Your community strategy is vital
A virtual community strategy is a powerful communication tool that tells others in your team and organisation what your community does and why. A compelling strategy will help you secure buy-in from key stakeholders and helps members to self-identify with the community by connecting with its direction and purpose.
Think of your community strategy as a roadmap. Without knowing where you want to go, you’re likely to get lost or be distracted by attractive opportunities that are outside of your goals and purpose. When you begin with a purpose in mind and have a clear plan for how to achieve it, you can rely on your strategy to guide you. Your virtual community strategy can also be modified as your community learns, changes, and grows. It also and helps you test your assumptions and biases.
Community leaders and managers are often so
overwhelmed with day-to-day operations they do not have time to develop a strategy. Other times, the rest of the team fails to appreciate the importance of (or need for) a virtual community strategy. This can be a big mistake.
A strategy helps to guide the community towards its overarching goals over the long-term. While building a virtual community strategy can take time, a strategy generates trust and engagement among members and your team. As the virtual community builder, it is your responsibility to guide and steward the virtual community from strategy to execution and beyond.
When it comes to building a strategy, there is no one-size-fits-all framework. This resource includes two, validated strategy development approaches to help you get started. It is up to you to
choose the approach that best suits your community, your organisation, and your team. When choosing a strategy remember, a very lean strategy can go a long way toward providing direction. Using the templates provided here, a lean strategy can be built in a few hours or, when co-created in collaboration with stakeholders, a few weeks.
First, create three circles.
1) Inner circle. Identify 2-4 people who will collaborate with you to develop the strategy.
Dreaming and brainstorming are hard to do effectively when you’re alone. When thinking about who to invite, ensure your co-creators represent complementary strengths (see Belbin).
2) Sounding board. Identify 2-4 people who will provide feedback at different stages of the strategy process.
When creating a community strategy, it is difficult to remain objective, especially about your own ideas. This circle of reviewers provides neutrality and can ask critical questions. They will also challenge your ideas at each stage of development to ensure you have a robust strategy.
3) Input circle. Identify 3-50 people to provide input about your community strategy.
To build a good strategy you must solicit input from:
a) potential community members.
b) relevant stakeholders (such as future partners or funders).
c) the organisation that hosts the community.
The input circle includes people who contributed to initial interviews or surveys. Their job is to ensure you build a virtual community that adds value for your future members.
“Curating a shared purpose that resonates with members is key. The best is to establish it together with your community members”Michel Bachmann – Value Web
Community strategy basics
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for creating a strategy, but there are a few key
questions you must answer. They are:
- Why you are creating the virtual community and strategy?
- Who is your community and strategy for?
- What is your virtual community is doing?
- What is your mission statement?
- How will you measure success?
- How will you communicate your strategy and findings with members?
Applied to virtual community strategy, these common and basic strategy questions might be answered to look like this:
1) State your why
For a virtual community to thrive it must have a clear purpose that attracts and energises members. The strategy must also communicate your virtual community’s position within the broader impact community landscape.
It is also important to differentiate between stand-alone communities (independent from an organisation) and connected communities (connected to an organisation).
Stand-alone communities are not directly connected to an organisation but rather, serve to connect multiple organisations to achieve an overarching purpose. Borderland, for example, organises events collectively without being connected to any organisations.
Connected online communities must explicitly state how their community serves its affiliated organisation’s goals, and how its functions and activities align with that organisation’s values.
Think of your community’s ‘why’ in three layers
- The Problem: What is the challenge your community is hoping to tackle?
- The Purpose: What is the concrete purpose that the community has in relation to the problem?
- The Impact: What impact will the community have on the problem?
Example: The Borderland Community
Every day we live our lives without fulfilling our dreams. We enforce that border, grow the distance between the two. Borderland makes the real more real, and the dream more of a dream.
The purpose of Borderland is to shorten the distance between dreams and reality.
Creating a place where neither exist and both exist at the same time. A place to play, to reflect, and to engage.
2) State your ‘who’
If you know why you are building a virtual community, you will also know who you want to become a member of your community. Be careful not to make assumptions. Making incorrect assumptions about people’s reasons for joining a community can have a negative impact. Take time to research who the members of your community will be.
If researching who your potential members might be sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. Use Impact Hub Zurich’s top three user personas as a template to help you get started. The details included in each persona are enough to create a picture of who will join your virtual community. Personas also help you gather knowledge about potential members that you can use to plan your strategy, create your strategy, and make activations.
Always begin by writing down what you already know (or what you think you know) about your three main stakeholder/member groups in a persona sheet. Limit your focus to a maximum of five personas. Next, test your assumptions by interviewing a few stakeholders to find out if you have correctly captured their desires and pain-points.
When the persona information-gathering phase is complete, it is time to connect the ‘why’ to the ‘who’ by thinking about what value-add your community offers to each stakeholder group. The goal is to answer one question: How does your virtual community meet members’ needs and desires?
3) State your ‘how’
Now that you know what you are building and for whom, you can begin thinking about the kind of community you are hoping to create and what approach you will take to achieve your impact. This includes thinking about your activities week-over-week, and day-to-day.
- How you will welcome new members.
- What experiences you want new members to have.
- What you will do to keep new members engaged.
- How you will moderate conversations.
- How you will encourage members to take action together.
You are designing a member journey that begins when people find out about your community; then become a member who experiences active membership in the community until they exit. Overall, it is important to think about what value members will get out of different activities happening within your virtual community.
4) What is your mission statement?
After you have established the three main pillars of your community, it’s time to begin crafting a mission statement. This powerful tool helps potential members decide if your virtual community is right for them. Your mission statement captures the essence of your virtual community in a sentence or two including:
- The purpose.
- Who is involved.
- How your mission will be achieved.
The formula for a typical mission statement is:
The (name) community is/does/brings together (group of people)to (activity)...
5) State your metrics
What does success look like in your community and organisation? Is it about the number of members? The level of engagement? Is it the number of joint activities or the quality of activities? Is it the ideas themselves, or even the geographic reach? In the beginning, choose metrics that simple and easier to measure.
Turkey Alumni Network is an online community initiated by the Robert Bosch Foundation in partnership with IAC Berlin. They capture data about their success for 12 months in the following way:
Width (measured through the platform)
- From 150 -> 250 members registered on the platform.
- Move from 20 -> 50 active members (20 publishers, 30 react and comment).
Depth (measured through a member survey in 6 and 12 months)
- Value-adding conversations on the platform.
- Five collaborative projects initiated by the community.
Finally, think about how to present this information in a way that is easy for your members to read and understand. The Turkey Alumni Network used graphic harvesting as a visual tool:
A few tips from your peers
no one-size-fits-all community strategy. You need to understand what fits your community best. Language is important. Use inclusive language in your strategy and do not separate the executive team from the rest of the community i.e, avoid saying ‘we’ and ‘they’. (Loomio, Edgeryders etc.)
It’s best to embrace the power within the community and
not power over it (Loomio, Enspiral).
Create a sense of ownership of the community among your members so they actively engage (Loomio). Nurture trust and transparency within the community culture on an ongoing basis (Sensorica, Enspiral, Jono Beacon).
It’s important to note that the more your community has advanced, the harder it is to change things. The community activities, for example, change regularly as you respond to shifting needs.
The 'how' changes every so often as you learn to work together more effectively. The 'why' usually only changes when there is a bigger shift, internally or externally, and you need to rethink your reason for existing as a community. To change the ‘who’ is the most difficult. That’s why it’s wise to take the ‘why’ and the ‘who’ very seriously and dedicate a lot of attention to its cultivation from the beginning.
Tools to develop your community strategy
A virtual community strategy can take many shapes and forms. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are templates that can support you in crafting a full strategy.
Both of these recommended strategy templates use a visual chart to align a community’s activities with its goals. By filling out each of the template’s boxes you are answering questions that will provide the foundation of your virtual community strategy.
Additional information about each of the recommended templates is available online. A summary of each is included here as well as the pros and cons to consider when creating a strategy for a purpose-driven virtual community.
|Community Canvas||CMX Community Canvas|
|Works well for stand-alone communities and those integrated within an organisation.||Look into how the community adds value for the business. Made for communities connected to organisations only.|
|Available in multiple languages.||Available in English only.|
|Language and concepts are open i.e., not specific to the business world or non-profit world. Virtual communities for impact can use the Canvas as is.||More business-focused and uses business language. Virtual communities for impact may have to adapt or change the language.|
|The full Canvas is quite complex and includes 17 questions. There is a shorter version with 9 questions.||Very simple process to follow. An outline of a community strategy can be created in a few hours.|
|Requires ideas to be articulated in great detail. Depending on a community’s needs and available resources, Canvas may create too much detail.||Simplified plans that transition easily from strategy to action.|
|Covers the emotional considerations of a community. Also covers the values and rules, and includes the creation of rituals that lead to habits for connecting within the community.||Iterative format makes it easy to come back to the canvas and modify your strategy.|
“Developing a strategy is not about filling in a template but it is about having important conversations. They might not happen at the same moment in time, there might be some topics more important than others. Strategy development is an iterative process and nothing is final. You will eventually need to revisit your conversations. The Community Canvas is a guide through these critical conversations.”Fabian Pfortmüller, Co-Author, Community Canvas
What to expect?
The Community Canvas will help you explore different questions that must be answered to create a virtual community. Canvas is split up into three sections:
The framework uses 17 questions to help you build and run a new community, or to analyze and improve an existing community. You can skip topics that are not relevant to your community at this time.
Strong virtual communities have a clear and precise picture of who they are, their values, and why they exist. This sense of identity strengthens the foundation of a successful community and informs all other elements around it. The community’s identity is the beating heart at the center of its purpose and gives meaning and direction to activities and projects.
The Identity section of Community Canvas is layered. At its core are two elements: the community’s purpose and the identity of its members.
The questions ‘why’ and ‘who’ are central to forming an identity and inform the creation of the organization’s values as well as its definition of success and its brand.
The elements covered in the Identity section are key ingredients of a thriving and authentic community culture.
What experiences are your members having within your virtual community and how do those experiences create value for them?
The Experience section of Canvas explores the community from the members’ point of view. Specifically, it asks: what actually happens in the community and how does it translate its purpose into activities that create value for members?
The community experience begins when a member joins and it ends when they leave. Successful communities design the member experience and their overall strategy with these transition moments in mind. A significant part of this Canvas section is dedicated to two elements:
- Shared experiences that bring members together and fundamentally deepen the bonds among them and;
- rituals and traditions including individual and recurring experiences that have a strong symbolic character.
The community’s content strategy contributes to the overall experience. Communities who tell the stories of their members and share relevant content will strengthen the bonds among members and increase the overall value. Every member is different and evolves over time. Smart communities provide different roles catering to different needs throughout the experience.
The third section of the Community Canvas is Structure. The Structure section goes beyond good management and processes and focuses on the operational elements of running a community
While many communities evolve organically over time, only a few survive long-term.
Most communities become more valuable the longer they exist because trust among the members and in the overall brand increases. But consistency and stability are key. Visionary communities will put structures in place that optimize for long-term stability.
Many communities fail because they do not establish foundational structures, for example, how to become financially sustainable. In the Canvas, different structure models are highlighted. Most successful communities exist in the offline and online worlds and choosing the right platform matters. With the necessary structures in place, it is easier to deal with challenging situations when they arise.
See a completed Community Canvas, review the case from the Climate KIC Alumni Association.
What to expect – CMX Community Canvas?
First, capture your virtual community’s vision (the future you are trying to achieve), its mission (how you are working to create that future), and its values (the principles that will guide your organisation).
- Business alignment: Why is the online community valuable to an organisation?
- Brand: Is your online community aligned with your values and brand?
Member alignment is a process that determines whether or not you are building a community that solves a problem for your members. It also establishes whether or not your members want to be a part of that community Once members have identified themselves with your community, it is time to think about where and how members will come together including how often, what platform they will use, and what experience you as a community builder will deliver. You can achieve member alignment by asking yourself a few key questions.
- Who are your members?
- What do members need?
- Why are they motivated to participate in your community?
- How is the online community valuable to members?
- How is your online community impacting members?
Many communities invite people to engage based on their interests. Your challenge as a virtual community leader is to understand what is unique about your virtual community and what motivates members to continue to engage.
Establish your virtual community’s position by reflecting on:
What is the purpose of your community? Why does it exist?
What are the values of your community?
What is your community’s tone, voice, and style?
What problem are you solving for members?
Next, write down a single sentence that communicates your purpose, culture, personality, and the benefit to your members. This is known as a benefit proposition. For example, we help members to do X by providing Y.
Content and programming
It’s important to know what you are going to do to enhance members’ experience and what content and programming will you create to serve that purpose.
One of your goals is to move community members up the commitment curve and to continue to serve them. Even when members are passive, you must think about how to make sure they keep coming back to engage. You can do this by planning your content and programming.
Both of the recommended community strategy tools will make you think about the key elements of strategy but in a slightly different way. Each one is validated, well explained, and includes material to support you through the process.
Keeping your strategy relevant
Once your virtual community strategy is written and implemented, you must keep it in mind as you complete your day-to-day work. Revisit your strategy document every quarter and verify that your activities and goals align with your overall strategy and mission statement.
The Ariadne Network, for example, completes a detailed review of their strategy every three years. Between reviews, their advisory board holds an annual meeting to review the strategy. Members are engaged via questionnaires and a one-on-one interview. Achievements and future plans are presented at a larger annual meeting to ensure members are aware of the direction and recent goals.
Remember, there will always be uncertainty. When things are not going as planned it is important to understand why and ensure that the overall direction continues to align with your strategy. Things don’t always go as planned. Allow for some flexibility within the strategy to keep relevant during times of uncertainty or change.
The KIC Alumni Association also revisits its strategy occasionally. But recently, they felt the need to evolve. With almost 3,000 members, the structure in place felt too rigid. Interviewing relevant stakeholders using results from surveys as well as research on the experiences of other online communities influenced the creation of their new strategy.
“Having open eyes and open mind helps us be aware of the evolution of other virtual communities can be good indicators to then cherry-pick aspects of different concepts when it comes to improving a strategy. As there is no one-size fits all community strategy it is good to keep in mind that every strategy is also an experiment full of unknown and uncontrollable factors.”Dorka Bauer, Climate-KIC Alumni Association Community Designer
We are Climate KIC Alumni Association, a group of climate change entrepreneurs who are ready to change the world. We were established in 2012 and have been working on smaller or larger projects ever since. We exist online as many of our alumni are spread around the world from Sydney to California. Most of us live in Europe. Our community platform used to be Facebook only, but we have recently migrated part of our community to Slack to improve our communication. We meet annually to reconnect and learn from experts.