Building effective virtual communities

Raise your virtual hands if you remember The Cluetrain Manifesto. I met the Manifesto 15 years ago, at an internal communications conference. The book had just been published, and it hooked me with the opening line—“A powerful global conversation has begun.” It also served a heads-up: my job was changing.

I was part of a team turning our company’s database-posing-as-an-intranet into the interactive community our Fortune 500 organization needed. We had big plans but no blueprint. The Manifesto made that more than OK. Its foreword told of, “a world of new online communities; of self-organizing corporate employees; of … ‘open source’ movements that seem to erupt from thin air.”

Today, building virtual communities is a skill every internal communicator must master. Earlier this year, Shel Holtz noted that, “Increasingly, employee communicators are as concerned with facilitating communication among employees as they are in crafting communication to them.” Virtual communities help us connect employees in different business units, geographic locations, and time zones.

Now that creating and nurturing communities is a part of our job description, and we’re 15 years into our mission, what’s working?  Here are five attributes successful communities seem to have in common, along with tips to build them into your internal community.

1. They launch with the right participants—and build from there. 

Successful communities often have a core group of participants who are knowledgeable about the subject matter and passionate about feeding the community with fresh conversations, provocative questions, and new connections. Tip: Identify and cultivate a strong core group. 

2. They ensure participants get something they can’t get elsewhere.

In a corporate environment, this equates to advance news, a preview of a system or process, or access people, such as leaders or industry experts. Tip: Scan corporate calendars, meeting agendas, and project plans for ideas.

3. They help participants give something, too.

People like sharing knowledge and news, but sometimes they need encouraging. Tip: Ask questions, conduct polls, request updates. For a conference call or web meeting, assign responsibility for part of the agenda. DO conduct a regular survey of participants; DON’T forget to close the feedback loop. 

4. They’re focused, but not rigid. 

Successful communities are clear at the outset about the intent, and they share the intent with participants. Is the goal to help participants improve their work? Share information and ideas? The former is called a community of practice; the latter a community of interest. Is the goal to solve a problem or complete a project? There’s a name for that, too: community of purpose. Tip: Define some lines. It’s OK if they get blurry or messy—just keep them in sight.

5. They’re easy to access. 

Make the community easy to find, link to, or log into. Tip: Place login codes in multiple places (e.g., both the calendar entry and a separate email). If it’s live web meeting, send the links ahead of time so that people can test their systems if needed.

You’re part of a community of communicators—please contribute to this list!

 

Elizabeth’s experience spans corporations, ad agencies, production companies and nonprofits. For more than 20 years, she has helped people connect with an organization’s vision and support it.