Have you ever walked into a house and felt an immediate sense of unease?

Well, about ten years ago, I was at my significant other’s apartment on the fourth floor in North Austin, and just to paint you a picture this is the same apartment complex where they filmed office space.

I walked down the four flights of stairs to the parking lot to get something out of my car, and when I came back up the stairs and walked into the apartment, I immediately felt like something was terribly off. It probably had something to do with a strange woman laying on a blanket in the middle of the living room floor wearing nothing but a puzzled look on her face. To my horror, I realized that I walked into the wrong apartment. I was one floor off.

Well, that was ten years ago, and since then I’ve walked into nearly 100 strangers’ houses.

But don’t worry! That’s because I’m an assistant to the Weird Homes Tour.

Weird Homes Tour is a for profit social benefit company that works with homeowners across the United States in order to open up their weird, otherworldly, strange, interesting houses up to the public to tour for one day. So yeah, I’ve walked into a lot of strangers’ houses and met a lot of interesting hosts. I’ve soaked up the vibe of a lot of these spaces. People and spaces that have:

And, as a community consultant, I’ve also walked into quite a few online communities. What I’ve learned is that whether physical or virtual, that feeling you get when you walk through the front door sets the tone for the remainder of your experience there. This pivotal moment is important and should not be left up to chance. It should be strategic and well-crafted. It should have purpose and be predictable.

Now, the worst feeling in the world is to walk into a community that you fully expect to belong to and feel safe in, but instead feel out of place – like you’ve just walked into the wrong apartment at the absolutely wrong time.

So…what feelings does your community inspire in your members?

Well, the feeling we WANT to inspire in our members is the feeling of walking into a good friend’s house for the very first time but feeling like you’ve been there a million times before. That feeling of instant belonging, that sense of emotional safety. The sense that you can be yourself and be vulnerable. That feeling of being seen and heard and that you matter. That inspired, excited feeling of wanting to learn and grow and share with other people.

Community Soup

These are all ingredients that make up what I call a “community soup.”

The sense of community theory, which was founded by McMillan and Chavis, is vital to our work. It’s the engine of all communities. Organizations want members to have a sense of community because research shows that it may lead to increased activity, investment, engagement and member retention. So yeah, it’s an easy sell. Yes, we want a sense of community.

Except, it’s not easy to measure. How do you measure a feeling? How do we tie specific metrics to a feeling?

We as community managers and builders are consumed with wanting to correlate specific metrics to a sense of community.

Metrics are extremely important in telling us the potential for engagement, but not necessarily the real picture. You may have a high number of page visits and post views, and from that you can infer that the content is useful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the content is contributing to a member’s sense of community.

How do we know if our members have a sense of community?

Luckily, the sense of community index (SCI) tool, which is a survey based on McMillan and Chavis’s decades of research, can be used to measure our member’s sense of community level. However, even with this wonderful tool, there are challenges.

  1. Sample size. We send out surveys like the SCI, but often we don’t get enough responses for the required sample size. For example, a community of 36,000 members will need to have approximately 600 to 2,000 survey responses in order to have a margin of error and confidence level in the results to hang our hat on. What should not happen is getting a couple responses back and then make sweeping changes to a community platform.
  2. Low Sense of Community. An inherit issue with this approach is that members with a low sense of community many not fill out the survey in the first place! Members need to be in the community long enough in order to measure their sense of community but by then you might have already lost them.
  3. Now what? Assuming that you are able to obtain enough submissions and the results tell you that you have a sense of community problem. Now what? The survey results aren’t going to tell you where in your process or platform to make changes.

So, in a way, metrics and survey results can be like DNA at a crime scene. You may have the DNA, but that doesn’t quite mean you understand the motives and can understand the bigger picture.

How do you find out what your members aren’t telling you?

In addition to your metrics and using a validated survey tool like the SCI survey, my proposal is to take the SCI tool and flip the script. What I mean by that is to take the survey items and turn them into a checklist for yourself as you walk through the community and view it through your members’ eyes. However, in order to effectively do this, you must first understand your members to the core. You must know that your members’ goals may not be the same as your organization’s goals. Identify the reasons why your members walked through that door in the first place. Know their hopes and aspirations. Understand what motivates them to want to learn and grow. And it doesn’t hurt to also understand the problems they’re facing in their industry.

Along with this, as a community admin, you are wearing all the hats. You’re the all-seeing all-knowing god of the community. You’re standing on top of this mountain and have this 5,000-foot view of your community, but that also means you may not see the minutia of your members’ day to day life. Instead of not being able to see the forest for the trees, you may not be able to see the trees for the forest. In order to see your community through your members’ eyes, you must shed your bias. And maybe even your ego if you’ve had a hand in building the community from the ground up. And just acknowledging your bias is a positive step.

So, without bias and with a deep understanding of your members to the core, reverse engineer the SCI tool and use it as a guide as you walk through this house you’ve built with your members’ perspective, and it may reveal issues and opportunities that you might not have seen previously.

In the next post, we’ll practice this approach.