- The purpose of online communities
- Online communities for heritage organisations
- Selecting a platform for your online community
- Practical set-up tips
- Attracting members to your community
- How to grow and sustain an online community
- Trouble-shooting common challenges
- Evaluating the success of your online community
An online community — or web community, virtual community or internet community — is a group of people, united by something such as a common interest, purpose or values, who primarily communicate with each other in a virtual space using the internet. It involves community members having the opportunity to interact with each other, not just receive communication such as an e-newsletter. An online community can exist on a range of platforms; be small or with hundreds of thousands of members; consist solely of people from the local area or from across the globe; be temporary or much longer-term.
An online community … is a group of people, united by something such as a common interest, purpose or values, who primarily communicate with each other in a virtual space using the internet.
Whilst there are many different types of online communities on different platforms, they are typically about building relationships and connections, and exchanging information. Some examples are:
- Fan communities that form around a brand, company or personality – they can be official, such as followers of the official Formula 1 Facebook page, or unofficial Facebook groups about Formula 1 created by fans;
- Professional support, learning and networking communities, for example:
- Communities that provide opportunities for people to participate and discuss, such as online book clubs and Open Eye Gallery’s community of chat rooms and ongoing public conversations on Discord;
- Local community groups such as a neighbourhood or street WhatsApp group;
- Communities built around life stage, such as Facebook groups around retirement;
- Communities based around common interests and hobbies, for example the BBC Good Food Together Facebook group, the Show Your Art space on Quora and the Subreddit on gaming on Reddit;
- Communities centred on membership for example the Facebook group for paid subscribers to the Body Coach App and a Discord server (group) for members of a local football club;
- Product support communities such as the Instant Pot® Community (the Facebook group for users of Instant Pots) and Canva Design Circle (the group for users of design software);
- Communities around advocacy and action, such as the ZeroWaste community on Reddit.
The first step is deciding what you want to achieve with an online community and who you want to reach. Typically for heritage and cultural organisations the main reason to create an online community will centre on engagement and participation, providing a virtual space for audiences to interact with the organisation and each other. It can also be a good way of listening to and understanding audiences better. This may also indirectly help encourage brand loyalty, repeat visits and donations; create formal or informal brand ambassadors; lead to more volunteers and much more.
For a museum or heritage site, an online community may form loosely around the organisation’s main social media channels. Or it might be created more explicitly as a community for a specific audience and/or with criteria to join.
Consider who might benefit from participation in an online community. Is there an audience group that you want to reach that is not currently served by existing channels and activities? Or perhaps a segment that wants more and deeper engagement with your organisation? Creating and running online communities well can be very time-consuming, so make sure your organisation will gain something from it, and that the needs of the audiences aren’t already being met elsewhere.
Creating and running online communities well can be very time-consuming, so make sure your organisation will gain something from it, and that the needs of the audiences aren’t already being met elsewhere.
The platform choice should follow the audience and purpose. You can use an existing, free platform such as the examples above, which is generally the best option for smaller organisations. Aside from being free, the main advantages are ease of set-up and that many of your audiences are already likely to be there and familiar with how to use the platforms. However, you have limited control over the functionality, they are often full of distractions such as adverts and other groups competing for attention, and not everyone already has a profile on all social media platforms or wants to spend a lot of time on them.
The alternative is to develop your own platform for more control and bespoke functionality. For example, the Museum Next online conference community meets on its own website with access only to those who have paid for tickets, and the Work Notes community of freelancers is hosted on its own website “separate from the noise of social media.” Website content management systems such as WordPress will usually have templates and plug-ins you can use. However, using your own platform can be costly, there’s likely to be a steeper learning curve for users at the outset, and users need to remember (or be prompted) to actively go to the community regularly.
- Use the guides developed by the platform you choose. For example, this guide from Facebook on setting up a group.
- Have clear roles within your organisation – the administrator will typically create the group and control all the settings; a moderator supports the administrator to keep an eye on the group’s content, members and activity.
- Aim for more than one person to be involved to spread the workload and provide cover throughout the year.
- Decide how much time you are prepared to invest in the community – at the outset and to maintain it over time. Be clear with members if there will only be moderation and support on weekdays during certain hours.
- Choose whether you want the community to be open for anyone to join, invite-only or something in between – people request to join, and your organisation approves members. This could be after they have ticked a box to say they have read and agreed to follow the rules and/or have answered a couple of qualifying questions.
- If you want potential community members to be able to search and find the community, use an obvious name for the community that does what it says on the tin.
- Have a clear description of the community so that people considering joining know what to expect and what’s in it for them.
- Create and share a set of rules so that everyone understands expectations, feels safe and so that the content stays relevant and valuable. Typical rules often include:
- Decide whether members can post directly or whether you want to approve all members’ posts before they go live (the latter means you retain more control but is time-consuming, needs constant attention and members can feel less invested in the group as a result).
- Provide any onboarding necessary and consider writing welcome messages to new members.
- Start with a plan to get the ball rolling – a list of topic prompts and question ideas so you keep a steady stream of new content and approach people you think will be interested in the community and encourage them to post.
- Ensure you adhere to data protection and privacy laws – the Data Protection Act includes information about social networking and online communities.
- Set the tone and model the behaviour you want at the outset.
- Aim to build some critical mass of content and members early so that people who join your community at the outset benefit straight away. That way they are incentivised to keep returning and tell others about it, rather than lose interest.
- Be crystal clear on who the community is for, and the benefits and value they will enjoy by joining. What does the community give them (ideally that they can’t get elsewhere) – information, a sense of belonging, stimulation, opportunities to connect with like-minded people, something exclusive?
- Authenticity and transparency are key – if audiences think they are joining the community to chat with like-minded people but just get bombarded with promotional content and surveys, they will leave.
- Send invitations to your target audiences, explaining what the online community is about and why they should join.
- Tell everyone at your organisation about the community and ask them to share if appropriate.
- Identify potential influencers or super members and ask them to share the community with their networks. For example, the leader of a local history group (providing they wouldn’t see your community as a competitor to theirs) or someone who regularly engages a lot with your social media content.
- If the group is a public one, publicise it where you can – your website, e-newsletter, social media channels, at events and so on.
- Encourage participation: tag and welcome new members and encourage them to introduce themselves; ask for questions from members; ask questions and use polls; celebrate and thank contributors; listen, comment and respond promptly.
- Decide if you want to have regular content to maintain momentum and allow members to know what to expect. For example, “Ask us anything Tuesdays”, “Monday motivation” or a regular Friday afternoon quiz.
- Look at analytics and be familiar with the content and activities in the community – what is working? Which types of posts, content and questions are popular? Who are the main contributors?
- Trail things that are coming up in the community in the future to encourage people to return.
- Provide something that members value that they can’t get anywhere else – a sneak peek behind the scenes, a chance to ask questions to staff in a live broadcast, the first glimpse of an exhibition being mounted, the chance to have their say on plans.
- Ensure accessibility is at the heart of what you do so that as many people as possible can enjoy participation in your community.
- Reinforce the rules to ensure that the space stays welcoming and safe for members.
- One of the biggest challenges with online communities is maintaining interest and momentum over time, with active member participation. Nurture a community and norms that will encourage participation from the outset.
- In successful communities, members (especially frequent contributors) often feel invested in and even ownership of the group, which is usually a positive. The community will also develop its own norms and sometimes also its own abbreviations and language. Ensure new members can navigate this (through welcome messages and posts explaining any norms and abbreviations) so they don’t feel alienated. This sense of investment and ownership of the group can also lead to some members being challenging, for example if they feel moderators are being heavy-handed. Strike a balance between relinquishing some control as the group evolves, and ensuring that the community still serves its intended purpose, that the rules are adhered to and the group remains a kind and useful space.
- If you have a lot of members but engagement starts to drop off, can you identify why this is? Are there many members who prefer to read and listen rather than contribute? Are there members who aren’t sure about the group’s etiquette or how to navigate the technology? Which content has been popular in the past? How are members finding the group? Is the community’s description still accurate or has the content and membership evolved over time?
- Have a clear process for what to do when members break the rules. Does one violation mean immediate removal from the community, do you delete the post in question, direct message the member with an explanation, use a 7-day suspension, have a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy?
- It can be difficult and intensive to be a community moderator – hard work to constantly come up with new content to share, and disheartening if there are limited or no responses. It can also be tricky having to defuse disagreements and deal with aggressive behaviour. Ensure you provide appropriate support for moderators. For example, provide training for them; have more than one person responsible for this work, clear community rules and a clear escalation process; and be clear on when the work should be done (not 24/7).
- You can also join and learn from other existing communities out there to pick up tips and inspiration on what works well and how to deal with potential issues.
How you evaluate your online community will depend on what you want it to achieve. A lot of platforms will provide you with analytics you can use to track community membership numbers, growth and engagement. You might want to track the total number of users, new users month-on-month or year-on-year, lost or churned users per quarter; total engagements (such as likes or comments), how many members started a conversation or thread, what proportion of total users liked or commented each quarter, what proportion of total users were inactive.
Growth numbers may not be relevant if the community is set up for a small group of relatively static members (such as volunteers), in which case retention, engagement and user satisfaction will be more important. If engagement is the main objective, don’t expect ticket sales or in-person visitor numbers to necessarily skyrocket as a direct result. If you want to nurture the online community to take particular actions outside the community, can you track this? For example, share a particular URL for your website just within the group and look at page views this generates. Remember that people like to engage in different ways – some people are more comfortable observing and not participating, but will still get a lot out of the community. Mini polls or an annual survey can help to establish what community members value and enjoy, and ways to develop the community in the future.
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Please attribute as: "How can we build new and inclusive online communities? (2022) by Christina Lister supported by The Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0