‘From game theory, we know that people are usually willing to make a modest initial investment to see what it will bring. If they don't get anything in return, they'll quickly give up. In psychology, this is called rational choice theory: we want to invest in things that are stable and seem to have a long life.'
Step 5. Activate, nurture and evaluate the community
Keeping a community alive takes time and energy. There's a lot of work involved in recruiting, binding and retaining members. People who know each other will be more supportive and will be more likely to be active in the community. In this step, we offer tips on how to nurture loyalty and engagement.
Use the 'sense of community' to your advantage.
This sense of community was discussed in step 3. Address things such as:
- Membership (a sense of belonging)
- Influence (a sense of being able to make a difference)
- Needs fulfilment (a feeling of getting something in return)
- Emotional bond (a feeling of sharing something with each other)
7 design principles for a vibrant community
In the book Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder identify seven principles to help keep communities of practice active.
Design with a view to evolution
Open a dialogue between the internal and the external perspectives
Be open to multiple levels of participation
Develop both public and private spaces
Focus on value
Combine the familiar with the exciting
Create a rhythm for the community
- Design with a focus on evolution
The aim of the design is not to impose a structure, but to help the community to develop. So don't set in stone what the professional community should look like, but make sure that there is room for dynamic developments.
- Open a dialogue between internal and external perspectives
It often takes someone on the outside to be able to oversee all the possibilities of the community.
- Be open to multiple levels of participation
It is unrealistic to demand that all members contribute equally to the community, because not all of them get the same amount out of it. Usually, 10-15% are the heart of the community and its daily management. Around this is a shell of active participants, about 15-20%. A large proportion of the members are on the periphery: they rarely take an active part, but they do get insights from the community. It is quite possible that participation changes and that people are sometimes very involved and sometimes stay on the periphery for a while.
- Develop both public and private areas
It is not only about the output of the community, but just as much about the activities to get there and the informal network that is created in the process. Make sure that both are done justice by designing both public and private (online) spaces for community activities.
- Focus on value
Communities prosper because they add value to the institutions and the members associated with them. But the full value of a community is not yet known when you start a community. Don't try to define that value in advance, because it changes over time, but do make explicit at regular intervals what value the members assign to it.
- Combine the familiar with the exciting
Mature communities develop a routine, with recurring meetings, projects and so on, which eventually becomes so familiar to the participants that they dare to have frank discussions and also to sit back and relax. At the same time, sometimes such exciting, innovative activities take place that they evoke a sense of shared adventure.
- Create a rhythm for the community
There is a pattern in the community activities. If they follow each other too quickly, people stop participating because they feel overwhelmed. If it is too slow, they also drop out. Successful communities find a natural rhythm, which accelerates around a professional conference, for example, and then slows down again.
Wenger e.a. (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press.
Organise a launch meeting
By organising a launch meeting, you create a specific moment to set the community ball rolling. A meeting like this is an excellent opportunity for the members to get to know each other and the core team.
Do not give up
Creating an active community takes a lot of time. Getting people to contribute can be immensely challenging. Research shows that often only 1% of members are highly active contributors, 9% of members are contributors, while the other 90% of members are only in for the information they can get (lurkers). See also slide 28 of this Slideshare presentation:
From the article Professional communities, experts have their say about the role of professional communities from a theoretical perspective:
Tell members what's in it for them
The WIIFM message (what's in it for me?) needs to be repeated often. Current and future members must have the feeling that membership is going to benefit them personally.
Keep communicating: create a communication plan activity calendar
It is a misconception to think that once you have communicated a piece of information, it will have been internalised by all members. Make sure you keep communicating in a way that is appropriate for your community. So make a communication plan that includes an activities calendar. This should also contain all the digital activities: newsletter, app, notifications, social media, etc. Make sure you can answer the following questions and that they regularly appear in your communications:
- Why should anyone become a member? What's in it for me?
- What activities are you going to deploy?
- What will be the community's rhythm?
Recruit members: make a marketing plan
Recruiting members is an important activity. Ensure you are visible at various locations. When announcing all your activities, make clear that the messages come from a community that people can join. Part of your plan might include the ‘open educational resource of the week’.
Make active members aware that they also have a role to play in recruiting and helping to bind new members. Give them examples and an incentive for them to do so.
Tailor everything to the target group
In step 2, you already decided which target groups the community would focus on. Tailor all your activities to these target groups.
Welcome new members personally
In order to bind members online, it is good practice to send new members a personal welcome email. It may be convenient to assign this task to a specific person: the newbie greeter.
Make sure you can answer the following questions:
- How will new members find their way around the community?
- How will they know what is expected of them?
- How will you win the loyalty of new members?
Encourage online activities
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Make sure the social manager opens discussions, attracts people to the website, challenges people to participate, and compliments members who are active. Asking a small group of people for 15 minutes a week to actively undertake actions and make connections in the community could already create a lot of momentum.
From the Good Practice Professional Community SAMEN hbo-verpleegkunde (nursing):
'Every week, members of the hbovpk.nl community receive an e-mail with a summary of all the forthcoming activities for that week. It works well. If people see a topic they like, they can click on it and respond. This keeps the platform on their radar.'
Ensure that members can profile themselves
Do this actively by inviting them to contribute content in the form of articles or a Q&A. And passively by putting a member in the spotlight every month, for example.
There is nothing as annoying as not getting any help when you ask for it. Set up a general email address and make sure that responses to questions do not take too long.
Make sure members know what's in it for them
We can't say it often enough: make sure the potential members and existing members are aware of how they will benefit from the community. Keep communicating this!
How do you stay up-to-date as a community? Keep innovating. Keep things fresh for the members:
- Share success stories, both from the community as a whole and from individual members.
- Create subgroups in which members can participate.
- See if there are any new roles to be assigned.
- Develop new activities and make sure you get some appreciation in return.
- Facilitate discussions about the communities.
- Look for opportunities to bring in knowledge from outside the community.
- Encourage the publication of success stories and learning materials outside the community.
- Devise contests, quizzes, sharing sessions, 'Open educational resource of the week' awards or other eye-catching activities that will create a buzz among community members.
Be critical. What does the community need and who could provide it?
From the Good Practice Professional Community for Environmental Toxicology:
'Deploying the learning materials in teaching is the best way to keep the community active because it forces you to keep revising the resources. The advantage of online resources is that you can tweak things immediately, although it does mean asking colleagues to write or rewrite documents, chasing them and asking reviewers to appraise the new text.'
Don't be pushy
Despite all the organisation that takes place behind the scenes, it is important that the members of the professional community do not feel as though everything is being imposed from above. People join in and participate voluntarily. So don't be too prescriptive, even when members might not be very active, but are mainly passive participants (lurkers).
Want to read more on this topic?
Karel Kreijns, professor of Technology-Enhanced Collaborative Learning, and Peter Sloep, emeritus professor of Technology-Enhanced Learning, explain in the article: Professional communities, experts have their say about the role of professional communities from a theoretical perspective.