One of the biggest mistakes in change-making projects is to give something away, and hope the world will use it and spread it. But that’s creating a one-direction channel, and this cuts you from the real value the world can give back to your project.
To make this magic happen, you need to create bi-directional channels and carve the space and time to work with those who want to build this project with you.
Today, we’ll see a few channels you can set up so you can exchange with the community and invite their contributions.
Forums: How a jurassic tool (in digital terms) can do a lot of heavy lifting
Normally you and your teams are responsible of doing most support and education to your clients. But what if you gave them a tool where they can self organize as a community instead?
Forums are a very popular, low-barrier-to-entry tool to serve as a support channel for your community. They are easy to join and easy to use.
Forums also encourage discussion via the use of ranks and badges based around the number of posts a member makes or on the nature of its interaction with the community. Many forum users cherish these rankings and take great pride in making many posts to achieve them.
But forums, like any other social media space can attract spam like behavior, so it’s important that you or well-respected contributors moderate, model and foster the kind of behavior that you want to reward.
There are many open source projects who are using this tool with astonishing results.
Adafruit has created a forum for customers who need assistance with their purchases. But even if it’s not for everybody, it’s an open and transparent door for the customers to interact with the company, and search for solutions that might already have been answered.
People ask their questions, and once they are answered in public, it’s far easier to redirect to that thread than to serve each individual request for support.
In fact, sometimes the community of users will spontaneously help other users, helping Adafruit’s staff to cover more ground.
A word of caution: Open a forum if you are not completely swamped with production. Depending on the number of customers you have, answering and moderating questions can take a quarter to half of your working time.
But again, investing a little time here would go a long way, and you should consider it just as important as selling or marketing.
And there can be forums of all kinds and shapes.
Free Code Camp, the open source development course, has created a forum for it’s over 130,000 community members so they can discuss about their experience, their ongoing lessons and to self-coordinate to create local study groups.
Other forums in tiny niches, like the French Unicycling Association have forums that have survived for decades by just catering to a small audience of a few thousand members who nerd about their passion and organize events together.
Other notable examples are the forums from Ubuntu or Mozilla to organize their projects and campaigns, Linkin Park to discuss about their music, The Atlantic for subscribers to talk about the news and many more…
- If you or someone in your staff can devote 1 to 2 hours a day to support, open a forum, and reply to support questions there.
Open Source Tools you can use to create your forum:
Other less powerful but free alternatives:
- Facebook Groups
- Linkedin Groups
Wiki: Editing your work collaboratively
If you want to collaborate with others, you’re going to need tools that allow you to do it.
Tools that allow anyone to share and update the objectives, processes and core agreements. To improve the spelling, the grammar, or add cosmetic changes. And even to go back to a previous version if someone has defaced the current work.
And wikis are great to create this kind of documentation as you probably know by now.
There are many different tools to document your projects for collaboration. Millions of companies, big and small are using Github to collaborate on their code, hardware creators use design repositories like Wevolver, and non-tech organisations like TED talks share their written documentation on tools similar to Gitbook, which you can use whether you are in software or just running other more offline ways of working.
Tools you can use to document and collaborate on your code, design or processes:
For documentation and processes:
This will give people an extra reason to share your project.
Regular Physical and Online Meetings to take action together in real life
Want to motivate your community? Gather them!
Events are special, focused times in which a group of people do the same thing. This could be a large gathering such as a conference, potlucks, drinks or a small online meeting.
Events don’t have to be large and formalized, and they don’t have to be complex and expensive to organize. Events can be small, informal, and based online or offline.
And events serve many purposes for your community, like building a sense of family and belonging, breaking the routine, focusing the mind on given projects or shared targets, to help identify leaders and the strongest personalities in the community, and taking the pulse of the goings-on of your community.
Events are also an excellent opportunity to really fire up your community, produce social bonds, and sow the seeds for long and rewarding contributions to your community. Events are not merely nice, optional variations of the norm; they should be a regular part of your community’s growth.
Before the Internet, events were limited to face-to-face gatherings, but now we can use zooms or webinars to meet digitally without physical limits.
The Ouishare community first started around their physical Drinks that gathered people who wanted to talk about the Collaborative Economy. This lead to the sprawling of Ouishare all over Europe, Latin America, Canada and a few other countries around the world. The Makesense community grew around their “Hold-ups”, design thinking meetings to help social entrepreneurs improve their projects that have already gathered 80.000 citizens all over the world, and Holstee, a card game to spark meaningful conversation and reflection, used potlucks to form a community around it.
Other communities like Adafruit used webinars to showcase the work of some of their members to gather a community curious to know what the active members are up to.
Show-and-Tell is the live show Adafruit broadcasts weekly. Makers from all around the world come in and share the electronic projects they are currently working on.
The show runs on Google Hangouts for 30 minutes and it is the place where they offer 8 to 10 makers from their community to showcase the projects they’ve been working on.
Instead of doing typical market research to learn what their customers want, Show and Tell is a great way for Adafruit to get insight into not only how people use their products but also what they might want in new ones.
Over the four years that it has been running, Show-and-Tell has been produced more than 200 times, collecting more than 2.8 million minutes watched and an astounding half a million video views.
To find some examples of their Show and Tell broadcasts you can go here.
- What meetings can you host to keep your community energized and aligned around your collective mission? Is it physical meetings? Regular checks? Drinks or potlucks to make sure everyone is updated on the common progress? Or online zooms or webinars to create communities of practice around your mission to invite the emergence of new practices or potential partnerships?
Tools you can use to create online events or calls:
Tools you can use to create offline events:
Offline ideas you can use in your events:
A space to promote your communities contributions
If you want to give people an extra reason to share your project, you should become a platform to shout out their work as well.
As we mentioned above, Adafruit has its Show and Tell Webinar where it showcases the projects its community members hack together with Adafruit’s electronics in front of an audience of other makers.
And a last example is OpenBCI, an open source brain computer interface. During their Kickstarter campaign they shared the top 10 projects done by their community.
In there they could show projects that they could have never thought of just with the team they had. So it showed the potential of their product in the hands of other engineers and researchers, and built reciprocity towards OpenBCI.
The community members who give back through new designs, tutorials or other remixes feel seen, validated by someone they respect and exposed to the larger audience. And the project gets original work that’s also useful and fun for the rest of the community, making it all a great virtuous circle for everybody.
- Who is remixing your work? Could you invite them to share what they did and share it with your own audience for more visibility to both of you?
Real time chats to socialize and create bonds: Slack and IRC
Real-time chats have become increasingly popular for communities.
It started with IRC chats in tech communities. But it has become much more widespread with the development of Slack and its different open source alternatives (which we reference below).
The value of these chats is the possibility to discuss in real-time, and there are many benefits to this, like bonding with your community in real time, creating day-to-day conversations like socializing and chit chatting that would be out of place in more formalized mediums such as mailing lists:
It’s also faster to discuss or debate on a real time chat than on a mailing list or a forum.
And another benefit is that the chats can be logged, which provides an excellent means of documenting discussions and meetings.
If you are setting up a community that is focused on technology or the Internet, an IRC channel
could be a useful addition. For any non-tech community, Slack or similar chats are an excellent alternative.
To make sure people use it, it is important that your chat channel is open, accessible and well publicized on your community’s website.
As Jono Bacon notes in his book the Art of Community, an interesting personality trait in real-time chats is that what you should be aware of is the desire for power.
Many communities have discovered that a lot of importance is placed on chat channel moderation and control. Chats allows people to become channel operators, and these privileges allow people to be kicked out and banned from channels. Many communities have experienced power struggles, arguments, and bickering over these privileges and the status that comes with it: being an operator is a badge of honor for many people.
You should give out channel privileges sparingly, to those who have proved that they can treat those privileges with care.
- If there are a lot of offline interactions in your community, can you create chat channels to keep the discussion going?
- Or can you create special occasions to use these channels, like regular meetings online where experts share their knowledge? This could be a great way to get new knowledge documented and shared within the community.
Tools you can use to create your real time chat:
- Rocket Chat (open source alternative)
- Mattermost (open source alternative)
- Let’s Chat (open source alternative)
And if you are creating a more technical community, here is a list of tools to create your IRC chat.
Mailing Lists: An everyday tool to power conversations
Mailing lists are an excellent medium for group discussion, similar to forums. They are low-bandwidth, a familiar interface (email), and fairly accessible.
These could be great to create a visible channel for everyone involved to discuss around subjects like support, translations, documentation, education, bug detection or announcements. A few examples of organisations actively using mailing lists are Ubuntu, Blender, or the Platform Cooperativism collective.
The delivery of the conversation via email reduces the chance of new contributors forgetting about your community: each time they check their email, they are reminded that your community exists, and they may in fact read the messages and respond.
Mailing lists are more commonly liked by software developers, and pretty wide-spread in the open source world, but many non programming contributors often use and enjoy mailing lists.
That said, mailing lists are not always easy to deal with if you don’t have a technical community. It requires people to know how to join, sign up with an email address, respond to the mail, and know where to send messages. Also, unforgiving spam filters can make the whole process cumbersome.
Mailing lists also assume that you are interested in all discussions, and when you join, all discussions come to you, which can be off-putting. This makes mailing lists implicitly of most interest to those who plan a serious contribution or interest in a community.
Another issue to bear in mind with mailing lists is their lack of immediacy.
As an example, if you are a community software developer working at 10 p.m. on a Saturday and you have a problem, you could post a question to the mailing list, but you may not get an answer until Monday or Tuesday and are thus stymied. If more immediate results are needed, real-time communication channels such as Slack or IRC are better (of course, assuming people are on the channel: silence sucks on all media).
- If you’ve got a technical audience (like software or hardware developers), set up a mailing list to create group discussions.
- Make sure there is someone who animates and moderates the community so it stays active, well groomed and civil.
Tools to create Mailing lists:
In this post we’ve seen the channels you can use once you start gathering a community who wants to contribute and collaborate around the change you want to invite others to create with you.
This will enable you to materialize their contributions. Ubuntu or Blender wouldn’t have become the standards in server or video editing software if they hadn’t given their communities tools like Wikis, Forums, Mailing Lists or IRC chats.
Ouishare and Makesense wouldn’t have become large movements if they had not created their facebook groups and regular events for its community to exchange, focus on common projects and work on a common vision.
So what channels, regular spaces and times can you create to facilitate your interactions and collaboration with your community?
Keep your eyes peeled for the next article. We’ll see (at last!) how you can put this all together and make money to sustain and make your business work in harmony with your community.
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Photo by Vlad Tchompalov
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- Building communities as counterpowers - May 7, 2020