Some destinations are singular in function. I go to the bank to do my banking. I go to the post office to send or receive mail. I go to the movie theatre to watch a movie—okay, I’ll be real, to gorge on overbuttered popcorn under the cover of darkness. The point is, we often go somewhere to satisfy a single purpose or need.
Other destinations are more multi-functional, like a community centre, large public park or major university. I could, for example, return to my own alma mater this month to see a magic show, play racquetball, swim, use the climbing wall, run laps on the indoor track while watching world-class speed skaters train, go to a concert, take a first aid course, cheer on the basketball team, attend a lecture, visit a bank, shop at the bookstore, study in the library, peruse an art gallery, drink crappy draft beer…the list goes on and on. And I could do these things alone or with as few or as many companions as I desired.
Many online communities are a lot like this second group of multi-purpose destinations. One address: infinite experiences. Like any bustling campus, you will find – at any given time – people looking to learn, teach, exchange ideas, experiment, socialize, be entertained, grow or just goof off—and many combinations thereof. Some will browse or observe, while others will engage more actively—like that guy in your first-year Poli Sci class who lectured more than the professor.
Like a world-class university, an online community can be a place for innovation and ideation, a place for industry activity and professional development, a place for contribution and content creation, and a place for engagement. Over time, some campuses (and communities) may even become known for their expertise or excellence in a particular area. But Berkeley wasn’t built in a day. Likewise, a thriving community doesn’t materialize overnight—most communities start small and grow incrementally, gaining momentum over time. Some communities spring up organically, like Facebook’s 100,141,920 Shakira fans (whose worship is perfectly understandable after that half-time show). Others are launched by organizations or brands who use communities to achieve a wide variety of objectives like brand engagement, content creation or new product development. And different communities are all in different phases of growth with different objectives and focuses, depending on where they are in the community lifecycle.
Whatever phase a community is in, celebrating wins and accomplishments along the way is one of the most important things community managers can do to keep internal morale high (and keep themselves sane). Many of the companies we have the privilege of hosting saw some truly amazing and shareworthy things happen in 2019. Here are just a few of the highlights.
Rust-Oleum, the worldwide leader in protective paints and coatings runs a thriving co-creative community called Creator's Studio that brings builders, crafters, and painters together for project inspiration and to learn about Rust-Oleum products. They regularly host “Ask the Rust-Oleum Expert” sessions and fun Challenges, but it’s the organic, unprompted conversations that go on outside of the scheduled programming that have proven particularly inspirational as of late.
With some members having been a part of the community for 2 or 3 years, this community is not brand new. We have seen members using the community as a sounding board for their bathroom/kitchen renovation projects and to show off their latest DIY creations (a salvaged and beautified armoire, a custom-made costume for a disabled grandchild, a surprise gift for a big anniversary).
But in 2019, the conversation levelled up and the relationships became even stronger. We ran our first ever Holiday DIY Gift Exchange which was a resounding success. In this activity, members signed up to be matched with another member for whom they would make and send a homemade gift. We had around 30 members who took up the challenge and the gifts they made for one another were amazing. It was heartwarming and inspiring to see the thought and care members took into shipping their handmade creations across the country—to someone they had never met in person. Members gifted things like homemade snow globes and hot chocolate making kits as well as beautiful signs and holiday art pieces. Rust-Oleum not only benefited from the authentic and high-quality content shared by the gifters and recipients but also from the strengthened sense of community afforded by this foray into online activities that are almost IRL.
In addition to strengthening relationships amongst community members, the connection members have with the Rust-Oleum brand continues to grow. Members happily shared their new product ideas, answered brand team questions about packaging and product naming and tested new products to improve instructions and usability. Member feedback continually confirms that Rust-Oleum is one of their most trusted and loved brands.
A Fortune 100 Technology Company
One of our enterprise clients was undergoing major structural changes and wanted to make the experience as positive as possible for its employees. Working in partnership with a consulting leader, we helped make what was expected to be a stressful time for impacted employees as easy as possible.
We launched an employee-only community as an online gathering place to share timely announcements, connect employees with current and new team members, and provide easy access to resources to enable employees to continue on with business as usual during a time of significant change.
Throughout the transition, the community became the go-to place for employees seeking answers to their burning questions—questions likely shared by many others across the organization. The benefits were many. The firm experienced organizational efficiencies (answering common questions once rather than repeatedly over email or individual phone calls), reduced turn-over, happier and more engaged employees and a productive workforce throughout a time of change. The open forum tools allowed company leaders to identify concerns or issues that weren't necessarily on their radar and address them in real time.
A group of industry leaders partnered on the launch of Catalyst as a place for education stakeholders to come together to envision and create change in education. The community team held several successful, in-person launch events across four continents to rally partners to join and take action. Event gatherings were held in Sydney, Johannesburg, London, and Washington, D.C., attracting education leaders from the national, district, and school levels.
While this community is in its early days, it appears there is an appetite for a dedicated space for leaders to share their concerns, discuss trends they are witnessing in the classroom and work together on solutions they can implement. The community's efforts will be focused on making education more equitable, building student resilience and self-advocacy, leveraging technology and creating spaces that support learning.
To date, the successes have been in executing multiple launch events to build a community from the ground up and initiating and moderating conversations on topics that will have meaningful impact across countries, school divisions and classrooms. Since its launch in October of 2019, Catalyst has attracted 400 participant members across 18 countries. Watch for exciting things from this community in 2020!
The Maker Studio community is really just getting started. The team has brought in over 2,100 Dremel fans from across multiple, disparate Dremel platforms into one central community. The community has successfully supported the Dremel product team with answers to product and purchase behaviour questions, while also providing insights on, and opportunities for, new product line additions. Members have also shared amazing creations that serve to inspire other Dremel owners to use their tools in ways they might have never imagined on their own.
In 2020, community members will be given the opportunity to test new products and provide much-needed online reviews, which will be featured throughout not only Dremel's main website, but partner retailers as well such as Walmart.
Since launching in 2014, LEGO Ideas has seen big success, growing to well over 1.1 million registered members who have submitted more than 25,000 project concepts. Of these submissions, 28 co-created kits have been brought to market, including Central Perk from FRIENDS (which sold out in a number of hours), the NASA Saturn V rocket, and the amazing Tree House (which is even made from plant-based bricks).
In 2019, the community added a staggering 291,063 members. Over 3,200 kit ideas were submitted, including the brilliant CyberTruck, which recently hit 10K supports. 6,600 challenge submissions were made in exciting contests like Build an Epic Ride, a partnership with Harley Davidson. LEGO FRIENDS Central Perk, released in September, went viral due to hundreds of news articles and an unsolicited video from Jennifer Garner’s personal Instagram where she showed the world the set.
Give it the college try
As you can see, some – but not all – of these noteworthy developments are directly linked to quantitatively measurable KPIs or ROIs. Others are about the evolution of relationships, trust and mindshare that are less easy to graph on a chart, but no less important to the overall success and longevity of a community or a company. Just as a graduate’s GPA and the letters following their name only represent one aspect of a well-rounded university experience and what a person may go on to achieve personally and professionally.
The word university is derived from the Latin ‘universitas magistrorum et scholarium’, which roughly means "community of masters and scholars". Online communities are full of masters and scholars too. The only difference is that in an online community the roles are fluid, with members and community managers collaborating, challenging, inspiring and learning from each other. There’s no midterm, but we can all take notes from what world-class universities provide and aim to create a collegial atmosphere that nurtures and rewards curiosity, intelligence, participation and, of course, a good party.