Updated: Apr 26, 2021
The Basics of Creating Community in a Virtual Cassroom:
There are many free and paid technology options for starting an online community. While choosing software it is important to consider: 1) ease of use rather than just a feature checklist, 2) access to data, and 3) compliance with the regulations and standards of your industry.
We have seen time and again that building and sustaining a vibrant community is much harder than just starting one, so plan accordingly. Anything that takes more than 1 to 2 clicks to join tends to have less uptake by potential community members. While choosing a solution, it may seem like getting more people signed up to the community is the main task that will get a drum beat going, but what tends to be more important (and challenging!) is to get those who do sign up to come back again and again. Make sure you budget your resources in terms of community management and content strategy accordingly and that you consider ways to make your community “sticky” for its members. We’ve seen that the most important thing is that the community provides value to its members in exchange for their time.
Having a steady stream of posts or new content for community members to interact with seems to be key, and the easiest way to build and maintain that is to find ways to encourage your community to be both the consumer and supplier.
Over time, you will find that knowing who is “disengaged” is more important than knowing who is most engaged. Typically, these less engaged community members are your most “vulnerable” and at risk of disengaging entirely (i.e., finding a new job, dropping out, abandoning your product). It’s important also to recognize that “engagement” is often way more complex than meets the eye. Looking at a community “feed”, it is easy to tell who is overtly engaged. You can see these people posting or commenting with others.
However, imagine someone who logs in 10 times a day to read posts and comments, but who rarely actively participates. These types of people are often referred to as “lurkers” because they are interested in the content and learn from it, but interact little with others. This kind of engagement shouldn’t be dismissed as unimportant.
In fact, it’s actually somewhat critical for people in a healthy community to listen more than they talk!
Having a clear data access plan is also important. Planning ahead will save you headaches over data collection, will help you learn how best to manage your community, and will make it so that you can properly justify (or question) your investments in the community. Some forethought about your community data will also put you on a much safer path towards regulatory compliance. You should definitely be aware of local regulations that are relevant to your community, such as FERPA for universities in the US. After doing the work of getting a good community going, you do not want to find out your use is non-compliant. On the topic of regulations, you should also consider whether the platform is compliant with user accessibility standards in your area (e.g., ADA and WCAG 2.0 AA compliance). A number of American universities have settled large lawsuits related to failing to provide accessible experiences for their students.
The Ground Rules:
Even the best communities need some leadership to sustain themselves. It is important that you set up community guidelines before you launch. Communicate what is acceptable and what is not. When considering a product, look for options to automatically block certain content, for reporting tools that community members can use to self-enforce community standards, and for ways to bring down disruptive posts and comments. If you create a healthy community, the number of times you need this functionality will be minimal, but easily being able to moderate your community will reduce the negative impact of a random bad actor.