The Practical Guide to Building Online Communities

Online communities shape the relationship between a company and its distributed workforce. They also foster connections between workers, enriching both their professional and personal lives. In this article, David Abramovich, the Online Community Leader at Toptal, shares fundamental steps to successfully cultivate this critical ingredient that increasingly impacts the future of work.
7 min read

The benefits of a distributed workforce are undeniable, both for employers and workers. Companies are able to tap into a deeper talent pool, enjoy the benefits of increased worker productivity, and reduce overhead. Workers access more job opportunities, spend more time delivering value and honing skills, and gain lifestyle flexibility. As an alternative to the on-site organization the distributed counterpart increasingly shapes the future of work.

To cultivate a thriving distributed workforce, companies must invest in building online communities. Remote work makes sense for many roles but there are new challenges that must be taken into account to ensure success. One critical vulnerability is worker isolation; without a physical office and in-person interactions with colleagues, it is much easier for the remote worker to lose motivation, engage less, and eventually churn out of the organization. One antidote to such isolation is a vibrant online community.

Onboarding maximizes participation and long-term retention

When contemplating how to create an online community, companies must first recognize that they are calling on their distributed workers to develop new habits. Specifically, they are seeking repeated behavior that may not come naturally at first.

However, deliberate effort translates into intrinsic motivation and continued participation. Therefore, it is critical to identify the early actions that will drive long-term engagement. In the case of online community, three elements are critical to effective onboarding:

Pick a tool: The online community thrives when members participate. Online collaboration tools, such as Slack, make it easy for members to discover - or even create - discussions around topics of interest and create lasting connections with their colleagues.

Encourage members to participate: Following the most critical action - joining the platform - the second step is to get involved and participate. Whether for professional development, or bonding around personal interests, interacting with other members is critical to driving long-term participation. However, do not forget your lurkers, which can make up as much as 90% of your community. Make sure the information you want everyone to have can be surfaced easily by all members, not just the heavy contributors.

Provide an introductory deck or video: Make it clear up front what new members stand to gain by joining and contributing to the online community. Ultimately, new behavior needs to map back to the question: What’s in it for me? Highlight opportunities for members to gain skills, develop new connections, and interact with your organization. Briefly explain how your platform works, and encourage them to join it as step #1.

Organize: If your online community is more mature, it is probably also overwhelming to newcomers. Break it down in a way that is approachable and enticing. Categorize the sections of your platform in the simplest way possible, ideally boiling it down to a handful of categories (ex: skill types, professional topics, personal interests). Create an easily accessible directory.

Develop and enforce a code of conduct

For an online community to thrive, its members must trust and respect each other. In order to ensure such behavior, members must subscribe to a common set of norms and expectations.

A code of conduct provides the basic ground-rules that guide member behavior. While the guidance could be broad and open to interpretation or finely detailed, the most important question it should answer for any member - whether new or old - is the following: is this activity appropriate in this environment?

”A code of conduct provides the basic ground-rules that guide member behavior.”

Generally speaking the code of conduct should provide members three critical sets of information:

Behavioral beacons: These are the behavioral habits to which all members should aspire. Before posting a new idea, answering a question, or offering a different point of view, a member should consider if her contribution satisfies these criteria. As such, this list should be concise and focus on the most important desired behavior.

Unacceptable behavior: These are the clear no-no’s, the actions that are unacceptable under any circumstances. While the permissibility of such behavior may seem tacit, it is important to clearly spell out the types of interaction and expression that will result in warning, and if uncorrected, eventual banning.

Reporting: Make it easy for people to point out unacceptable behavior. Again, while it might seem clear that members should contact the Online Community Manager, for example, explicitly encouraging such outreach reminds members that enforcement is a priority.

Metrics matter, but they are not everything

“What gets measured gets managed,” goes the famous Peter Drucker saying. While metrics are harder to establish in less quantitative functions such as online community, the directive still holds up.

Measuring online communities generally falls into two camps: the subjective “believers” and the analytical “ROI” crowd. Viewing online community exclusively through either lens omits important signals that all online community managers should monitor.

”One of the clearest indications of a healthy online community is when community members actively help each other.”

The quantitative view centers primarily on inputs and outputs that suggest whether the online community is achieving its mission. Inputs are directionally informative, but not de facto proof of success For example, inputs could illustrate member engagement, based on metrics such as percentage of members posting, and average messages per member per month. Essentially, these metrics could confirm - or raise a cautionary flag - if members are actively joining the platform and interacting. However, these inputs do nothing to measure the quality of said interactions.

Output metrics are clear signs that the community is achieving its stated mission. These could include end-goals such as code-related questions answered (in the case of a developer community), or new projects matched to talent (in the case of a talent network). Intermediate signs of success, such as new channels created, or new direct messages initiated, also signal a healthy online community.

One of the clearest indications of a healthy online community is when community members actively help each other. If a member asks a question, and before you can answer, another member jumps in and helps them out, this is a sign of a robust, well-functioning community.

Hire an experienced Community Manager

As with any business unit, the online community deserves a dedicated manager. Ultimately, this manager must develop strategies that encourage members to join and participate.

Identify power users: An Online Community Manager cannot monitor all conversations at once. Encouraging power users is crucial for maintaining a clearer idea of a community’s health. Individuals who are most active and passionate are the obvious choices to become community leaders. Recognizing and rewarding these passionate members is key in keeping them motivated and excited.

Monitor channels: Identify your “goldilocks” zone for the optimal size of your community sub-groups. Smaller communities foster stronger connections between their members, but they cannot be so small that there is very little participation. Within the online context of a tool like Slack, the sweet spot for channel size is roughly 500-1000 members.

Before you start building online communities, work with senior leadership to establish why it should exist. Buy-in at all levels of your organization is key in order to ensure success. Specifically, help the team develop a clear understanding of the need the community will fill and how it will help everyone else in their roles. Consider your online community a product. As with any product, make sure you create something that will compel your entire organization to adopt, evangelize, and refine it.






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