People are at the heart of any good online community. The flow of knowledge and the spark of new connections between members of the community creates value for everyone who is part of it.
In running online communities and interviewing dozens of community leaders, I currently see four distinct categories of knowledge and connection management. These categories are identified by the sophistication of the community and the direct control exerted by the community leader. Each of the categories involves curation, but the thing that is being curated changes at each stage.
Category 1: Community leader as router
At the beginning, many community leaders serve as the principal ‘router’ of information, knowledge, and connections. Because of their tenure and position, they know who the members are, they know how the tools work, and they know what questions have been asked before.
This is a fragile position for a community to exist in - highly dependent on an individual to keep the flows of information and communication running smoothly. It can also be tiring for the community leader. Still, talented community leaders create immense value for their members by doing this.
Deutsch Gym is a community built for people who want to practice speaking German. At the beginning, community leader Ronan McGuire led each of the conversation groups. He helped members determine which group they belonged in and even turned away members that didn’t meet a minimum level of speaking ability. In doing so, he was acting as the central router for the community. The community subsequently moved to Category 2 as he empowered champions within the community to lead speaking groups.
Points of curation:
- Who is in the community
- What connections to make
Category 2: Community champions as routers
As the community matures, dedicated members step up into informal or formal leadership positions. These champions are often associated with a certain sub-group within the community. They become well-known within the community for their specialized knowledge or command of that area, and take on a more concentrated version of the role that the overall community leader takes on in Category 1.
Empowering these champions within the community has clear benefits: it makes the community more robust, it takes some of the day-to-day work off of the community leader’s plate, and it increases the number of people who feel strong ties to the community. For most communities to grow, they must pass through this stage. It isn’t a perfect solution, though: the champions find themselves in a similar position to the overall community leader in Category 1.
The Chief of Staff Network, led by Scott Amenta, congregates - you guessed it - Chiefs of Staff to discuss challenges and best practices in the role. Scott launched the community with a city-based Chapter system. Chapter leaders in New York, London, and San Francisco all play a role in recruiting new members from their cities, run their own events, and help the overall community succeed. Scott carefully vetted each of the Chapter leaders before giving them this responsibility, and supports them as they carry out their plans.
Point of curation:
- Which champions to empower
Category 3: Self-serve knowledge
At some point, communities often develop self-serve systems (like databases or portals) to allow members to access knowledge and connections themselves. The information present in the knowledge platform and how that information is organized influence how members interact with the knowledge and with each other. In this way, the community leader is imprinting their own perspective on the community and making it more permanent.
Propel recently launched a new Member Portal that gives members the ability to search for members and advisors that share their interests, see upcoming events, and access other parts of the community. In building the Portal, Propel leader Emily Pik had to make decisions related to what was available to search, what to include in member profiles (goals, interests, experiences, etc.), and the source of and permissions for updating the data. She made those decisions based on her experiences leading the community, fielding questions, and connecting members to each other, and designed the Portal to directly address the most common types of questions that she received from members.
Point of curation:
- Product decisions related to the self-serve product
Category 4: Shared knowledge
For communities in this category, knowledge and connections have become fully diffused into the fabric of the community. In this category, most people in the community know what knowledge is present in the community, whom they should contact to achieve certain goals, and how they should act. This looks a lot like culture.
In this category, the community leader rarely makes direct connections between members or points people toward specific pieces of knowledge. Instead, they are responsible for guiding the overall direction of the community, keeping it on course through praising good behavior, admonishing bad behavior, and creating shared rituals to reinforce the culture of the community.
Most of us have been part of a community that is in this category - it may be a well-functioning school, church, town, or club. Shared knowledge and rituals take time to create, so it’s unlikely that new communities will be found in this category.
Points of curation:
- Creation or continuation of rituals
- Symbolic interventions
As a community leader, it’s important to know which of these categories you currently fit into and where you want to take your community. Understanding what you’re curating will give you a clear idea of where to invest your time and the risks and opportunities associated with the category that you’re in.