Building a community

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

It doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t always work the way you expected. Here are some of the strategies I have used in creating, building, developing and maintaining a community.

Recently I have been talking with others about community and building communities, something I have done in the past with some success (and sometimes not so much success). I don’t believe there is any one way to build a community, but in a similar way I don’t think doing one thing such as a mailing list, or an event, or a Twitter hashtag will result in a community. I have found you need to do a range of things, as some stuff works for some people and other stuff works for others.

In this blog post I will discuss some of the ways in which I have had to build communities as part of my professional practice. Though the communities were different, there were some key things that I did to build those communities. Also there are some aspects that were features of all these communities

What is a community? Why do you want to build a community? Who will be part of your community and why would they want to be part of your community?

Its also worthwhile thinking about the life of the community, is this an ad hoc pop-up community, or are you trying to establish a more permanent community.

In this context it is worthwhile to write down the vision for the community, what is it you are trying to achieve through the community. It is also useful to establish some objectives as well. Over time you can re-visit these, but having them written down does help in the process of building a community and determining if you are being successful or not.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Back in 2008 or so, when I was a MoLeNET Mentor working with people such as Lilian Soon, Dave Sugden and Ron Mitchell (and others) I was helping to build a community of FE people interested in mobile learning. We wanted to start a community as part of the MoLeNET programme, but did not expect that we would continue to support the community beyond the life of the MoLeNET programme. This doesn’t mean that the community wouldn’t or couldn’t continue, but as part of the planning, this wasn’t a key objective. The funding was planned for three years, so we expected the community to be around for that length of time.

Whereas when I was building the Jisc Intelligent Campus community, I wanted this to last as long as Jisc was working in this space, so it was important to think about both the short term objectives, but also the longer term objectives as well.

When starting to build the community, it’s useful to lay the foundations for that community. What tools are you going to use, what services will you be using and how do you expect others to use those tools.

The sort of things I did for the MoLeNET community included using tools such as Jaiku (and then the Twitter) to use micro-blogging to connect and communicate. We also did online webinars, which were interesting and fun to do. We did a lot of podcasting as well. Another thing we did was blogging. Those were in the main broadcast mechanisms, we also used e-mail to tell people in the community what was happening and what they could do.

For engagement we ran workshops and events. It wasn’t just one kind of event either, there were workshops, as well as conferences and meetings. The key I think was about connecting, communicating and sharing. What was challenging at the time (well it was 2008) was building online engagement and discussion. Today that might be easier.

I did a similar thing when I started to build the Intelligent Campus community. I started off using Twitter in the main, using a hashtag #IntelligentCampus to connect what I was saying. I posted relevant and interesting links (well I thought they were interesting) to Twitter as well. I also blogged a lot, sometimes it was about what the project was doing, but I also blogged about stuff other people were doing. These posts were shared on Twitter, but also through an embryonic mailing list, well people still like e-mail. I made a point too of posting a monthly digest to the mailing list. I also ran community events where as well as me presenting, I also got members of the community to present as well.

Another thing is to attend other events and present, something I did for both MoLeNET and the Intelligent Campus. This enables you to introduce the community to others and hopefully get them to join and engage with the community.

student on a laptop
Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

There are various tools and services in any community toolbox that can be used to build, develop and maintain a community. Thinking about the different stages of building a community is also critical to successfully building a community.

When you start, you have no community, you need to bring together people who have an interest in this space. Building a community is hard, so now I use a range of tools, such as social media (well in the main Twitter), also mailing lists and for me blogging. Interesting and useful blog posts can engage people and get them to participate in the community. It also acts as a way of helping people to understand what the community is about and what they will get from the community.

Communities don’t just grow, they need to be cared for and nurtured. This means you need to plan to bring people onboard to the community. This doesn’t need to be done alone, as you start to build a community you will meet others, and using their expertise and knowledge can help. Get others to write blog posts for you, as well as using the Twitter hashtag for example.

Maintaining a community is an important task. As I mentioned sending regular digests of news and links was one thing I did for the Intelligent Campus community, but also posting questions to the mailing lists to stimulate discussion (when things were quiet on the list). When I was running the Digital Capability project at Jisc, I would write regular blog posts about digital capability, but would also present on the subject at external events.

For me the success of the communities was when I became less important and was less of a focus for the community and others started to put themselves forward. They were posting stuff on the Twitter, publishing their own blog posts and even running their own events.

Determining the success of your community enables you to decide if you should continue or let the community die. Do you want to put metrics on your activities for example? For some of my communities measuring activity was important, so I did look at data and analytics of visits to the website and the blog, but also recording who was using the community hashtag.

Starting and building a community is not an easy task, but one thing to recognise, rarely does it just happen…

So what do you do to build a community?

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