A couple of months ago a colleague poked his head into my office and asked, “How do you find your community?” He was charged with helping foster community in a certain area, and while he had extremely deep subject matter expertise in this area, he didn’t know who else at the company shared this interest and expertise, or how to find them. I quickly answered off the top of my head:
Go out and do stuff and see who comes.
By “do stuff,” I mean design and facilitate an in-person gathering, host an online meetup featuring an expert talking about a tool or process or experience, hold a special event like a film screening, or do any other activity that will draw the attention of people at the company who might be interested in whatever topic your community is about.
Invite people via aliases, Yammer, your personal network, your colleagues’ personal networks, and any other means you have. Encourage people to forward the invite–it’s 100% sure that you won’t be able to reach your potential audience yourself.
Remember the mantra: “Plan. Do. Plan. Do. Plan. Do.” As you start to foster your community, don’t overengineer it and develop a bunch of complex plans before you actually do anything. People are unpredictable, and you don’t know what will work. Decide what you want to accomplish, try it, measure the results, and adjust before you try something else.
My second piece of advice was:
Find a way to engage further with those who show up.
When you put your time and effort into arranging something of value for people, don’t be shy about asking for something back. Get feedback on the event itself. Ask what other events people would be interested in. Find out what problems they’re dealing with. Discover the best idea they’ve heard this week. Or even, give them special advance notice the next time you put something together for the community.
Your ask doesn’t have to be heavy-duty–but make it clear that their response adds value back into the community that you are starting to form. This reciprocal investment into the community will tie you closer together than if you simply provide something without asking for something in return.
If anyone offers a standout response, figure out ways to engage deeper with them–these people will probably end up being to core of your community. So, you send out a signal, and if you get a response, you focus your future signaling most strongly on those people.
After I talked to my colleague, I realized that there are two important caveats to my advice.
Don’t be so uninformed that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
This wasn’t an issue for my colleague, but many community managers may not have deep knowledge in the community’s area of interest. You don’t necessarily need deep knowledge, but you need to have some knowledge, so make sure to do basic research. If you don’t feel like you can answer tough questions, at least make sure you can ask smart ones.
And then finally:
Don’t act so smart that your community members feel stupid by comparison.
Your goal in fostering community isn’t to provide all the expertise yourself, and if you don’t leave room for other people to show their expertise, you’ll never attract the kind of experts who will help your community grow. So even if you do have deep knowledge, consciously dial it back and allow others to share the limelight.
- Go out and do stuff and see who comes
- Find a way to engage further with those who show up
- Don’t be so uninformed that you don’t know what you’re talking about
- Don’t act so smart that your community members feel stupid by comparison
What did I get right? What looks wrong? LMK in the comments.
Photo Credit: Philip Chapman-bell