Volunteers seek opportunities to help for free. Often they put in many hours working on in-person or online projects. In fact, author Jono Bacon promises that engaged volunteers are available and – if you organize your online community properly – you can attract them. He tells you how to set up effective communities and fully utilize the collaboration they inspire for your nonprofit or, for that matter, your brand. Bacon also explains why otherwise busy people contribute without earning a dime. They find that purposefully supporting a meaningful cause or advocating for a beloved brand – and thus gaining a sense of belonging, even to a virtual community – make participation worthwhile.
- Communities, whether online or in-person, come together based on shared interests.
- You can plan, create and sustain a viable online community, despite the challenges.
- Local communities are limited in their scope and face obstacles which may prevent them from lasting long term.
- Technological advances – especially the internet – provide new opportunities for building communities.
- Five basic trends govern the formation, development and maintenance of online communities.
- Online communities bring people together to share common interests.
- Set six aspirational goals for developing a viable online community.
- To create an online community, you need a plan.
- Enduring communities require leaders who are capable of fresh thinking.
Communities, whether online or in-person, come together based on shared interests.
Communities form when individuals with common interests choose to gather together. These gatherings can range in number from a few people who meet in person each week to discuss their favorite books to millions who meet online to share passions such as video-gaming, as well as groups that coalesce for charitable purposes.
Community groups may meet both in-person and online, and they can work casually or in a highly formalized manner. Communities are not temporary gatherings. Instead, being in a community implies permanence and ongoing collaboration. Members engage with one another, usually enthusiastically.
“If you want to build a community, you need to understand the psychology of people and how they engage with each other.”
For example, the online group that coalesced around Fractal Audio Systems of New Hampshire is a typical product-aficionado community. The company specializes in “high-quality emulation of analog-tube amplifiers.” Its customers – 40,000 loyal users – enthusiastically come together through its online forum. Members create special sounds to share as downloads.
You can plan, create and sustain a viable online community, despite the challenges.
Many people, especially older individuals, feel modern society lacks community-mindedness. They claim that younger people would rather engage with video games, movies and other solitary pursuits than gather with others. But even if highly localized, in-person communities may have lost steam and recruiting people to join a new community isn’t easy, still the desire to be part of a community remains strong across the generations.
“We are only as good as the ideas, approaches and experiences that we are exposed to.”
Vibrant communities are living, breathing collective entities that require constant attention and renewal. If you’re a potential creator or co-creator of a group, this means providing evolving content and steady expertise.
On the positive side, because people are “social animals” and tend to herd, you can build an effective, popular community if you handle the process correctly. Advances in communications technology and internet connectivity make this a realistic goal. You can inspire people to join by explaining that communities in which members work together can accomplish much more than single individuals embarking on solo projects.
Local communities are limited in their scope and face obstacles which may prevent them from lasting long term.
Throughout history, communities have emerged from local connections. They developed inside towns, cities and regions. Communities took on a variety of forms, from book clubs to bowling groups to political gatherings to service organizations. They recruited new members by word of mouth, ads and personal invitations that organizers could extend by mail, email, phone or social media posts.
“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (African proverb)
While such communities are notably “high-touch,” they face serious limitations. Because they are localized, they can accommodate only so many members, and those members may face time demands that make it difficult to fit a recurring, time-certain meeting into their schedules.
In-person meetings do have plusses – including the chance to network and complete projects – as well as drawbacks. Often, people find themselves in a room with a group of strangers trying to collaborate or confer about a relatively incidental concern. One danger is that meetings can become boring, awkward and even pointless. If your meetings aren’t fun, productive or inspiring, people won’t have an incentive to participate and the community will dwindle.
Technological advances – especially the internet – provide great new opportunities for building communities.
During the 1980s, online message boards provided new opportunities for people to come together. Initially, these “internet pipes” could transmit only a limited amount of information, though that often included software and source code.
“The world needs new leadership, but the new leadership is about working together.” (Chinese business magnate Jack Ma)
The situation is quite different today. Numerous online communities are flourishing thanks to the remarkable expansion and increased sophistication of the internet.
Five basic trends govern the formation, development and maintenance of online communities.
As online communities coalesced, five foundational trends emerged, all of which still hold true today for those who are considering starting a community:
- “Access to a growing, globally connected audience” – Due to the internet and various advanced communication technologies, you can develop relationships with like-minded individuals worldwide.
- “Cheap commodity tools for providing access” – Inexpensive connection tools abound. If you set out to build an online community, you can take advantage of web hosting, online forums and social media outlets at no cost.
- “Immediate delivery of broad information and expertise” – In the old days, people got together, maybe weekly, perhaps at a local school or community center. The information they shared was often dated. Now, group members can connect with one another and communicate fresh information at any time.
- “Diversified methods of online collaboration” – As communication technology advances, group members develop novel ways to collaborate, particularly regarding content such as programming software, constructing hardware and pursuing creativity in the form of art, music, writing and more.
- “A growing desire for meaningful, connected work” – Sharing a purposeful goal connects community members. As they work together on their mutual goals, they can have a meaningful impact in sustaining an important cause or organization.
Online communities bring people together to share common interests.
These five trends are the essential bedrock supporting many impressive communities, including communities focused on such online pioneers as Salesforce, Lego, P&G and Nintendo.
“If you are not clear…what value your audience wants and how you can deliver it quickly and reliably for them, you risk a lot of work and a lot of failure.”
The members of communities that support well-known brands love their products, but they don’t earn paychecks for their devotion. Nevertheless, they help create extensive brand awareness, develop relevant content and provide a solid gathering place for avid users and fans. A number of lively, brand-focused online communities exist, including:
- Figment – This community of 300,000 members focuses exclusively on publisher Random House’s content.
- XBox Live – The XBox Live community has 59 million members who “play, chat and collaborate” about popular video games.
- The SAP Community Network – The 2.5 million members of this community support SAP products.
- Wikipedia – This ever-expanding, donation-supported community of writers and volunteer experts has developed more than 22 million entries on every possible topic – in 285 different languages.
- HITRECORD – The 700,000 members of this online community create books, songs and short movies.
- Open Source Community – People in this community create technology that supports and, in some cases, enables, numerous “consumer devices, data centers, the cloud and the Internet itself.”
To develop a viable online community, set six aspirational goals.
When you start to create an online community, be specific about what you want to achieve. Define six aspirational goals. This involves listing a half-dozen important elements you hope to bring to your community’s members: “access, contribute, self-respect, dignity, impact and belonging.”
“Humans are wired up to be quite willing to invest our time and effort if there is an outcome we consider valuable.”
Communities start with individuals who can access the data, tools, expertise and permissions they need to contribute something of value. This value takes various forms. The group might supply helpful insights, create content or software, share or develop information, support a cause, or contribute something else worthwhile. However, everything your community hopes to accomplish starts with establishing access to the people it needs to reach. As new community members make valuable contributions, their sense of self-worth, belonging and dignity will build. Psychologically, such feelings are essential for a new group to coalesce. Such positive feelings are the lifeblood of any new group.
“[Dignity provides] pride, peace, social acceptance, and an intrinsic sense of value.”
Members’ understanding that their individual offerings are meaningful, not trivial, contributes to a necessary sense of dignity. Successful communities establish a clear connection between individual members’ contributions and the group’s overall purpose. Group members need to see that their contributions have a notable effect. For example, consider the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group. Members are proud of their individual contributions, which add to the Sierra Club’s stellar reputation, its many public works and its environmental activism. All these good feelings culminate in a sense of belonging, which is essential to the well-being of any community. Belonging is a community’s “ultimate psychological treasure.”
To create an online community, you need a plan.
People generally start the process of developing an online community with broad ideas about how to deliver value to their members. Their big question is, “where to begin?” Online communities don’t just pop up. First, you must know clearly what will bind your community together.
“Don’t use half measures. Get in there, roll your sleeves up, quit your excuses and make it happen.”
Like most ambitious undertakings, you need a plan. Make it brave and bold. Develop the best plan you can, then stay with it. Update it as necessary. A plan gives you a viable starting point. Don’t commit to a complex strategy, just be consistent and move ahead step by step. As things develop, be aware of people’s reactions and the results you’re getting, so you can adjust as necessary. Tweak your strategy accordingly. Keep your eye on the big picture. Your challenge is to be visionary and detail-oriented at the same time; spell everything out for your members and prospective members.
Let’s say your vision is to change how local companies compete internationally. In that case, you might phrase your mission as, “building a worldwide group of ambitious local business owners who want to find international customers.” Your community vision is the “engine” that powers your work to build this community and gives it meaning. To begin, write a short “community mission statement” detailing your vision. Make sure your community-building plan is relevant and meaningful to prospective members. Meaning is the essential fuel that powers online communities.
Your community will need a well-developed “community engagement model.” Consider three possibilities:
- The “consumer” model – Hundreds of thousands of consumer communities exist online. Consumers regularly congregate in cyberspace to discuss their shared interest in particular products and services.
- The “champion” model – This model features consumers who go beyond discussing their shared interest in specific products or services. They engage in work – such as content creation, for example – that promotes the success of the community or its purpose.
- The “collaborator” model – This turbocharges the content-creation of the champion model in that individual members work together on complex group projects. This is an open-source process.
Collaboration is the key to successful online communities. Consider TensorFlow, a project Google initiated in 2015. This “open-source, machine-learning project” now involves more than 1,700 online volunteers.
Enduring communities require leaders who are capable of fresh thinking.
Maintaining a prolific community is an ongoing activity. To sustain your community, you must sustain yourself as a leader. You must realize that, despite appearances, you haven’t completely figured out every detail about community building. Constantly refresh your thinking with new ideas. Ask knowledgeable community experts what you should do to keep your community vibrant and strong. Study what other community developers have done and adapt their strategies and actions to sustain your community.
“Treat everything as a test condition, and it will keep your mind open and your feet on the ground.”
Examine your thinking. Regard your assumptions as hypotheses to test, not as established law. As you achieve community success, share your ideas about what works with other leaders. Demonstrate your vulnerability as a leader. Acknowledge missteps you’ve made along the way. When you show your openness to learn from your mistakes, people inside and outside your community will respect you. Vulnerable leaders are more open to the new ideas and approaches that help community groups grow and thrive.
About the Author
Jono Bacon created the Community Experience Masterclass.
Here is a summary and review of the book People Powered: How Communities Can Supercharge Your Business, Brand, and Teams by Jono Bacon:
People Powered is a book about the power of communities to drive value for businesses, brands, and teams. The author, Jono Bacon, is a community builder and technologist with over 20 years of experience. He argues that communities are more important than ever in today’s digital age, and that businesses that can harness the power of communities will have a significant competitive advantage.
The book is divided into three parts:
Part 1: The Power of Communities This section explores the benefits of building and nurturing communities. Bacon argues that communities can help businesses to:
- Increase customer loyalty
- Generate new ideas and innovation
- Improve customer service
- Build brand awareness
- Attract new talent
Part 2: Building a Successful Community This section provides practical advice on how to build and manage a successful community. Bacon covers topics such as:
- Defining your community’s purpose
- Attracting members
- Creating a sense of belonging
- Managing conflict
- Measuring success
Part 3: The Future of Communities This section looks at the future of communities and how businesses can continue to benefit from them. Bacon discusses trends such as the rise of artificial intelligence and the metaverse, and how these technologies can be used to enhance community experiences.
People Powered is a well-written and informative book that provides a comprehensive overview of the power of communities. Bacon is an experienced community builder, and he shares his insights and expertise in a clear and engaging way. The book is full of practical advice that can be used by businesses of all sizes.
One of the strengths of People Powered is that it is not just a theoretical book. Bacon provides specific examples of how businesses have used communities to achieve their goals. He also includes a number of case studies that illustrate the benefits of community building.
Another strength of People Powered is that it is forward-looking. Bacon discusses the future of communities and how businesses can continue to benefit from them. He is not afraid to challenge the status quo, and he offers a thought-provoking vision for the future of community building.
Overall, People Powered is an excellent book for anyone who is interested in learning more about the power of communities. It is a comprehensive and informative resource that will help businesses to build and manage successful communities.