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Practice

Communities and networks

In the DC context, online communities and networks can be used in a number of ways. They …

  • … promote communication and coordination in order to achieve sustainable development;
  • … act as effective catalysts for establishing partnerships and engagement between public and private special-interest groups;
  • … support mutual learning and capacity development;
  • … help build trust-based relations for exchanging information and know-how;
  • … pool expertise.

The tips below show how to work with an online community to achieve results and what you need to keep in mind. These tips can also be used for online networks, since here too, setting objectives, assigning roles and mobilising participants are all crucial factors for the success or failure of the network.

Managing and using online communities

Community management involves nurturing relationships. Community managers are moderators who promote dialogue among the members of a community and between members and the online platform. Whether for blogs, online forums or groups on social media platforms and whether the groups are closed or public, there are number of rules that are not too unlike those applied in analogue spaces regarding respect for other users and adopting a solution-oriented focus during interactions.

Communities fulfil diverse functions both within and outside the group, such as setting agendas, learning, exchanging know-how, coordination, dialogue among actors with different or opposing interests, maintaining contact, setting standards, developing markets or fundraising. These communities give the participants the opportunity to work together without having to address insurmountable formal hurdles or show strong commitment. They also enable them to float shared perceptions and bounce ideas off each other. Some groups are heterogeneous and others are more homogeneous. It’s important for the members, the goals and the working styles to blend.

Tips for managing a community

A COMMON GOAL

Online groups need shared interests or a common goal. It should be clear to the users what benefit they derive from their active involvement in the community, since activities are voluntary in most cases.

The goal is determined by the size and composition of the group, as well as by how long the group is intended to exist. Co-creative processes with a high level of complexity require smaller groups in order to be able to work effectively. In contrast, less intense tasks such as networking and sharing knowledge may be easier to achieve in larger communities. The level of openness and transparency of a community should be determined in line with the purpose (who should be able to see the posts?).

ALLOCATE ROLES

Large online communities often have more than one community manager. Communication in online communities is usually asynchronous. Additional responsibilities such as moderating sub-groups or acting as administrators may also be assigned. Individual responsibilities can also be distributed, such as welcoming new members, serving as experts and points of contact for certain topics, providing support for IT problems or taking responsibility for developing certain content.

IT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAY, BUT HOW YOU SAY IT

Community managers typically communicate with the participants authentically, openly and respectfully. At the same time, however, they ensure that participants use an appropriate tone to communicate with each other. When rules are violated, they reprimand bad behaviour. In the case of extreme violations, they delete individual posts, remove participants from the group or request that the relevant administrators in the community do so. Such actions should be carried out transparently. The group, under the guidance of the community manager, can jointly decide how they wish to communicate with each other and what constitutes appropriate communication. To this end, they may draw up netiquette rules or a manifesto for using the online community. Having participants establish these rules together also increases the degree with which they identify with the community.

BUILD TRUST AND PROMOTE CONTACT

Trust plays a key role when working together in online communities, especially when dealing with sensitive topics. It’s no coincidence that many online groups also meet up offline in order to intensify their contact. Community managers can initiate and support such meet-ups. User profiles help participants get to know each other and find shared interests. By modelling open and respectful communication and by offering positive feedback, community managers can help build trust. They are willing to listen to the group’s issues and concerns and use the community’s feedback to continuously improve their own work.

MOBILISE PARTICIPANTS

Even in the best online communities, most members are only passive users, meaning that these ‘lurkers’ are not active posters. To help (re)engage these participants, community managers may address them directly (for instance, by sending them messages that are visible only to the community managers and the member in question).

They may ask them whether they need more guidance for using the platform or whether they do not feel that they are properly valued or even that they are outsiders. Community managers can find out what the particular members need into order to contribute to the community.

In addition to the joint compilation of results, feedback from the group and from the community managers (such as responses to questions by other participants) may play an important role. Gamification aspects may also offer further incentives for members to participate actively.

RELATIONSHIP TO THE PLATFORM

Community managers also serve as points of contact for participants who need guidance and support with using the technical platform. They can answer requests either themselves or can forward them and see to it that they are answered. They are also points of contact for the platform operators and pass on feedback from the community, such as technical issues or usage statistics. Depending on the community’s goals, tasks and needs, the platform must be aware of different forms of cooperation and may need to take this into account when developing features. Examples include sub-communities or forums, synchronised dates and Skype connections.

GROWTH

If the community plans to expand, the community managers can also take on roles for advertising the community and act as ambassadors, for example. This is often the case for social media channels.

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