle will be a little different for the next 3-4 months. Usually we try to do at least one major release per month. But we can't follow that model while we work on this. Things will seem a little quieter, but rest assured something big is on the way and we're confident it will result in a MUCH better experience for everyone when we are done.
We'll provide updates as we can, but please note that we likely not provide a firm delivery date until we get very close to the end of the project. April/May is the current expected timeframe, but that could change.