According to the Foundation for Community Encouragement,
community building is
“an adventure in human interaction based on a set of guidelines and principles rather than an agenda or particular procedure” And while their work focuses on offline or in-person community building, the same is true for virtual communities.
Many frameworks to help us better understand the lifecycle of communities have been proposed. As the community manager, you need to know which stage your community is in so you can plan your activities, track your progress, and move the community along its lifecycle.
The members’ journey
To better understand the journey your members are going through, take a look at the works of Scott Peck. He suggests that the journey towards community passes through four distinct stages.
People come together but do not interact in meaningful ways.
Individual differences emerge causing conflict among members.
Members realize they have to “empty” themselves of everything that stands between them and the community, for example, prejudice, expectations, judgments.
Members start to engage authentically with each other and build bonds of trust.
Although these stages were conceptualised for offline community development, they are a useful reminder that communities revolve around the relationships between members. Developing enough trust to allow people to engage authentically takes time. Your community will go through a process to get there.
The community’s journey
The book, Buzzing Communities by Richard Millington, presents a community lifecycle and outlines of some of the suggested activities for each virtual community stage.
Before you start your online community, ask yourself a few important questions:
- Do you know what the goals are for your community?
- Do you have a list of key contacts to invite who can help get the conversation going?
- What is your content strategy?
- What is your engagement strategy?
- How are you going to inspire and activate others?
After you have answered these questions, you’re ready to begin creating regular content, testing activities that foster interactions, and nudging your connections via email to encourage them to get involved. There are a lot of one-on-one interactions at this stage and persistence is key.
Once your community is in the establishment phase, pay close attention to metrics and adjust your content and activities based on the feedback embedded in your community data. Adjustments will also be guided by your goals are as well as the ‘spirit’ of your community. For example, are conflict resolution and norm-setting is important to your community? If so, this is a good time to cultivate this culture. Are meaningful interactions and diversity of inputs important to your community? If so, make the effort to cultivate a welcoming and open energy, decentralise engagement, and empower the community to build itself.
The majority of activity in the community is initiated by community members. In this stage, focus on macro-level activities like organizing events or promoting the community externally to raise its profile. Volunteers or additional staff will likely be handling the micro-level activities like welcoming new members.
If your community reaches mitosis, identify relevant subgroups and support their creation. This is also the time to train and manage the emerging leaders of new groups and to begin promoting their activities. Local subgroups, interest groups, circles, and project groups might already exist in your community, however, this is a good time to rethink governance, values, mission, and the distribution of power and roles.
An example of activities within WWF’s Innovation Community, a global community of around 400 people interested in learning more about innovation in conservation.
- Outline the clear purpose of the community.
- Develop a strategy for activities.
- Develope the personas of five key stakeholders within the community.
- List potential members and prepare outreach messaging.
- Virtual thematic calls during which topics that are relevant to the community are addressed.
- Share info about what first members are doing and why they joined.
- Quarterly updates on the activities and achievements in relevant internal newsletters, groups, partners.
- Failure sessions (e.g. Fuck-up Nights) that allow for trust-building.
- Case Clinics as a method for members to help each other with their projects.
- Open project calls where people present ideas for new projects so they can get feedback or find allies.
- Training on specific methods that can help the community achieve its mission.
- Setting up peer communities for members to connect in a smaller context around themes, regions, interests
To investigate the role of relationships within a community and to assess possible final stages within a community (i.e. friction, sunset, termination), we are using the relationship model created by George Levinger. A leading author on understanding human relationships, he was a psychologist who spent much of his life researching interpersonal relationships.
Levinger suggests that relationships among people naturally follow five stages:
As community managers, we can use Levinger’s model to understand the relationships being formed within our communities as they develop.
A word of warning: While Levinger’s model warns against tension arriving at stages four and five,
sometimes it is natural and healthy for members of virtual communities to experience tension and even make the decision to break away. Lives and priorities change and the amount of time and energy people have to invest in a community will vary. This is normal.
It can be helpful to think about ways to ease a person’s exit from your virtual community. Perhaps a breakdown in communication can be addressed by providing an opt-out option with a thank you message and an open invitation to continue participating casually. A member leaving the community does not always mean the end of their relationship with the community or its members.
An exit can also be an opportunity. Exits create the chance for other members to bring ideas and learn new roles. Nevertheless,
keeping the majority of members in stage three (continuation) should be the community manager’s goal.
Applied to online communities, the Levinger Model might look like this:
|Characteristics of community||Activity level|
|Stage 1 – Early-stage community||No trust or commitment yet, small talk but a mutual common interest is leading to the start of the relationship.||Lots of activity, lots of small talk, 90% of content is provided by the community manager.|
|Stage 2 – Growing community||Moving to meaningful discussions. Members are building trust and influence through self-disclosure and moving to a personal level as people are encouraged to share what they are proud of and what challenges they face.||Creating opportunities for trust-building. More personal conversations, longer discussion threads. The community manager is still providing content and helping to facilitate conversations. This is a healthy place for a community to be.|
|Step 3 – Strong community||Members are committed and engage in truly meaningful conversations. They take responsibility for the community by creating spaces, sharing content, self-organizing, and filling roles. The community is starting to fulfill its purpose and jointly works towards impact.||Community members take ownership of the community. Long and in-depth conversations between members are taking place. The community manager provides some content and facilitation but much less than before. Activities serve the community’s purpose.|
|Step 4 – Declining community||An imbalance between cost, effort, and reward in members sets in. External or internal circumstances might have changed. Less frequent or less meaningful conversation, lack of feeling safe in the community leading to loss of commitment.||Confusion, loss of trust. Fewer or less engaging interactions.|
|Step 5 – No community left||Mutual interest, trust or safe space are lost irreparably.||The community has come to its end. Celebration on what was achieved, closure and harvest.|
- What you do as a community manager will change depending on what stage your community is in.
- Acknowledge that a virtual community has a lifecycle and no amount of management will keep in a static place.
We added two additional scenarios for the last stage. This is because the end of a community is not always the result of a break in trust. They are:
|Option A) Step 4 – Community sunset||The community has fulfilled its purpose and dissolves after joint closure and exchange of gratitude. Interpersonal connections might continue.||Celebration of success. Closure as a community and on an individual level. Harvest learnings and knowledge created to be passed on.|
|Option B) Step 4 – Community friction||The community has grown too big and must be split into sub-communities. Friction can offer an opportunity for smaller sub-communities within one larger community, or lead to multiple new communities coming to life. Strong bonds and trust will continue.||Time of reflection and transition. Creation of a new structure, filling leadership roles, supporting the members in the transition phase. Key questions: Do we still live our values? Have they changed? Did we fulfill the needs we set out to meet? Do we have to adapt or reinvent?|
Another way to look at virtual community stages is to
see the stages of the community through the eyes and actions of your members. How do you want them to engage at each stage of your community’s lifecycle? What actions do they want to take?
A useful model for understanding member engagement is the Community Commitment Curve, inspired by Douglas Atkin (read more about him here), and adapted by CMX to fit the profile of a mission-driven organisation.
The hypothesis of any community lifecycle model is that the commitment of a community member will increase over time. As a member's commitment increases, their engagement changes and they become more proactive within the community. This is a valuable tool to help you map the kinds of activities you foresee members engaging in along the curve.
For an in-depth explanation of the Community Commitment Curve and some useful worksheets, visit Gather.
The commitment curve has five levels:
- New members going through their onboarding.
- Passive members reading and observing.
- Active members who are contributing.
- Power members who are taking responsibility.
- Ownership and a natural churn of people who become inactive.
A member’s level allows you to plot the kinds of activities you foresee them engaging in along the curve and to create a simple overview and guidance tool for yourself and others developing the community with you.
Sample commitment curve for a mission-driven organisation:
Each community goes through its own unique life cycle of maturation stages. The intentional commitment of each community member to contribute to these stages, as well as the help from a facilitator to mediate any tension, are crucial to guaranteeing the community’s survival and long-term blossoming. Collectively prototyping potential community practices and rituals is an effective exercise for engaging community members on the behavior and structure of the community as well as clarifying its purpose.