Do you ever wonder why some online communities continue to grow and thrive while others simply fade away? Given the tremendous impact that online communities can have, particularly related to social learning, the answer is one that all of us in the business of lifelong learning should take some time to explore.
Richard Millington, founder of Feverbee and author of Buzzing Communities: How To Build Bigger, Better, And More Active Online Communities has dedicated a better part of his career trying to master the science behind communities. He has practical tips and proven methods to help any organization build a successful, thriving community.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Jeff talks with Rich about how communities have evolved over time, what to do when people aren’t engaged, and why a community should be opportunity based rather than problem based.
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Read the Show Notes
00:20 – A reminder to check out the Leading Learning Symposium, an event designed specifically for senior leaders at organizations in the business of lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development. The symposium takes place this year on October 24-25 in Baltimore, Maryland.
01:15 – A preview of what will be covered in this podcast where Jeff interviews Richard Millington, founder of Feverbee and well-known expert in the area of online community. (Note: Jeff also interviewed Rich previously as part of the Learning Revolution podcast.)
[02:36] – Introduction to Rich and some background information about who he is and what he does.
[04:00] – Rich defines community as a specific group of people who communicate with each other around a strong, common interest. He explains the importance of each element of this definition.
[05:33] – It seems like we went through a bit of a “boom” period for communities – everybody had to have one. Have you seen the initial enthusiasm taper off, and if so, has a more “mature” approach to communities emerged? Rich explains how 10-15 years ago, people were spending more and more time on the Internet but recently we’ve reached a peak. The time people can spend is the fuel that drives online communities but we’ve now reached a point where there are too many and there simply isn’t enough time for people to be able to engage in all of them.
[07:49] – Rich addresses ways communities have matured since the boom. He says we need to be more careful to see whether community is driving the type of behavior we actually want. He emphasizes that having activity isn’t enough—we need to be more specific about what kind of behavior will actually help us.
[09:17] – If you’re an organization thinking about launching a community, how would you decide if it’s the right thing to do? Rich says it depends what the goal is and that the only reason to invest in a community is when you think it can do something you already do, much better. He explains how brands often go wrong when they build a community about themselves and he shares an example of this. He adds that a good concept is whatever is most relevant in your audience’s lives.
[12:28] – Many of our listeners are from trade and professional associations and have online communities. Often, they may find that nobody is really participating/engaged. How would you go about figuring out the real reasons people aren’t participating? Rich says the best thing you can do is speak to as many of these people as possible. He advises asking them why they aren’t participating, what they think of when they think of the community, and how they feel about the community. He emphasizes the emotional component is really critical and that you should be able to narrow down, very specifically, what’s going wrong and what you need to do next.
[15:52] – What are some practical tips for posting in a community (i.e. how to title it, types of questions to ask) to heighten the chances that people will tune in and find value/want to engage with it? Rich shares that optimizations may help increase engagement, but only by small percentages — the best way to make an impact is by doing the research of the audience. Simple tips for optimization include:
- Try not to sound like a notice board –consider asking a question in the subject line of the discussion
- Treat content like a local newspaper and mention people within the community to build a sense of peer connection
- Go through existing content/material to integrate latest discoveries with a relevant discussion (Lonely Planet is an example of a site that does a good job of this)
[19:38] – What about on the opposite end of the spectrum when you have a thriving, engaged community – what are the ways that organizations can capitalize on a highly active community that may not be obvious? Rich explains that when it comes to online communities, we tend to only track deflection/knowledge gained/knowledge shared. However, he says there is an endless list of what we can use communities for (he shares several examples of this), but that we tend to focus on only our intended purpose which is causing a lot of missed opportunities.
[22:59] – A lot of people listening to this are concerned with social learning and helping participants develop knowledge, share best practices, etc. – is there anything fundamentally different about that type of community or measuring success of that type of community from your perspective? Richard explains that In terms of learning we don’t focus enough on the behaviors we need such as: ask questions, share knowledge, and read answers. The most fundamental thing we can do is to find out how to trigger people to visit the community on a regular basis, not just when they have a problem. It’s better to establish the community as a place that has fresh, exciting ideas every single day and it’s better to find out what people have learned, achieved, etc. (opportunity based), rather than what challenges they are facing (problem based).
[26:20] – How are you seeing organizations staff/contract to support communities effectively? Do you have to have someone with a “community manager” title or what is the right staffing for the average community? Rich touches on the wide range of ways organizations handle this and explains how there are often very mixed results. He shares that the community manager role is probably declining a little bit but the number of people doing the work related to the community is growing. The title/role of “community manager” is evolving and he expects it will split (or it has split already) to be part of customer loyalty, lead generation, retention, etc.
[29:11] – What other trends do you see emerging and what ways do you think community/approach to community will change in the coming years? Rich talks about the potential impact that robots will have on communities. He also points out that we likely see some impact when another billion people join the Internet from Africa. He says that mobile will be big and that it is likely there will be one big dominant platform ruling everything. In the short term, he anticipates we will have a lot of legal/cultural battles around what people can/should say and related to data and privacy as well. Overall, Rich thinks the discipline will always be strong but the profession should have an interesting decade ahead.
[32:14] – What are some of your own lifelong learning habits? And, given your focus, what communities do you rely on for supporting your learning? Rich reveals that he likes the idea of “burning his bridges behind him” by making a big investment and taking really decisive actions when he wants to learn something. As far as daily habits related to the use of community, he focuses on who to learn from because finding out who is really good at what they do can be very useful. He adds that besides reading, he finds writing a blog one of the best ways to learn about any particular field because it forces you to do all the necessary research.
[35:40] – How to connect with Rich/Feverbee:
[36:14] – Wrap-Up
A reminder to check out the Leading Learning Symposium.
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[38:04]- Sign off