Not too long ago, my daughter attended her first junior high school dance.
There was one thing I found odd about her behavior the week before. Usually, she would keep her bedroom door open—free for her mom and myself to walk in. This time, her door was closed. I naturally knocked on the door and asked, “Everything OK in there?”
“Yeah!” she said.
She opened the door and out comes our 12 year-old dressed in a pink fuzzy vest over a black Nightmare Before Christmas t-shirt, jean skirt, and black and white striped stockings. Our once sweet My Little Pony loving girl now flashed the persona of an eclectic tween goth with attitude.
She strutted out of her room down the catwalk known as our dining room to showcase her “new” image. “You like?” she asked.
We naturally raised our eyebrows and said, “Think about how other people might view you.”
The truth is, she was.
In her room were piles of different clothes with her mirror propped up in the center. She had been playing dress up, experimenting with various costumes and outfits, thinking about getting attention from people she would meet and engage with. Perhaps it will be with her close friends who share her interests, maybe a new group of kids she’s wanted to get to know better or even (heaven and her parents forbid) that one boy she has a crush on.
She’s at that critical age when building and participating in her own community of friends is going to take a little more effort, preparation, and nurturing. But at the start, she already knows it takes a sense of self-identity, association by interest, and the desire to belong.
This is a real life lesson that we can all learn from when building our own communities online. Many people come to us to build platforms they believe will instantly create a community. The truth is, it takes more than just a “field of dreams” for people to come to and participate in a community.
So here are a few cues we can learn from my daughter about building online communities before we dive deeper into something we can truly embrace.
Stand in front of the mirror
Take a good look at yourself as an organization. Invest time in planning out how you will position yourself, and understand what you want to achieve and change about yourself as you build influence and a community around you. Have a plan.
Know what to wear
So what will it be? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones t-shirt? What you choose to wear will attract certain people while getting a reaction from others. The outfit in our situation is the channel you use to project your messages and content, whether it is Twitter, LinkedIn or your own network. It helps people identify who you are and whether you are someone to approach or avoid. When building an online community, choose the channel your target audience is already on and tailor your messaging specifically for that channel. Establish your identity and message to create opportunities to attract the right people to your cause.
Know with whom you’d like to engage
Some of us know whether we want to engage with a particular group (like getting in good with the members of the glee club back in school) or we might set a narrower target (like that one person who always made us googly-eyed). When building an online community, know and understand who it is you want to attract, build association with, and establish relationships and trust. Understand and learn what you might have in common and what you would like to share with them. Try to visualize what you could accomplish together. Better yet, visualize what they can accomplish on their own when you take the lead.
Stand in the circle and listen
When you’ve found the right people to engage with, stand in the circle and listen first. Are your assumptions correct? Are there things that are being talked about that you can relate with, are there ideas you can contribute? So many of us focus so much energy broadcasting ourselves without understanding whether it is relevant to the people we are trying to attract and build relationships with. Listen to them first.
Ask people to dance… especially those sitting alone
You need to be engaging. Building online communities also takes initiative where you need to create and lead conversations. Try not to focus on engaging with just one person; try to engage with as many people you can. Especially those who may feel disconnected. You could be someone who can help them grow, they can be someone you can also trust and follow.
Really get to know people
When you engage with people, take the time to really get to know them. Build and strengthen relationships with people. The more you listen and engage, the more relevant, timely, and stronger your relationships become. Learn to recognize people for their efforts and the contributions they make to the community, whether it’s online in the community or offline outside of the community. Learn to give applause before receiving it.
Get other people to dance…with each other
Building online communities also requires creating opportunities for other people to connect and engage with one another. Strong communities are self-supporting. Your role should include not only knowing who is a part of it but also making the right connections and knowing when to nurture and when to energize them.
The following week after my daughter’s school dance, all she could talk about was the dance. She shared with me what she thought was “cool” and the things she thought should change to make it even better next year. My final thoughts on building communities online, with cues taken from my daughter, are that strong communities need to be self-sustaining—striving to constantly grow and improve while revolving around a focused cause or theme.
Although you will play a key and critical role in building and leading a community, there will be a time when you need to step back and allow community members to make it their own. Continue to exert your influence when the time is right, nurture the parts that are starting to flourish and inspire others to take the lead; all the while giving the community time and space to thrive and find their own sense of ownership and belonging.