What I’ve Learned about Online Community Management

This entry was posted by Wednesday, 25 August, 2010
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A little over two years ago, I helped the Councils launch CUNA Councils Connect, an online social network for members. Why? Soon after I started working here, it was clear there was a need for robust member searching and more targeted discussion groups with additional functionality. Working with volunteer credit union members of every Council, planning and development took about six to eight months before we launched the network. I learned a lot in that span of time, but I’ve probably learned even more in the last two years actually managing the online community.

The following are the biggest lessons I have learned. Keep in mind that it not only applies to social networks or communities, but could easily be applicable to some aspects of your credit union’s social media activity, particularly your credit union’s Facebook page.

Care and feeding is a must. This is huge. “If you build it, they will come” does not apply here. As most of you know, with almost any social media tool or website, you need to constantly remind and tell your prospective users about it. Council members are plugged into a lot of networks and still have a very heavily used list serve. Therefore, I not only set up and update Connect to send many types of automatic notifications, but I also frequently send email reminders with relevant news and information to remind members of the network’s usefulness.

Make it easy. If you work and work to get them to use your site, you want them to find what they are looking for. Otherwise, they probably won’t login again. For example, in the set up phase, I worked very hard to make Connect’s username and password the same as the rest of Council’s other password protected areas. That was a small thing, but I know it ensures members have one less hurdle to jump when using the site.

Your users will surprise you. That’s a good thing! Because social media is so participatory and conversational, often your members will have good ideas. For instance, we envisioned Connect’s discussion groups to be focused around areas of expertise, geographic, or topical subjects. And they were. But a few months after launch, some members started vendor “users groups” for members to share best practices and questions on a specific vendor or product. They took off immediately.  In the same vein, your users will also have good suggestions on usability and functionality. Listen to your users.

Beware of feature creep. You can do a lot with social media tools and you will be tempted to use all the bells and whistles at your fingertips. To make it easy and useful, just focus on your objectives and then look at actual activity. One example:  the company we work with to provide CUNA Councils Connect offers a bunch of cool features as part of their social networking platform. I use about 60% (ie: I really don’t have a reason to roll out wikis and geo-caching…yet). Additionally, when we launched Connect, we had a “live chat” feature, where we envisioned members talking to other members in real-time over CU issues, etc. After a year of usage and education, I noticed no one really used the feature correctly or even understood how to use it. We pulled the plug on it and no one noticed. That means one less thing to get in the way of Connect’s core features and usefulness.

Find a few evangelists & power users to help spread the word. You will find that certain individuals will take to the community right away. They post more than others. They love the features. They are not shy. They have good ideas. Get to know these people! I have a group of people like that in Connect and always promote their postings when I can, send them emails or notes after they post, give them a nudge sometimes, and even go so far as sending some small “trinkets” in the mail to thank them.

These are the big ones. Did I miss anything? Please feel free to leave in the comments.

13 Responses to “What I’ve Learned about Online Community Management”

  1. Excellent article Christopher.

    I’d also add that it is 100 times easier to build a passionate industry community than it is to build a business-to-consumer community especially at this stage of the social media game. There are exceptions (action sports, lifestyle brands, etc.) but otherwise it is so hard to keep the fire alive. Just look at the digital tumbleweeds that blow through most Ning communities.

    Unless there is an untapped topic/focus that is incredibly relevant to a tight local community, building a “community” website (separate from Facebook) that requires setting up a user account, profile, uploading profile pic, etc. is an incredibly tough sell.

    Vancity’s ChangeEverything.ca is perhaps the only worthwhile example in the credit union space. And keep in mind, the majority of the users on that site signed up 4 years ago when “social networking” was in it’s infancy. I doubt starting from scratch to day would reep the same results.

  2. Well said Tim, and excellent post Christopher.

    I’ve learned that your first point could be the most important one. A community can become a wasteland without a caretaker dedicated to stoking the flames by chiming in with content and sending community updates via e-mail.

  3. Thanks Christopher, very well put. I think there are a couple of other points to be made.

    Be clear on the mission or mandate of your community and stick to it. Post community guidelines that clearly spell out the purpose of the community. Then once you’ve ben clear, leave a little room to let iut evolve naturally, depending on the focus and desire of your members.

    @Tim, I agree, we may not have launched ChangeEverything.ca in today’s social media world, but we (surprisingly) continue to grow members, so to say most of them joined four years ago isn’t true. We plugged into a relevant topic and the site keeps growing in fits and starts.

  4. Thanks all for reading and the comments!

    @Tim – I wholeheartedly agree. Thankfully, the Councils already has an existing online community (list serve, website, etc) – therefore, Connect was/is just an extension of, making everything easier. Also thanks for mentioning Change Everything – definitely one of the best examples of a CU social network done right. When I show it off during social media presentations, people who haven’t heard of it usually freak out — in a good way (much like they do for Young & Free!).

    @Josh – Thanks friend. And we definitely learned that lesson with the Yes CU Community, something that pre-dates even Connect and the first social network tied to a CU conference!

    @William – Thanks for stopping by and the words of wisdom! I agree with you too. You need guidelines but you have to be flexible and open to change. I’m constantly coming across an idea or post or something a member does that I’ve never thought of…and is awesome.

  5. CM: I agree w/ others on the excellence of the post. Nice job.

    Can’t believe I’m going to do this, but I’m going to take issue w/ William’s comment to “Be clear on the mission or mandate of your community and stick to it.”

    Too many times firms create a community with a preconceived idea of what that community is about, and who will be active in it — and then find that reality doesn’t match their pre-launch expectations.

    A really good community manager has his/her finger on the pulse on the community and knows where the boundaries are. And doesn’t force everything into the four walls of the original mission.

  6. Why Ron, how dare you!

    I think we’re in agreement, which is why my comment included this: “…leave a little room to let it evolve naturally, depending on the focus and desire of your members.”

    Go in with clarity or people won’t know why they should join. Then pay attention to where your community wants to evolve and let it go there organically.

    There, the world is right again.

  7. All the points you mention are critical in a successful endeavor, but I found I resonated most w/#3. Users will indeed surprise you and the ability to adapt and respond to their needs will make or break your efforts. Kudos for recognizing this and appreciating the necessity to be nimble – this is, after all, what makes social media powerful. Thanks for the great post!

  8. …and thank you Beth for stopping by! And agree 100%, you can’t control the conversation/groundswell – you have to be flexible and open to change for your efforts to be successful.

  9. Chris. I appreciate your giving thought to these issues. My 16-year-old Community Development Banking list serv has stabilized at 4500 subscribers. Any heavy day of postings gives rise to unsubscribes. I thought, “Maybe the age of email is over,” so I added a Linked-In Group, but postings are lower, even though subscriptions are 1600.

  10. Good point William – sometimes email works! In your case, the list serve works and the users are comfortable. Unless the LinkedIn group is easier or far more advantageous, most probably won’t make the move.

    In our case, the online community was built to enhance the list serve and member networking – giving the members new tools (member searching, more specific discussion groups). That way it doesn’t compete but just another avenue for members to find advice and solutions.

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