Connecting through communities

I love the way that the social web creates connections between people, and allows us to pass those connections on to those that we think might be interested.

I had a great chat today with a guy called Peter Haine (note the ‘e’ – it’s not him). I first came across Peter because he had posted in the forum on the Improvement & Development Agency‘s website, asking for feedback from people about how they have found success or otherwise in online communities. A fascinating topic, and even better, Peter is based at the Techno Centre in Coventry, just round the corner from where I work.

Peter works at the Applied Research Centre for eWorking, part of Coventry University, and as a result the office in which he works is chock full of neat little gadgets to make working outside the office easier: digital pens, laser keyboard things, ludicrously tiny keyboards. As a gadget-freak, it was a kind of heaven for me.

The research project into online communities that Peter is currently engaged in is funded by JISC, through their Emerge programme. The report is coming through shortly, and I am really looking forward to reading it. Whilst there is a real determination in both the private and public sectors to try and engage with communities and to take a community based approach to increasing participation, engagement and brand loyalty, there isn’t, as far as I am aware, much in the way of research into both how effective it actually and and how that effectiveness can be achieved. Hopefully this work will help start this process develop.

Peter did let me into a couple of points that he had discovered from his research. He did admit that some of it might seem obvious – but of course that doesn’t make it invalid nor does it mean people always remember to do it!

  • Purely online communities are unlikely to succeed – you need some kind of face-to-face meetings to build a sense of belonging and trust in other community members
  • Communities need a defined sense of purpose and a way of measuring achievement of that purpose
  • Active facilitation is required in seeding discussions, getting folk involved and keeping things on the right track
  • Nobody is satisfied with the tools they have available!
  • Barriers to entry must be as low as possible. Choose the most basic tool you can get away with – people may be happy to give up their time to take part in a community, but not if they have to spend hours learning the platform
  • Payback – what’s in it for the community members? Whether financial, reputational or whatever, there needs to be something positive that those involved can get – even if it’s just a warm fuzzy feeling inside

So, Peter gave me plenty of useful, interesting information. What I gave him, hopefully, was the benefit of some of my connections, most notably Steve Dale and Ed Mitchell, who I later introduced to Peter in a couple of emails. Hopefully they can help Peter, and him them, in the future.