I recently attended CMX Summit, a one-day conference held in San Francisco featuring talks from some of the best minds in online community building, be they company founders, community professionals, or community leaders. Speakers from some of the strongest online community brands, from Airbnb to Burning Man, gave attendees an inside look at the lessons they’ve learned and the ingredients for building a fully engaged community.
Perhaps the key takeaway was a reminder that building a community requires giving back. To create a meaningful network of customers or participants you need to help them fulfill their own dreams and aspirations. Thinking about the community members’ needs more than what you want from them is only way to motivate members to devote their time, energy, and creativity.
Here are five creative ways that has helped CMX speakers engage their communities:
1. Forward company perks to your most invested community members
Polyvore, a “community powered” commerce platform that allows members to curate product collages, goes far beyond simply creating a delightful product. CEO Jess Lee said that to reward power users, it created a “community correspondent” program: When Polyvore employees received tickets to designer shows at New York Fashion Week, they sent community correspondents instead. These correspondents got an opportunity of a lifetime, and extended the cycle of community giving by reporting on the latest styles for Polyvore members following along online.
Takeaway: Next time your conference or event sponsorship comes with an extra ticket, consider sending one of your most active community members instead of going yourself.
2. Appeal to the “connective tissue” of your community to amplify your message
At alternative clothing outlet Betabrand, not only are many of the quirky clothing ideas (like its famous “cordarounds”) designed by community members, but every product is voted on by customers before it makes it to production. One key for CEO Chris Lindlan is to maximize what he calls “fashion forwardability”—the likelihood that someone would forward on an email/tweet/link about a given product. Lindlan looks at the existing communities within his audience that are most likely to love an item (cyclists or “black sheep”) and works to create memorable marketing appealing to that shared identity.
Takeaway: Figure out what makes your most devoted customers absolutely love your product—perhaps an identity, hobby, or common problem—and let that star in your campaigns.
3. Find advocates within existing communities to establish credibility
NASA might be better known for rockets than online community, but the space agency recently put community principles to work to improve communication within its technical organizations. Spurred by the Space Shuttle Columbia crash in 2003, which underlined the need for NASA organizations to work more closely with each other, Daria Topousis was part of a team tasked with creating the NASA Engineering Network, made up of “communities of practice” aligned with core competencies of agency employees.
With an average age of 46 in 2004, NASA engineers needed some convincing to fully participate. One at a time, Topousis recruited well-placed engineers for a “technical fellow” leadership role to help evangelize the internal communities. These fellows helped raise awareness and buy-in for the program.
Takeaway: To build a community from already-established networks, look for internal evangelists to that can help spread the word and add legitimacy.
4. Give your community a goal they can meet only by working together
Long-time community strategist Amy Jo Kim has helped build cooperative gaming platforms from The Sims to Guitar Hero. Her main message: Not everyone is motivated by zero-sum mechanics. On the Web (as in real life), community output peaks when members work together toward a common goal. A perfect example? Think of themed Minecraft servers (such as Westeroscraft) that no individual player could have constructed without help. To demonstrate the real-world impact of co-op games, Kim pointed to The Contenders, a group of gamers who worked together to solve a protein-folding pattern that had stumped actual scientists.
Takeaway: To make your community more cooperative, encourage the use of “co-op social gestures” where members reward each other.
5. Give your community members room to be complex
Some of the most compelling communities give their members a supportive platform to express themselves and explore new sides of themselves. Andrew Hyde’s Startup Weekend event series calls on entrepreneurs, makers, and dreamers to go from idea to startup over the course of a single weekend. With more than 1,500 Weekends completed, Hyde thinks that the success of the event is largely due to the fact that attendees with all levels of experience can find ways to meaningfully participate—and often completely change the trajectory of their careers.
Similarly, Jen Sanders of the Burning Man Project said the desert event’s participatory culture built a “sense of creating something from nothing” that has allowed the community to transfer Burning Man’s founding principles to their own regional offshoots.
Takeaway: See your community members as people first, members second. Help them realize their own goals within the community.
Check out CMX’s own 2014 wrap-up for a summary of each talk.