Category Archives: Community

Who’s in my community?

Being a part of a community is so much fun because of the amazing things happen when you get a bunch of passionate people rallied around solving a particular problem or issue. When you’re starting out, one impediment to seeing the magic happen is discovering all the people that are in your community or who could be in your community.

When I lived in Washington, DC, even in the early days of the DC Tech/startup community, it was never that there weren’t a lot of tech or startup people in the area. It’s just that none of them knew that the others existed. Even to this day, I’m still hearing about new startups in the DC area that I’d never of before that had been there the entire time.

In DC, knowing who was in your community was especially hard because it just takes so stinking long to get to the different parts of the geographic area. Capitol Hill feels incredibly far from Dupont Circle. When you throw Tyson’s Corner into the mix, it feels like going to a different country all together. A good friend of mine lived in Bethesda that I never saw enough of because it was just hard to get up to Bethesda.

This is part of why we created the DC Tech Facebook Group. We needed a way for people to see who was who and what was going on, whether it was an event or company news. It was obvious that people just didn’t know what was going on or who was doing what. Facebook Groups allow for this a very crowd sourced manner, which has plusses & minuses.

In terms of the DC Tech community, one thing that’s helpful is now there are a handful of really great reporters (Bill Flook from the Washington Business Journal, Paul Sherman from the Potomac Tech Wire, and Steven Overly from the Washington Post) who are helping unearth and tell the stories of the interesting things that are happening in the community. There stories help the community figure out who’s who and who’s doing stuff that’s cool. But… you shouldn’t use that as your only source, otherwise you’ll miss out on a lot.

So, if you’re running a community group, what can you do to help get the stories out about who’s all in your community? How can you get folks talking about all the great things that they’re doing? How can you get people talking about all the great things that others are doing?

Once you figure this out, you’ll be seeing magic happening in your community at an accelerated rate.

Communities Get Noisier When They Grow

As I’ve mentioned before, I manage a Facebook group with over 1800+ people in it that discusses the DC tech & startup community. It’s been fascinating to watch the dynamics of the group change as it adds more members to its ranks.

Now that its bigger, it’s much harder to get real in-depth conversation about any one topic. There’s so many people from different backgrounds with different personalities. Everyone wants to take it in their own direction. The group becomes more about broadcast.

Well if you want that in-depth conversation, the key is that you have to divide & conquer. You want to find a subset of that bigger group that has the people who can talk in-depth about the issue you care about and keep that group focuses on that topic.

The bigger group is important.  Everyone needs to know what’s going on across all the sub groups but you need the smaller groups so that people can have more intimate interactions.  For the DC Tech community, we have sub groups for everything from community leaders to user experience pros to people looking for co-working space.

I Miss MyBlogLog

mybloglog-new-recent-readers-widgetRemember the web app company MyBlogLog? It was a widget that you’d put on your blog that’d show the face of other MyBlogLog users when they visited your website.

When using it, you really saw first hand how writing about something brought people to your website. When you write about someone, if they’re tracking where they’re talked about, that person might/would actually come to your site and read what you wrote.

I’ve been talking about the advantages of social media with a number of colleagues. Seeing stats from Google Analytics or AddThis are great but it misses the context of who that person is. For example, you might only be getting 10 visitors a day to your blog BUT its the right 10 people. That was something MyBlogLog did really well.

Most visitors to a blog or any online community aren’t going to actively contribute. There visit is they way of passively participating. There needs to be a way of making that visit more meaningful.

When all you see is the traffic from Google Analytics, it’s too easy to get discouraged and quit. Most do.

Starting a community requires patience

In the social media age, everyone wants to start an online community about every topic and for every product you can imagine. The reality, like with most things, is that 90% of them fail. The biggest reason these communities fail is a lack of patience on the part of the person starting the community.

You need patience because for the participant putting yourself out there in a new community is scary. It’s a bunch of people you don’t know. You don’t know how they’ll respond. Most people are pretty guarded.  They don’t wanna take the risk.

The best thing you can do is to be patient and be consistent. Continue to participate in the online community and get your close friends to participate. You need to set the example and tone for what you expect within the community. Everyone else will follow your lead.

Even then, you’re only going to get a small number of people to really contribute. The rule with online communities is that 10% contribute and 90% just consume what the others contribute. But keep patient.

I started the DC Tech Facebook Group years ago. I kept a steady hand throughout and now it has 1800 people. I never have to worry about it going stale because we’ve hit enough of a scale where there’s always someone posting something.

Once you hit a community of that scale, there are people that’ll wanna use its platforms as a way to draw undue attention on themselves but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

The Importance of Feeling Heard

As we’ve seen day in & day out in the headlines, the Apple Maps that was released via iOS 6 was a big flop.  In many cases, the maps were just wrong.  Lauren and I went to Hilton Head last weekend for a wedding and were consistently frustrate with Apple Maps as we tried to navigate.

The poor quality of Apple Maps led to a media and community up roar.  Countless blog posts were written about it.  There was even a Tumblr blog about all of the app’s mistakes.

When you’re the user and you’re having a problem with a product, the worst feeling in the world is when it feels like the company who made the product is so out of touch that they don’t know that there’s a problem.  That’s when the relationship between the user/customer & the company starts to disintegrate.

Well, I was really happy to see that Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote a letter on their site saying that they realized that Apple Maps for iOS 6 was sub-par and that they were working as quickly to fix it. They even went as far as alerting people to their competitors, as possible alternatives while Apple Maps improves.  He was saying to the Apple community, “I hear you. We screwed up.”

Apple’s not known for being a company that’s overly communicative or transparent.  So, seeing this kind of olive brand extended is definitely a notable moment.   I hope that we’ll see more.

It’s also a great object lesson in crisis communications for us all.

Community Waiting for the New iPhone

I’ve been having a lot of fun riffing on a topic that I’m passionate about… building communities.  I hope that you’ve been enjoying it.

Communities are funny.  Sometimes they can pop up in places that you would have never thought possible.  TechCrunch sent their NYC intern to the 5th Avenue Apple Store to cover the line as throngs of people waited for the new iPhone 5.

As he was waiting all night long, he asked the question that any rational person would, “why on earth would someone do this for a phone?”   The answered was that it’s not about a phone.  It’s about community.  You’re having this shared experience with like-minded people.   It’s the perfect recipe for a community.

I remember when I waited in line for the original iPhone.  The lines weren’t as crazy as they are now.  I cut out of work at noon and only waited 3 hours.  But… I walked away from the experience with friends.  I still stay in touch with the couple that stood in front of me in line.

Apple fans aren’t just people who use computers.  It’s people who espouse to a specific way of thinking or way of life.   Apple users are creative & curious people.   Not many brands can claim this type of tribe.  It’s not like if you use a Dell that it says anything about your personality but it’s different with an Apple computer or an iPhone.

So… when you get those like-minded people together in a single environment for a shared experience, magic happens.   Communities get built out of standing in line to wait for my new iPhone.

Communities Need a Facilitator

So, we’ve talked about how when communities have a common cause/topic and a platform for people to connect on that you have the start of something powerful.    Without a facilitator, it’s easy for communities to die off after the initial excitement or for them to be taken over by  specific personalities.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say community manager.   I think of it less as management and that you’re really there to make a safe place for conversations (or really connections) between people to exist in a way where both users  feel safe.

My dad works with an international student ministry at Michigan State University called the Friendship House.  Him and the Executive Director Rich are community facilitators.  Their first job isn’t to teach English as a second language.    It’s to create a place where the magic can happen and making sure all the right people show up.  It’s about setting up the table & chairs.  It’s about making sure the coffee is brewing in the back of the room.

As I’ve said before, I manage the DC Tech Facebook Group. It has more than 1700 people who want to be able to share & consume information about what’s happening within the technology & startup sectors within the Washington, DC area.

When you have that many people (and even when you have fewer), your community is wrought with all kinds of potential issues.  People just want to showboat about themselves, which is good in small doses but can be overdone.   Certain personalities will dominate conversations.  Things will get posted that are irrelevant.

You need a community facilitator.  You need someone who’s going to uphold guidelines of conduct that help the community to operate more smoothly.   Granted enforcing these guidelines might not be taken lightly by the offending party but you have to do it for the greater good of the community.

Looking to start a community?  Instead of trying to lead, try stepping into the background.   Be the facilitator.

When Communities Hit Critical Mass, Powerful People Take Notice

As we’ve talked about, when you have a commonly held goal/topic/cause and a platform where people can stay connected, you have the potential for building a really big and powerful community.

Social news site Reddit has quickly become “the front page of the web.” They have a large community that scours the Internet for the best and most interesting links.  And it’s not even just a single community.  It’s really a number of communities rolled into a single platform.

On Reddit, there’s this feature where someone can stop by and open themselves for questions by anyone.  The community has become so big and powerful that last week President Barack Obama stopped by for a session of Ask Me Anything (AMA).   It was the perfect opportunity for him to make himself accessible (or look accessible) during this election period.

Similar idea but at a different scale… over the last few years, we’ve seen the DC technology community grow at a pace that I never imagined.  Recently,  we’ve really seen the DC government take notice.  The DC Mayor’s office has gone out of his way to support our efforts.   I’ve also had a number of conversations with DC city council candidates that want to make supporting DC tech part of the platform they run on.

As a community grows, people external to that community start to take notice and want to meet/interact with your community.  If you’re leading/managing a community, this is something to keep an eye on.

Communities Need a Platform

Once you have a group of people who are rallied around a topic or cause, a key part of building a community is platform for everyone to stay connected. In the age of social media, it’s easy to just point to things like Facebook, Twitter, or blogs but some of the best community platforms are offline like churches, coffee shops, are bars.

Let’s walk through some examples…

A couple of years ago, the DC technology/startup community was growing quickly and it was hard to keep up with all that was going on.  Facebook had just come out with the relaunch of Facebook Groups. Facebook already has such unbelievable engagement that it just made sense to also make it the place for this group to congregate online to talk about what was happening in DC tech. So we created the DC Tech Facebook group and it just took off. A few years have passed and it now has over 1600 people.

Later, the community was looking for a way to connect via Twitter.  My friend Debbie suggested that we start using a hashtag.  She suggested #dctech.   A year or so later and now the entire community uses the #dctech hashtag as a way to connect all of our disparate tweets together.

Moving away from technology communities… if you’ve seen the tv show Gossip Girl, it’s a tv show about a lot of well to do high school students who are looking to survive life on the Upper East Side of NYC.   The community uses a blog, called “Gossip Girl”, which dishes on the social scene and gets piped to all of their cell phones as a way to stay in touch on what’s going on.  The blog & their phones act as a platform for their community.

As I said, communities can be offline just as much as online. When I was in college, I had to spend time working in industry.  I worked as a Web Developer at Michigan State University.  It worked perfectly.  Lived at home and was close to all my friends from high school, who were still in Michigan.

Of my friends who were still in the Lansing, Michigan area, we decided that we wanted to be intentional about staying in touch.  We found a hole in the wall Mexican restaurant that we’d go to every Tuesday.  It had cheap beer and nachos.  The tradition lasted for years well behind the 6 months that I lived in Michigan.   The mexican restaurant acted as an amazing platform for our little community to come together and talk about surviving life after high school.

You see similar situations played out in pop culture.   I can’t even name all of the great TV shows.    There was the crew that met at the bar Cheers, a good part of Friends was spent at a coffee shop, and a good part of one of my favorite tv shows How I Met Your Mother is spent at a pub in Manhattan.

If you have a community and a topic that ties you together, the next step is that you need some place or technology platform that can keep you all connected.

Communities Need a Cause

Back in 2008, I joined Clearspring as the Developer Community Manager.   At that point, no one knew what a community manager was.  With the rise of social media, “community manager” quickly became the vogue job.   It’s the job that everyone’s hiring.

But somewhere the notion of building/managing/facilitating an actual community of people got lost in the translation of what a community manager does.   The role became more of a social media-based customer service rep.

Customer service is CRUCIAL but it’s not community building.  It’s deepening a relationship between you & your customer.

So… what is a community and how do we build one?

I thought for a few posts I might try to tackle/unpack what communities are all about.  For this post, I wanted to talk about what ties a community together.

A community is a group of people who come together around a common cause.    It’s a group of people who want to accomplish something.

Without this underlying idea, cause, or goal, there’s nothing that ties the group of people together.  There may be some initial excitement by a group but in the end it’ll all fall apart.

Here are some examples…

I remember, in the heyday of the television show LOST, there were fan sites galore.  People would come together an over analyze every aspect of every single episode.   It was all for a reason though.  We were all super invested in story and we wanted to know what was going to happen next.

We live in Washington, DC and we love DC.  We love getting the most of all the unique and interesting things that DC has to offer.  It happens that we’re not alone. My friends Tom & Tiffany Bridge both love DC as well so they created a blog called We Love DC.   But it’s so much more than a blog.  It’s a community of people who are trying to get the most out of their DC experience.

Over the summer, I met two early twenty something guys that worked in politics & government consulting.  They had to wear ties everyday but that put a real stretch on their budget, especially if they wanted to wear nicer ties.   So, the two of them started trading ties.   This idea quickly grew.   Before they knew it, all of their friends were over at their house on Sunday afternoons, watching football and trading ties.

Regardless of the topic or subject area, when you have a topic or need that’s commonly held among multiple people, you can form a  community.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series.  In the mean time, what kind of communities are you a part of or that you’ve seen pop up?