How to chose
When choosing technology tools, think about how they will be used from a member’s perspective. For members, joining a new community means remembering new passwords, learning to navigate a new website and collaboration channels, and managing notifications. This can be time-consuming. Eventually, members may stop checking Slack and your platform. They may not have a to-do list next to their work’s Asana, or they may not want to download Skype because they prefer Zoom. Make sure the technology you choose actually serves your community.
Remember, your members may be a part of multiple communities at once. Using multiple platforms and technology tools can create frustration among your members. It can be hard to keep up with the notifications, updates, and communications which can lead to diminished engagement or breaking with the community. When estimating the number of different tools each member uses each week, multiply your technology ask by five.
In a small group, consider these key steps (listed below) before choosing the technology and/or platform that will best support your virtual community. These steps will help you introduce one tool or technology at a time. If you are in the process of building or growing your community, there is a box at the end of this section to help you make the appropriate modifications.
1) Clearly name the technology need
What kind of problem does the proposed new technology tool solve? Make sure the problem you are trying to solve with a new tool will not naturally resolve itself in the near future. For example, if a large group of members are jointly preparing a virtual conference, this group might need additional temporary tools but does not require an entirely new technology that is introduced to the broader community. Ask yourself if there is an easier way to fill each specific technology need.
Sometimes, a spreadsheet is all that you need. If the need is indeed big enough, identify a team member with experience or interest in technology questions to take the lead on implementation.
2) Define the technology or platform purpose
You must clearly define each tool’s specific purpose. What will you use it for and how it will add value to your community? A new tool should only be added if it has a clear purpose and can be differentiated from existing tools used by your members. You should be able to summarise:
- The tool’s purpose
- How members will use it an
- How the tool adds value for members
3) Draw out the bigger picture
Create a map of each technology tool currently in use within your community. Include a note about each tool’s purpose, how often it is used as well as how many members use it. Next, enter the information into an Excel sheet or a Mind-map to help you visualise how, when, and why the tool is used. Store the map for future reference.
Use your bigger picture Mind-map or Excel sheet to discuss:
If the tools currently in use can fulfil another role?
Do your current technology tools have extensions? Reach out to your technology service providers and learn more about the tools you are currently using, specifically, if its purpose and functionality can be expanded.
If you implement new technology, will it complement your current tools?
How will the new technology tool fit into the existing picture? How would it complement the technology your community is already using?
4) Understand your members
Before researching which tools to implement in your community, find out where your members are currently gathering online. If the majority of your members are on Facebook, this platform may be the best place to communicate with them regularly. There is always a risk of lower engagement when members are required to sign in and check an additional tool not typically included in their weekly or daily routine.
Whether you are starting a new community or introducing a new tool to an existing virtual community, the first step is to understand members’ preferences and habits. To learn more about your members’ preferences you can:
- Include a question about technology preferences in your community registration form.
- Include technology preference questions in a community survey.
- Ask a small sample of community members to complete a specific survey about technology tools.
- Interview a small group of diverse members.
How important is it for your community to have a particular technology tool? If it is about the platform that hosts your community, spend a bit more time ensuring it fits your members’ needs.
Decide on the level of information you want before selecting or using a tool. Do you want very specific information in a particular area of technology such as platforms or social media? If you know the exact tool you want to introduce, find out if members are already using and enjoying the tool.
5) Know your budget
Set a technology budget before selecting a platform or tool. Some tools are offered free of charge (sometimes called freemium) while others are available for a low fee. If you have a larger budget, you can select a customisable option that is tailored to suit your community’s needs.
6) Know your options
Speak to other community builders about their favourite tools. Keep a pros and cons list throughout this discovery process. If you find a tool you like, take the time to speak with the service provider to ensure you understand the tool’s full capabilities and limitations.
7) Make a decision
Is the potential value-added worth the effort required to implement a tool within your virtual community? Is it worth the financial investment and usage of uptake efforts? If you decide to implement a tool, discuss who will be responsible for interfacing with the service provider, who will be in charge of the introduction phase, and who will be the go-to person when members have questions.
8) Solicit input from active members
Consider discussing the tool you have selected with a few members. Ask for their advice about how to introduce the proposed technology tool, and for their commitment to becoming first movers.
If you are setting up a new community, you must modify the process above by addressing each of the steps for every technology tool or platform you will implement. Do this one at a time.
Step 1: Map or list your community’s technology needs.
Step 2: Write down the purpose, function, and role your tools and technology will play. Perhaps you need a collaboration tool. In that case, define the tool’s purpose more broadly before selecting a specific app or platform.
Step 3: Create a big-picture map of the tools you might introduce. Make sure they complement each other. This will be useful for future technology discussions.
Step 4: If appropriate, solicit member feedback and involvement. Work to understand your members’ needs or connect with a small number of potential members to get their input.
Step 5: Discuss your budget and prioritise which tools you will invest in.
When introducing a new tool, you cannot simply notify members of the change and provide a link with user instructions. Members need to know what the tool is for and why you chose it. They also need support and training to adopt the tool and learn to use it properly. Remember, each person has a unique learning style. Be sure to adapt your communications and learning materials to accommodate different learning styles and abilities.
Technology literacy may be a barrier to your community members.
Adapt the level of support provided when introducing a new tool to match the average technology literacy level in your community. Provide tips and strategies to members to support them in the early stages of adoption.
Be sure to clearly explain why you are introducing a new tool. Use a language that suits your community and direct them to the supports that will help them understand the new technology and use it efficiently.
Host training calls for your community. Sometimes, technology service providers offer materials that you can use to train their members. They may also be available to join a training call and introduce the tool. Remember to include members from all time zones as well as practical elements that allow them to test the tool and ask questions during the call.
Your technology tool service provider may offer links to instructional videos but you can also create simple instruction videos yourself (see examples from Zoom and Impactio). Videos are available to members at any time and can be easily viewed by anyone who missed the training. Video tutorials can also be included in your virtual community’s onboarding materials for new members.
Create opportunities for members to practice using the tools, especially for those leading working groups or sub-communities.
Make sure your members can change their settings within the tool to limit the information flow and notifications. New tools often come with new push notifications and reminder emails. Make sure community members can turn off notifications and teach them to tailor their settings so they can opt-out of certain functions.
Tips: Making the learning and uptake process easier for members.
Keep data safe
Keep and share only necessary information with third parties. Make sure the tool is safe and complies with current data protection standards like GDPR. More here.
Find a healthy frequency of communication
Be mindful of over-communicating with your virtual community and work to establish a balanced path for information flow. Do not overuse tools that trigger notifications that distract or annoy members.
Remind members of each tool’s purpose
If a specific communication channel, for example, Slack, is used to organise working groups, make sure the activities flowing through Slack serve that purpose only. If members are misusing a channel, remind them of the tool’s purpose and suggest an alternate platform.
Ping relevant people only
If a task, activity, or piece of information within the tool is relevant to a specific person, be sure to notify them properly. In most platforms and tools you can do this by adding ‘@’ before the name of the person you would like to ping.
If you are in the early stages of setting up your virtual community,
create a technology rollout plan that tells members which tools are launching now and which tools are launching later. Make sure launches are aligned with your community lifecycle.
There is no need to introduce project management tools during the first stage of a roll-out because members may not be ready to begin collaborative action. Instead, they will need to bond with each other. Get feedback for your rollout plan from experienced community builders and potential members as you go.
- Community platform-related technologies (white labels and social media) that build the virtual home for your community and
- Activity-related technologies (engagement and collaboration tools) used to help your community co-create impact.
Below is a list of technologies, tools, and platforms frequently used by virtual communities. Platform-related tools serve as the digital space or place where members connect, get information, and engage with each other. Activity-related tools support members’ co-creation efforts and member engagement activities driven by virtual community managers.
Broadly speaking, these tools can be split into the following categories:
- White-label platforms
- Salesforce Community Cloud
- Social media platforms
- Facebook Workplace
- Engagement tools
- Virtual conferencing tools
- Surveys and Polls
- Collaboration Tools
- Project management tools
- Communication tools
- Customer relationship management (CRM)
1) White Label platforms are used to create a virtual community platform. You can customise the platform to fit your community’s unique needs. They include a variety of specific tools like user flows and use-cases. White-label platforms are often used by large businesses or organisations with substantial resources and high dependency on their virtual community for profits. One of the most widely recognised virtual communities created around an existing business is the Harley Davidson motorcycle riders community. https://www.harley-davidson.com/gb/en/about-us/responsibility.html
Remember, this kind of platform can be expensive in terms of time and money i.e., licence cost, customisation cost, maintenance, developing the project, communication with the service provider, and having multiple development sprints.
White Label platforms include:
A powerful virtual community platform, Hivebrite provides organisations with the tools they need to build, manage, and engage their community. https://hivebrite.com
User Case: Boschalumni.net
In April 2017, the network officially launched its online platform to connect 5,000+ alumni from across the world using a single virtual environment. The platform was created to connect all former grantees, fellows, partners and staff members of the Robert Bosch Stiftung to exchange ideas, knowledge and skills across thematic and geographical borders, and help users stay updated on news, events, and job opportunities.
New Definition Alumni
A software and service package that fulfils the needs of alumni organisations. This includes a website content management system, broad but simple communication features, community activation and networking tools, and a complete administrative suite.
The leading provider of alumni networking and career mentoring software. Trusted by 700+ education institutions and non-profit organisations to engage their alumni and provide career guidance to their students. https://graduway.com
Salesforce Community Cloud
A tool to connect and collaborate with customers, partners, and employees. Build a community for every one critical to your business ecosystem. This includes agencies, vendors, and suppliers, patients, job applicants, and even retail locations.
2) Social media platforms allow you to create and manage your own community within specified boundaries.
Social Media platforms include:
The biggest social media platform in the world, Facebook hosts several different communities and subcommunities. The most popular community tool is Facebook Groups which allows Pages to include connected community groups. This feature has connected an important part of community promotion. https://buffer.com/library/facebook-group
Combines next-generation technology and easy-to-use features to transform communications, culture, and workflows inside organisations across industries. Facebook Workplace allows you to create both closed communities and publicly visible communities. It has a freemium and premium option. The freemium option provides more than enough features to kick-off your community. https://www.facebook.com/workplace/pricing
User Case: The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
One of the largest environmental non-profit organizations in the world. For almost 60-years, WWF has been protecting the future of our planet by conserving wildlife and endangered species. Prior to using Facebook Workplace, national WWF offices were very siloed from each, limiting the visibility of others’ activities. Facebook Workplace’s best of breed collaboration tools have brought all offices and teams onto the same page to create a more connected way of working together. The workplace has created a more united global community to enable greater impact on environmental conservation.
“Workplace is helping WWF develop a new, more open, transparent, and collaborative way of working; bringing offices and people from around the world together, giving them a voice and showcasing a diversity of ideas and perspectives which are critical to tackling the planet’s most urgent and important environmental challenges.”
Kate Cooke, Head of Network Communications.
In terms of community management, Instagram has fewer features than Facebook. But in 2018, a new option called Engagement Groups was introduced to help users build virtual communities. Engagement Groups can complement community-building activities by helping you to connect with potential members who are already using Instagram.
Slack is a communication tool rather than a social media platform. It is often used by virtual communities because of its features. There are a growing number of Slack communities where people are sharing experiences and opinions about certain topics as well as sharing resources and opportunities. See this list 400 Slack communities for inspiration.
3) Engagement tools that can support your virtual community-building efforts:
Virtual conferencing tools include:
An online video conferencing service that allows users to pull in up to 50 HD video streams at once. Zoom is ideal for bigger groups because it can host up to 1,000 participants and up to 10,000 viewers! It also generates online engagement during conferencing including pools, breakout rooms, document sharing, and drawing. Zoom can record the call and save it to the cloud and on your device. In Zoom’s free version, host a session of up to 45-minutes. https://zoom.us/
Considered one of the best virtual meeting platforms available, Skype offers free video conferencing. Skype is less effective for group calls but is a great tool for one-on-one calls. https://www.skype.com/en/
Brings conversations to life by letting users communicate with photos, emojis, and group video calls all free of charge. Message friends, start free video or voice calls and/or join a conversation with one person or a group. Include up to 150 people for free. DIF (Disruptive Innovation Festival), for example, is using Google Hangouts to host about 800 people.
*Limitation note: only eight (8) people can speak at the same time. https://tools.google.com/dlpage/hangoutplugin
A flexible, professional, and reliable platform used by 3-million people around the world each month. To use this platform, you must download the software prior to a meeting. Once the software is downloaded, it is easy to use on an ongoing basis.
(To get a 15% discount from Zoom to use the code: impacthub-zoom)
Activity-based survey and polling tools include:
Bang the Table
Includes listening, information, analysis, reporting, relationship management features, and allows you to mix and match these tools as you like. Bang the Table’s large toolbox can be used to create polls and surveys, and make user stories visible to the community. It also has a digital guest book, forums, and place sharing options. https://www.bangthetable.com/engagementhq-community-software/
Cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) survey development tool. Considered one of the best online survey tools and includes multiple customisation options. Survey Monkey’s freemium version is somewhat limited when compared to Google Forms, but a regular licence does include access to more custom features. https://www.surveymonkey.com/
Part of the G Suite, this is one of the most popular tools used to create surveys and polls. Google Forms is free and provides a variety of custom fields that allow you to create interactive surveys.
4) Collaboration tools help teams and virtual community members to manage and track projects, work packages as well as their own commitments.
Project management tools give members an overview of upcoming tasks and assignments. They also allow group leaders to track the progress of planned activities and help people who are new to the group quickly learn about activities and objectives.
Project management tools include:
Workplace by Facebook
Communicate, collaborate and connect across desktop and mobile devices using familiar features like groups, chat, and video calls. If you have chosen Facebook as a platform for community building, maximising those efforts on Workplace can be quite easy. Workplace allows you to connect and track different communication and manage team tasks connected to your community. https://www.facebook.com/workplace
An integrated suite of secure, cloud-native collaboration and productivity apps powered by Google AI. Includes Gmail, Docs, Drive, Calendar, and more. It is a go-to online toolbox that allows you to easily collaborate with others to create presentations, use spreadsheets, join collaboration documents, and share with as many people as you like.
Easily organize and plan workflows, projects, and keep your team’s work on schedule. Asana provides an easy way to visualise the steps required to complete an activity, especially when many collaborators are involved. Using Asana, you can make tasks visible and connect tasks to one another each step of the way. https://asana.com/
Basecamp puts everything in one place. It’s a calm, organised way to manage projects, work with clients, and much more. It provides lean to-do lists, message boards, and schedules as well as file storage and real-time group chat. https://basecamp.com/
Keeps track of everything from the big picture to the smallest details. Though it is primarily a task-management tool, many organisations use Trello for project management because of its simplicity and compatibility with Google Docs and other online tools.
Ensures tasks and information are organised. Like Trello it is a task-management tool that helps you categorise tasks by project and track individual performance. For the community building purposes, Todoist helps you save time when repeating a certain process or creating a sub-community. You can quickly clone all the steps and tasks into the new project and assign them to others.
An online mind-mapping app that helps you visualise, share, and present using the cloud. This tool is great for creating visual interpretations of the different elements of your community-building effort. It also helps you create clear flows and manage your assets.
Communication tools help your community members stay in touch, coordinate activities, and to feel connected. Communication channels can be used to share information but also to facilitate bonding among members.
Communication tools include:
A cloud-based set of proprietary team collaboration tools and services. The name is an acronym for “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge”. Slack has both freemium and premium plans. The free version is limited to 10,000 searchable messages, 10 app integrations, 5GB of file storage, no guest accounts, and one-on-one video chats only. This is more than enough to get most virtual community communications started. You can easily manage discussions, add key assets, and create sub-communities.
A freeware and cross-platform messaging and Voice over IP (VOIP) service owned by Facebook. Make voice and video calls, send text messages and share images, media, documents, and user locations. Communities often use Whatsapp as an additional communication channel for informal communication. Sometimes, community managers use it to push important updates to the entire community or to sub-groups. Because Whatsapp is a mainstream tool, many people are already using it. This can make it easier to implement in your community. https://www.whatsapp.com/
Also a text, voice, image, calling, and messaging tool. It can be used by groups of people exchanging information. Used in much the same way as Whatsapp and Viber. https://telegram.org
A cross-platform Voice over IP (VOIP) and instant messaging software application. For virtual community building purposes, Viber is used in much the same way as Whatsapp and Telegram.
CRM – Customer relationship management (CRM) is a technology for managing your company’s relationships and interactions with current and potential customers. When building virtual communities, CRM systems help manage communications with different stakeholders and partners. They also have a centralised system for tracking different customer-interaction stages with each person. CRMs are not a vital tool for virtual community building but they can optimise communication, engagement, and activity tracking.
Provides tools for social media marketing, content management, web analytics, and search engine optimization (SEO).
The majority of Salesforce’s revenue is generated through a customer relationship management (CRM) product. Salesforce also sells a complementary suite of enterprise apps focused on customer service, marketing automation, analytics, and app development.
A web-based platform for organising team communication, business processes, data, and content within project management workspaces. https://podio.com/site
5. Additional tools that help manage your community
Allows groups to make collaborative decisions about money and engage in participatory resource allocation.
A decision-making software designed to assist groups during the collaborative decision-making process. Loomio is a free software web application that lets users initiate discussions and put proposals for a vote.
“Loomio allows us to deal with our decentralised governance both very easily and in depth. The tool is at the centre of our community, being a base for constructive discussion and transparency.”
Alicia Trepat Pont, Ouishare
Founded in 2005 in London, Impact Hub partners with companies and organisations focused on social innovation. As a global platform for empowering social change, Impact Hub oversees a 100+ strong network of hubs in more than 60 countries, which foster entrepreneurship and business development. To foster their members’ ambitions most effectively, they provide a variety of supporting services, such as incubation and acceleration programs, knowledge resources, co-working space and now also a virtual platform for connecting their initiatives globally with the right talent, resources and tools to make maximum impact.