How to build online communities for your service users

Published on
May 27, 2020
in
How Tos
Joe Roberson
Your users have never been seeking meaning, purpose and connection as much as they are now. Here’s some essential tips on bringing them together online.

Charity is about community. Almost every charity serves a community, and most charities are interested in bringing the members of their communities closer together. For the most part, charities have focused on doing this in person. But now, in the time of lockdown, the only way to bring your community together is online.

The thing is, this is hard. The road to Damascus is littered with failed online communities. But at Damascus you will still find successful ones. 

We’re going to explain what you need to know about building online communities for your service users. Follow these tips and you'll be headed in the right direction. 

No one has written about this for charities before. But hat tip to Matt Collins at Platypus Digital who wrote something that got us thinking

Now. More than ever.

There has never been a more important moment to find ways to support your users online. Regardless of who they are, so long as the pandemic limits our offline activities, they will be searching for connection, meaning and purpose. And even if there was no pandemic, they’d still be looking for these things. Because we all do. And communities give them to us. 

We should do this because connecting communities is just what charities do. But we should also do it, because when your users are connected to you online it’s easier to offer them support and for them to ask for it. Whether it’s one to one sessions, new groups, live Q&A sessions, video events or anything else. 

But perhaps the best thing about having an online community is that it provides a place for your users to connect and support each other. Especially important when physical places aren’t available. 

Here's eight things to think about.

1. It might be the best thing to do

Or it might not.

“I’d first want to understand where my users are already going for support online” - Charné Tromp, CAST

Is an online community what your users need?

Do you want to invest time and energy in something that doesn't suit them?

Study their existing behaviours and how they already get support online. When you know this then ask them if they actually want to interact with your service online. 

Not everyone wants to. You might need to do it in a way so people feel safe to interact with you online. 

Or you might be better off not doing it at all.

2. Have a clear purpose

“Regardless of who you are, everyone is searching for meaning and purpose” - Ally Hunter, Be More Human

Have a purpose. Have one that aligns with your users' goals. Make it about them. 

It doesn’t matter if the purpose changes over time. Just get it clear to start with. A niche purpose is totally fine. 

That purpose will give people something to focus on when they interact with you. It’s like giving them a story to work with rather than a blank piece of paper. A story they find relevant and engaging. 

Over time two things will happen. What your community is not about will become clearer. And what it is about may evolve as needs and behaviours change.

But just focus on one thing and one purpose to start with. 

3. Involve your users

You might have guessed this one already. But it’s easy to forget when we are focused on budget and deadlines.

Bring your users to the journey early on. Ask them to show you how an online interaction happens for them. Then work out how you might bring your professional skills and knowledge to them in a way that they can interact with. 

Doing this creates shared ground. These people will also become your earliest and most valued users. They will drive the conversation and spread the word. They’ll be your champions.  

“Try to interview them. Speak to a minimum of five users. Understand their habits, behaviours and their accessibility needs” - Charné Tromp, CAST

4. Decide whether it’s open or closed 

Open communities are, as the term suggests, open to everyone. You can nurture an open and inclusive community around your charity’s Facebook page or Twitter account. Because they are there already, it makes sense for your charity to be there too.

Or you can run a closed group, only open to your service users. It could be on Facebook or somewhere else, perhaps somewhere people don’t go for any reason other than to get support.

Or it could be a hybrid of the two.

It could be that there's a specific reason for having a closed group. Perhaps the group isn’t relevant to a broader audience. Or because some of your users need a more private place.

Closed groups often generate useful and insightful learning. So be ready to share important topics and discussion points back with your wider community. 

Whether it’s open or closed always try to follow the flow of the conversation, and bring other people in. Diversity of voices is important.  

5. Choose a platform

There’s no perfect platform. And what you choose won’t suit everyone.

Either way start using tools that are already available. Start where your people already are. If they mainly use Instagram then you should probably use Instagram too. Build relationships in the place their relationships are already happening. Unless there’s a good reason not to. 

There’s loads of online resources and groups for community managers where you can get more advice. 

6. Focus on relationships

“We have to have the relationships where those relationships are. We have to be there” - Ally Hunter, Be More Human

Communities run on relationships. Online. Offline. No difference. 

People want to be seen, be heard and feel valued. They want to connect and have a place to speak and listen. Online. Offline. No difference. 

The skill is in meeting this need online. Start by being human and following the conversation flow. Act like you would when supporting people offline.

7. Understand likely effort 

Not all communities take the same amount of work to support. 

If you have a clear purpose and are involving your users it will need less support. Especially if it’s an open community or group.

But it also depends on what degree of support you  provide and how much value you want to create for your users. If your community exists to mainly signpost people then it’ll need less of your resource. If it mainly exists to support people via a closed support group then it’ll need deeper input more frequently.

Either way you are there to serve it. So it’s going to take some of your time.

8. Control and safeguarding requirements vary

“We have to be flexible. These are not normal times. Our risk matrix has to reflect the time we are in” Ally Hunter, Be More Human

If you can't do it safely you shouldn't do it. Groups for vulnerable people and those at highest risk will need more support and safeguarding consideration. You need to be super clear about roles, responsibilities and control. And you need to be clear about how you will handle safeguarding issues.

But just because it’s online doesn’t mean people become less trustworthy. If you enable group peer support offline then it should be fine to do it online. Provide a level of support that is in direct relation to the risk factors. 

Either way build a culture of personal responsibility. And if people are able to self-regulate and self-organise without much of your support then all the better.

Damascus is waiting

If building an online community is the right thing for your charity to do then your journey has begun. Get a bit more help along the way with this podcast and resources from Catalyst collaborator, SCVO. 

Hat tips to Ally Hunter and Charné Tromp for helping with this post.

If you liked this article and want to learn more about how digital can help your charity, then sign up for our free weekly newsletter. Thank you!