Coaching a Community
Issue № 280

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.

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Communicating effectively#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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.

About the Author

Laura Brunow Miner

Laura Brunow Miner is the founder/editor/designer of and founder of She loves photography, design, and community editorial.

19 Reader Comments

  1. Great post Laura! You raise some excellent points. I especially like the idea of mentoring your contributors and treating them like co-workers.

    In a community-driven site, the top contributors are going to have a lot of influence in the direction the community takes. Creating an open line of communication with them, through which you nuture the relationship with them is an important step in ensuring that direction is a positive one.

  2. I think this is a great article, but one should avoid the puppet master effect. Remember that people are usually part of an internet community voluntarily and have their own motivations. If you all of a sudden start bossing them around or giving them to much feedback or input, they will resent you. Nobody wants to be part of your own personal game.

    I think communities are so common now that even saying things like, “select other members to be your friends!” will usually turn people off. Oh you mean like Facebook, Digg, MySpace, Friendster, blah, blah… The last thing people need is more ‘friends”.

  3. Great piece, Laura. You’ve used JPG for examples throughout the article and for good reason. From where I sit it still stands out as a stellar example of how important it is for those in “in charge” of an on-line community to remain intimately connected with their constituents. The support from the community in the days following early January 2009 showed all of us that the interaction of day-to-day staff with the community had built a powerful relationship.

    When I look back on any successful new venture, I usually cite some unique combination of vision and the people in the trenches that made it happen.

    Rinse & Repeat.



  4. As a developer and co-founder of a site that is only now beginning to incubate a community this advice is thought provoking and helpful. We look forward to letting go of the reins a bit (scary as that might be) and allowing our users to help us shape the direction of the site and its content. We’re just learning the delicate balance between being “in charge” and loosening up.

  5. Great article. These points should be considered very early in the community concept.

    Two points that came to my mind:
    I think it’s important for community members to have space. There will always be people who don’t get along with each other, but as long as they are not forced into the same room, the problem doesn’t grow big. That is a reason why in my opinion “groups” created by members are better than “boards” in many cases (not in all).

    And when talking about motivation, one thing to consider is how to be attractive for the people you want to have in your community. On the other hand it can also mean to think about how to be unattractive for people whom you don’t necessarily to be part of the community.

  6. Excellent article. I have never tried myself to develop a community site, but I can imagine what it takes to be able to run a successful social networking site. From the users perspective, as a member of some community sites, I can say that the personal feeling of sharing, the feeling of belonging to and participating in something that really has value represents the most important driving force.

  7. When it comes to coaching a community the article really sums up the most important points. But since today we have so many community sites, we are also facing a sort of social network fatigue – each time you have to sign up for new services, enter your data anew, and create yet another login/password combination.

  8. I think Leo nailed it with his two points which relate to the importance of clearly defining your community’s culture and/or subcultures so that you in turn attract the type of people you do want and deter those you don’t want.

    I mean a good example of this is when I’ve been within some communities that are supposedly focused on “friends and family” yet certain people within the community get upset when asked to avoid excessively swearing or using derogatory words. In their mind, they feel like “their” space is being threatened and they can’t be themselves within it. Thus what happens is you have this conflict between these two groups over simple forms of interaction because these two groups are coming from different subcultures.

    In effect, one group sees their environment kind of like a pub, where they hang out with their adult friends and family from the neighborhood and shoot the breeze. The other group, however, sees their environment like being in someone’s home, with younger kids running through it, so they assume it should be a little more sheltered and reserved (althought swearing once in a while is fine).

    Again there’s nothing wrong with having both subcultures within the same community but when communities start, one initial culture has to be clearly defined as to what it is. Then later, as other subcultures start emerging, “spaces” as Leo indicated need to be created, so that these subcultures can thrive as well. If you don’t create these spaces then friction and splintering will occur within the community and people will leave.

    PS. An older but still relevant book on this subject by Amy Jo Kim is “Community Building on the Web”.

  9. Not much is talked about community webistes. Your article is perhaps one of the very few that covers the topic in an enriching way 🙂 I feel it is very important to make community members a important part of the community. Only then will they be motivated to make genuine contributions for the betterment of the community!

  10. I have learned all of this to be true. This is a great post and it speaks to the amount of work it really takes to grow and nurture an online community. It takes a very human approach and that is often overlooked. I’ve written a book about my experiences growing an online community set to publish in May. It’s called “18 Rules of Community Engagement” and I certainly see some of my points in this post. Look forward to visiting more often.

  11. As the community grows, most of the rewards should be coming from other members. They should be the ones thanking other members for contributing. They should be the ones mentioning specific names when talking with the community.

    You still need to get involved and ensure the spotlight turns on quieter members from time to time. After all, you’ve already won over your most active members. Now you need to do the same with those that are sitting in the shadows.

    Community building requires effort and hard work. Never stop stroking egos, and never stop rewarding members of your online community. Just make sure you aren’t tempted to get out your cheque book. Remember – money doesn’t buy you community or relationships. Just (very) temporary loyalty.

  12. Having created a number of online communities over the years, I have come to realize that there is no one single formula or event that seems to get the community to suddenly take on a life of it’s own – that point where the community can roll on virtually forever without input, guidance, or coaching from it’s founder. In business communities, this seems more difficult to achieve – perhaps because we tend to be more competitive rather than sharing, yet in my art or cooking communities, such as our recently launched which features “instructional cooking videos”:, recipes and community participation – this seems to happen naturally and in a relatively short period of time – perhaps because the art and food communities are simply of a more open and sharing nature?

    Excellent article – and excellent comments generated!

  13. Unlike real world communities there are people who overstep their bounds because of the anonymous nature of the internet. This often becomes the source of stress for those in the community. Just something to think about.

  14. I agree with Maneet that you have to make people feel involved, how can you keep enticing them? How about little teasers, such as giveaways? Also keep them informed of developments – make them feel part of the community and the team. But a great post

  15. Great article and very informative.
    Definitely going to put some of your points into practise

  16. I like the idea of setting clear and specific expectations. It’s true your staffs wanted to meet your interest and with that attitude they are undeniably contribute something relevant so it’s a good thing again to give them reasonable rewards. This article provides excellent insight for everyone. Thanks for the head’s up!

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