C-Suite Agenda

Bringing Your Offline Community Online? Use These 6 Tips as a Guide

Many brands invite customers worldwide to connect in digital space. Fitbit, Salesforce, and Sephora are all examples of brands that do this successfully, involving tens of thousands of people. Many more try, and fail.

In our pre-COVID world, these online spaces were supplements to offline communities. But in this new reality—one filled with social distancing, limited in-person gatherings, and shuttered stores, theaters, and churches—digital brand communities and events have become virtual lifelines, both for community members and for brands.

Building that lifeline isn’t easy. Because they can’t use all five of their natural senses, your community members may struggle to create—or recreate—the bonds they’re accustomed to forming in physical spaces.

The good news? There are six specific ways you can help:

  1. Require members to pass through a (virtual) gate.
    People who are interested in your online community must do two things: choose to participate, and then take an action to cross from the “outside” into your community’s safe interior space. In other words, they shouldn’t find themselves inside your community space by accident.
    If people arrive in your community as a result of an online search, they should be aware that they arrive as an outsider, a visitor. They may be free to explore some open areas, but they must elect to become members, which might include downloading an app or entering a specific code.
  2. Welcome new members.
    Authentically acknowledge members as they arrive for who they want to be known as. Generic welcomes aren’t enough. Members need to recognize that hosts connect members with shared values and purpose.
    For instance, if you’re welcoming software engineers to an open-source software community, then the welcome should clearly acknowledge arrivals as software engineers who 1) care about open-source projects, and 2) work to create relevant tools for people. The welcome should remind members of their shared identity as people who build software in a way that is open, accessible, equitable, and flexible.
  3. Onboard all members.
    Visitors should be able to recognize and understand the values, culture, and (at least some of the) norms before they participate. If your community’s forums allow immediate participation, repeat questions become inevitable and they’re bad news; they signal to participants that the space isn’t well-regulated and the boundary isn’t protected.
    Although barriers (such as placing a requirement on the number of threads participants must comment on before they’re allowed to post their own thread) may seem unwelcoming, appropriate barriers with accessible gates protect meaningful engagement and connection on the inside.
  4. Ensure that community leaders model ideal behavior.
    Expect that new members will “front.” Fronting, or avataring, is a term for when people only show us the parts of themselves they’re comfortable revealing to strangers. We front when we want to play it safe. There’s nothing wrong with this. No one is going to share their deep vulnerabilities every time they get on a commuter train. But fronting impedes connection.
    Participants go beyond fronting only when they feel safe enough to do so. What will make them feel safe? Community leaders who model the community’s ideal behaviors. The more that participants go beyond fronting, the more connected they’ll feel, and the stronger the community grows.
    Leaders should also recognize and acknowledge others who model ideal community behavior, both in larger and private spaces.
  5. Make your community guidelines known—and use them.
    Guidelines help create an atmosphere of trust and safety. According to Evan Hamilton, Reddit’s director of community, consistent and timely enforcement is the way that most successful groups create feelings of security.
    Guidelines will evolve over time within the community. Moderators must consistently and publicly moderate. This includes privately conversing both with harassment victims and perpetrators.
    There’s no perfect way to write and enforce community guidelines. Many examples are available online that will serve to inspire your own.
  6. Design a ‘look and feel’ that’s in sync with your brand.
    “Look and feel” refers to digital design elements such as the colors, typefaces, layout, and user interface of your online space. No one design option will suit all communities. (Clearly, there are no butterflies on Harley-Davidson’s H.O.G. owners’ website, but there are plenty on the Butterflies Community, a site for new moms struggling with their mental health.)
    There’s no getting around it: to handle look-and-feel design, you will almost certainly need to work with an experienced graphic designer. We recommend you save yourself many headaches and months by bringing one on as early as possible.

To get to a great look and feel, the best brands start with a prototype space and then invite a few members to judge and comment. Respond to their preferences before launch. Then, of course, iterate over time. Both the community and times will change. And, as they do, your members will bond together as we inch back toward normalcy.

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Carrie Melissa Jones
Carrie Melissa Jones is the founder of Gather Community Consulting and the former COO and founding partner of CMX. Her work has helped build communities with Google, Patreon, the American Medical Association, Coursera, and DoSomething.org. In 2016, Salesforce named her one of three experts to follow in community management. She is co-author with Charles H. Vogl of the new book Building Brand Communities: How Organizations Succeed by Creating Belonging. Carrie Melissa Jones is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.