Rachel Happe, of The Community Roundtable, just published the best blog post I’ve read in a long time about how to nurture a successful online community. A key point is that members who have a lot of social influence within a community may be preventing full community participation. Her main points are stated thus:
1. Behavior within a community of peers can be influenced by a “flow of influence” within the community
2. Focusing on the most active community members and most popular content can kill community
3. A good community manager should encourage broad participation, actively reaching out to those less likely to participate
One participatory inhibitor is the presence of online influencers. It’s a funny tension, because an online community is naturally proud of its influencers and “social media rock stars.” Social media rockstar (or nptech rockstar) members will certainly bring more attention to a cause, project, or nonprofit. This attention will help the organization more easily reach its advocacy, fundraising, or other goals. Their presence also assures that others will be interested in joining the group.
However, an online community can be hobbled by influencers as well. Happe states in her post: “Highlighting the most popular only reinforces for the majority of members that their voices don’t matter because they don’t have popular attention.” In my own work within social media communities, I’ve seen that a few loud voices can dominate group conversation. I’ve also seen group members pander to, or consistently agree with, members who have a lot of social media influence. The same thing tends to happen on Twitter (we all want that rock star influencer to retweet us) and in real life (we all want to meet a rock star influencer at a conference and have that person really, really like us…)
Some essential elements of a strong, participatory community are that:
Members begin to feel social obligation to other
Everyone feels comfortable participating fully, and
Group relationships become interconnected
Interconnected relationships between group members strengthens the group as a whole. Weak ties become stronger as those members within the community move communal relationships to individual relationships outside of the group. (I’ve written about the strength progression of social media ties here.) However, nptech rock stars within a group creates a “gawker effect” (my phrasing) which can inhibit full participation, lead to in-cliques and out-cliques, and inhibit external relationship-building. I’m not saying that a community doesn’t want a few rock stars inside the community, but I am saying that both the influential members and the community manager have an obligation to ensure the long-term growth of the community.
Encouraging new leaders and community involvement requires vigilance and outreach, especially in groups with “influential” members
Rachel offers six solid suggestions for encouraging broad community participation, which are worthwhile to read. To those, I’ll add five more:
1. Welcome groups of new members as they join. A simple “welcome (names of up to 10 new members) to our group! Please take a minute to introduce yourself and your interests” is a great way of making newcomers feel welcome. One Linkedin group administrator sends out a monthly update to all members welcoming and listing the names of each new member and his/her city and country. Mentioning my name made me feel personally welcome.
2. Ask established influencers or leaders to send personal or public messages to new members who join, welcoming them. In one Facebook Group that I administer, I asked a group of established and talkative members to consider sending a personal message through Facebook to new members welcoming them to the group. Group members have mentioned this gesture as something that made them feel very welcome.
3. Ask members that post infrequently, but offer great ideas, to expand those into a longer blog post or lead a discussion about an idea. I’ve seen the quietest member participate more frequently after asking her if I could interview her for a blog post.
4. Make the community calendar transparent and inclusive. Do you hold a monthly mastermind call or community discussion? Do you offer specific types of content to the community monthly? Create a system where all members have the opportunity to offer ideas and suggest themselves as content creators or discussion leaders within the community.
5. Encourage social media rockstars (group influencers) to consider themselves community cultivators. Ask them how they think that they could reach out to help others feel welcome.
Full community participation is ideal and the role of a good organizer is to encourage new leadership and participatory opportunities for everyone. As an example, Rachel offers the idea of highlighting content that doesn’t have a lot of comments. Why? “Because highlighting the least reviewed content encourages content creation and participation from every member.” Absolutely.