We’ve been talking about creating a sense of community and finding out what your members may not be telling you. (If you didn’t catch Part 1, get caught up here.)
Let’s put last week’s approach into practice. Here are four tangible ways to think about and evolve your Sense of Community:
Create a Safe Space and Provide Emotional Safety
One of the main elements of a Sense of Community is membership or spirit. And one of the main attributes of membership is emotional safety.
Imagine heading over to your friend’s house for a casual get together to watch the big game. You may be wearing your laundry-day clothes and bringing a 6-pack of beer to share with friends. But, when you walk through the door, instead you find a black-tie event. That type of experience doesn’t feel comfortable and safe. If I found myself in such a situation, I would turn around and go home.
This reminds me of a similar story with a community that shall remain nameless. The community manager had crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is, and she couldn’t figure out why members weren’t posting and engaging in the community. It wasn’t until she took a look at the community through her members’ eyes that she realized what was happening. All her posts were these well-crafted, incredibly researched, detailed and long posts that ended up intimidating her members…to the point where they didn’t want to contribute. Many of them felt there was nothing left to contribute. The community manager didn’t realize that the tone of her posts negatively impacted this sense of safe space for her members.
What your members might not be telling you is that they may not feel safe enough to open up and be vulnerable in the community. They may not feel comfortable enough to ask their colleagues questions for fear of being humiliated or looking dumb.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) asks members to share their story in the community. But instead of a new member walking through the door and seeing these beautifully written, well crafted, high-quality posts from their members and then being intimidated from writing their own, EDF proactively created a safe space for their members by breaking the writing process up into digestible chunks. In fact, members don’t see the next step in the story building process until they’ve completed the previous step. And members only see the progress of other member stories as they progress themselves. It’s an ingenious way of turning a potentially intimidating experience into an opportunity for members to emotionally connect and build a safe space together as they go through this process of creating their advocacy stories.
Another community that is proactively creating a safe space for their members is the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). The engineers in the community post regularly, but a high number of posts does not necessarily mean that the members have that emotional safety in order to feel vulnerable and self-disclose. It’s one thing to ask your colleagues about wiring and regulations, it’s another thing entirely to ask a colleague if they also feel out of their depth. So IET created an option for members to submit anonymous questions. They also created a persona called ‘Calvin the Engineer’ as a community mascot to share these anonymous questions in the forum for other members to respond.
Create and Define Boundaries.
Another important attribute of membership is boundaries.
There’s a speakeasy in downtown Austin called the Floppy Disk Repair. The door is locked and only those with the code can get it. The code changes weekly and you must know someone who knows someone to get it. It’s difficult. But once you walk through the front door, there’s the most amazing feeling of validation and exclusivity. This is the feeling you want to inspire in members of your community.
On the opposite spectrum of that is Who’s Who American High School Students. Getting into Who’s Who was touted as an exclusive honor… until you flipped through the pages and saw everyone in your class listed. Then you realized that the threshold to get into the book is negligible because the goal of the company was to sell books to proud parents.
What your members aren’t telling you is that having a low barrier to enter the community does not inspire feelings of exclusivity and validation. The higher the barrier, the higher the feeling of belonging. If the barrier is low, then you’ve already removed one ingredient to forming a sense of community right off the bat.
Now, sometimes those barriers are out of our hands. If an organization makes member acquisition a higher priority than developing a sense of community, then that probably means the community has a monetary boundary. In other words—if you pay a membership fee, you’re in!
A community with a monetary boundary might therefore supplement a secondary barrier by creating a nested community – one that weaves in intersectionality and is based on demographics.
For example, consider the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP). Everyone that walks through that front door is a safety professional. They are immediately part of a homogenous group, and homogeneity is vitally important for group cohesion. But once you’re through the door, members need to be able to differentiate themselves from the group in order to develop their identity within the community and truly feel like they belong. For that purpose, ASSP created a nested community for women in that profession called WISE (Women in Safety Excellence).
Create a Sense of Belonging and Identification
Next, let’s consider the attributes of belonging and identification that is inherent to membership.
Say you walk through the front door into a house and see people milling about. Except, everyone is wearing the same blank grey mask on their face. And they’re all staring at you. That does not make me feel safe. I’m just going to turn around and walk out. Well, that’s what it feels like for a new member who walks into a community and everyone has that default grey avatar, you know which one I’m talking about. For myself, this does not inspire feelings of belonging and of identification.
What your members might not be telling you is that in a very literal, visual way, they don’t feel that they have anything in common with other members. They don’t recognize themselves in the constituency. They don’t see anyone that looks like them.
The National Wildlife Federation’ EcoLeaders program decided that they want to make their community feel lived in, warm and inviting, so they encourage members to upload profile pictures. And to overcome any issues with emotional safety, they created an avatar menu that members could choose from that aligned with their specific passion if they weren’t quite ready to upload a picture of themselves.
Similarly, the American Diabetes Association encourages belonging and identification in its members by creating a self-selection of badges for illness type, and then displays those badges with the member’s profile throughout the community. So, if you walk into ADA with type 1, you can quickly see others like you interacting in a safe space.
Show That You’re Invested
My final example of this practice is Investment, which is another element of sense of community.
Imagine walking into a house for a party. You look to your left and see a table displayed with rotting food. Perhaps, there are some 25-cent bags of chips that you could have easily gotten at a gas station down the street.
What your members aren’t telling you is that walking into a community and seeing stock photos, static content and announcements of a community relaunch that haven’t been updated in a year creates a sense that the community is not invested in the member. The community does not value the member. So why should I invest in the community? It’s a common practice with communities to place the onus on the community manager to continually update content in order to keep the space lively and fresh. That is not sustainable.
What is a sustainable option? Let’s take a look at the Climate Reality Project, which has successfully created an environment where community members contribute the majority of the content. They did this by turning the act of contribution into a challenge for the entire community to reach a certain number of contributions in the year 2019. In fact, they’ve inspired members to act by making their contributions visible in a challenge or leaderboard format.
Know What Works For Your Community
There is no standard, ‘out of the box’ platform or configuration that consistently creates a sense of community in your members. Each community is different. Being able to take a step back and see your unique community from a member’s perspective is a mix of art and science: of understanding of the psychology behind a sense of community while using tactical imagination and a background knowledge of what your platform can do.
While there is plenty of research and study behind the intricate psychology, there isn’t much in the way instruction on how to build a community that hits on all four elements to improve your community’s Sense of Community index. By using targeted conceptualization, you can see your community through the members’ perspective and stimulate ideas on the practice, configuration and process to encourage connection to these elements.
If you’re ready to take the next steps of improving your sense of community, I recommend thinking about this from an approach of “Who + Why = How.”
If we know the who (member goals) and we know the why (sense of community), then we can use this practice to determine and become architects of the How.