A List Apart

Coaching a Community

Coaching a Community

We’ve all been part of communities since kindergarten, or earlier. Churches, schools, sports teams, and neighborhoods all satisfy basic human desires to interact with others and work toward a common goal. And yet, when these communities are online and we start to think of them as “social sites,” these concepts can suddenly feel foreign. My work in communities (primarily as the editor of community-created magazine JPG) has shown me that different sets of people are usually motivated in similar ways. Most people have an innate need to belong and feel like part of something, and successfully contributing to that something can really reinforce self-worth. Whether you’re at a company such as Yelp working with product reviews, or Threadless working with t-shirts, or in a church group working on an annual recipe book, try some of these methods to nurture great content.

Communicating effectively

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If you’re in charge of an online community, you have a working relationship with a group of people, and many ways of communicating with them: usually a blog, a forum, a newsletter, site mail, e-mail, comments, etc. Figure out which channels are most powerful, and find a way to use them. In many cases, these communication channels aren’t one way. Giving members ways to interact with you and each other brings you all closer. At JPG, the strongest communication medium was a weekly newsletter. We stuffed it full of content that people wanted—stunning photos of the week, challenge winners, upcoming deadlines, etc.—and gained excellent response and click-through rates. It meant a lot for people to see themselves or peers recognized for their talent, and that helped make the e-mails successful.

Yelp has invested in active user forums, and often gets the word out about parties or collects information for future newsletters from there. These forums (Yelp Talk) allow Yelp’s users to get to know each other, socialize, and express themselves. Flickr’s forums are distributed by topic, and they don’t have a newsletter. Instead, they prominently feature an excellent blog as their main communication method. They include features, such as a Q & A series where each interviewee picks the next, that allow Flickr members to have influence over the blog. Find out what’s right for your goals and your culture, and invest in it. These connections to and from the community are incredible tools, and establishing them is a great first step.

Setting clear and specific expectations

Your members aren’t mind readers, but they are interested in meeting your needs. They’ve chosen to be part of this community and support its goals, but they need to know what those goals are. Put yourself in their shoes: would you rather start typing on a blank page, or answer specific questions within your field of knowledge? Blurb is a self-publishing site that allows members to custom print beautiful hard cover books. They could just ask you to upload a PDF of your book, but instead they provide proprietary software that walks you through every step of the process. No chance for confusion or procrastination!

JPG collects photography-related articles for each issue. The submit page for each article type shows examples of previously published stories, separate requests for each piece of information needed, clear word count ranges, and more. You might google “invoice examples” if you need to make one of your own, but JPG puts relevant examples right on the page.

Another example comes from the Obama campaign: they encouraged their supporters to take initiative in local events with step-by-step, easy-to-follow “host guides.” Most folks would be pretty shy about setting up their own phone bank or campaign party, but the campaign’s thorough instructions made the tasks approachable. Setting expectations can be as simple as featuring work you consider successful, or as complicated as creating your own software. The intended result is simply to share a better understanding with your members, and to give them the confidence to get started.

Mentoring your contributors

Communication with members should happen on a one-on-one level, too. Treat your star members like the most talented coworkers you could ever have, and give them direct, constructive feedback. Be kind without leading them on or giving false hope. This is a relationship that may last longer than the website that fostered it, and both parties can learn and gain from it.

In two years of editing articles from community contributors, I managed to come to consensus on changes with every one of the writers. It had a huge effect on the way these active members spoke to friends about the experience, their likelihood of submitting again, and their loyalty to the community. I also never told a contributor he would be published until I was absolutely sure. When I wrote for more information, expansion on a thought, or approval of changes, I always referred to him as a “finalist” for publication. A professional writer/photographer/whatever probably wouldn’t tell all of his friends that he’s going to be published/featured/whatever, but your member might. That passion is what makes your job fun, but it also means that a little sensitivity goes a long way.

Playing with trends

Trends, including internet phenomena, happen for a reason—people dig them. So find an interesting one related to your community, and reach out to the meme’s creator or contributors. They’ll usually be stoked to see their idea taken to the next level. Your end of the bargain is to credit them appropriately and respect them immensely.

I reached out to Flickr group Wardrobe Remix for a one-off feature in JPG’s Street Fashion issue, and adapted Naz Hamid’s design geek meme Items We Carry into a regular feature in each issue. One of the fascinating parts for me was seeing my community put it’s own spin on these established memes, and adapt them to the mores of the group.

Other ideas: Yelp could adapt the popular 7×7 article, Big Eat SF: 100 Things to Try Before You Die, and create a contest to see who could write reviews of all 100 venues first. Current could take advantage of the “25 things” meme floating around Facebook and ask their members to upload videos of reading them aloud, to be cut into a stream of the most interesting parts. Mix it up! The internet is fun, and besides, the relationships you build with these adjacent groups could be really fruitful in the future.

Giving valuable rewards

There will always be people who contribute to your community for the novelty of it, but adding real rewards such as cash and prizes can get you a different league of member. While it doesn’t help the bottom line, it sets you apart from your competition, lets the member know that you consider their contribution worthwhile, and attracts experienced professionals. It also conveys meaningful approval of the member’s contribution in a way that words sometimes can’t.

Publications such as JPG and A List Apart pay $100 for selected works. Current and Threadless offer payouts for videos / t-shirt designs used. Payment isn’t the only incentive that works. Members can also be motivated by seeing your company spend money on publishing work outside the internet—in a magazine, on TV, or on a t-shirt. Prove to your members that you believe they’re worth it, and they won’t disappoint you.

Praising effusively, but not recklessly

It’s human nature that one negative comment affects us more than ten positive ones. So praise liberally, but keep in mind that different positive actions deserve different rewards. Keeping them separate is really important, or you risk deflating the value of all of them. Think of school: you wouldn’t get an “A” just for perfect attendance, but you might get a certificate.

At JPG, theme photos were always published based on the merit of the image alone, whether the photographer was incredibly active or had only uploaded one photo. However, when picking “featured members” for the magazine, the newsletter, and the homepage, we considered social contributions as much as artistic ones. Similarly, Yelp usually features only positive reviews on a business (three stars or higher) as the Review of the Day on their home page, but will call out talented members with mixed reviews in their newsletter or elsewhere. Whatever your method of praise, remember to be genuine and thoughtful in your interactions, or people will see right through you.

In the end, we’re talking about fundamental social principles of mutual respect, open communication, and effective incentives. People often want to feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves, and that their talents and skills are appreciated. So polish up the skills you learned in the dorms, the glee club, or the Elk’s Lodge, and lead your community online.

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