As the digital landscape matures, cultural organisations have augmented their audience development and engagement toolsets with websites, apps and social media that perform a myriad of functions – from ecommerce and marketing to sharing performances and cultural collections. Everyone's been on a digital odyssey.
Yet when it comes to online communities the picture's foggier. Most have shied away from the commitment. An air of mystery surrounds them.
Pausing to take stock of our digital journeys, we see in parallel with digital maturity that talk of "digital transformation" is moving up the agenda. Thoughts of refactoring our organisations to be more attuned to and interwoven with cross-sector and public input and collaboration are coalescing.
Where communities and transformation intersect
A case in point, the Tate Gallery’s moves to digital transformation are far-reaching. They broke new ground with the vision outlined in their 2013-2015 digital strategy: ‘Digital As A Dimension of Everything’ (via their then Head of Digital @stacker).
In sync with this shift, the potential and purpose of online community resurfaces. But having managed both new and established communities in the professional services, education and volunteer heritage sectors, I've noticed that despite this renewed interest, the premise and benefits of having an online community are still much misunderstood.
Given this disconnect and the emergent transformation dynamic, here are five ways for cultural and other organisations to get in gear and make the most of online communities.
(1) Think ecosystem not egosystem: put shared audience needs first
Today, online communities are largely confused with having a healthy social media presence. Granted, a community can exist within social platforms – for instance in Facebook or LinkedIn groups – but they're not automatically synonymous.
One way to think about the difference is this: networks while social are generally selfish; my social life, my career, my family, my business. Communities bring benefits to people by having a common purpose that may facilitate but also overrides pure self-interest. This applies equally to the community “owner” or rather trustee, because ownership is shared.
Hosting an online community means caretaking a space for others to discuss and pursue their common interests where they intersect with yours. Moving beyond the "me first" rationale, they offer a way to meet the transformation challenge of fostering and sustaining virtual (aka real) relationships and community input.
In the egosystem, value for all parties can be tangible but tends to favour the centre and be fleeting, like we're always starting over. In the community ecosystem, the value of content, activity and connections is transformed through co-creation; the shared benefits expand and deepen over time.
(2) Treat technology as a framework not a solution
There's no single platform best suited to an online community. Some people have them attached to their main websites using software and platforms such as Drupal, Lithium, Jive or Joomla. Others run on external platforms – the obvious social network suspects.
The latter can help get things started easily and lower costs, but the dangers are that you don't own the data and companies can change or kill features leaving you shortchanged or with zilch if they scrap the service.
Some of the most resilient digital communities in the cultural sector – such as the UK Museums Computer Group – have weathered the tides of technological innovation through the central medium of humble email listservs (albeit in @UKMCG’s case, supported by a website, annual conference and Twitter account).
Don't fixate on technology or pin your transformational hopes on the shiny new thing, but do provide relevant entry points and balance the risks.
(3) Bake-in participation and advocacy from the start
No matter what platform you choose or what it's composed of, what brings things to life is the dynamism and centrality of community perspectives. Selecting the areas to focus on topic and service-wise means not presuming to know best, but involving audiences from the outset.
Inviting some visitors, customers or audience members to help steer its direction is also a way to nurture early stage participants who'll champion the community's presence at the grassroots and be active contributors when you launch and beyond. This collaborative approach can also work for reviving a dormant community.
(4) Blend control to thrive and grow mutual understanding
The feedback received in communities can touch many aspects of what you do – from planning events and exhibitions, augmenting curatorial expertise and shaping education programmes, through to operational matters such as membership schemes, recruitment, policy, pricing and venues.
Having this in one place coheres the welter of feedback from email, social media and online surveys, much of which goes unacknowledged or gets lost in the realtime slipstream.
The transparency of communities – by foregrounding unedited feedback and ideas – banishes gloss and spin but builds mutual trust and understanding. Have clear community guidelines to keep some etiquette and boundaries in place, but accept you don't control the conversation.
If the evolution of your offering is to hinge on dialogue and openness it's good to have staff beyond the community manager and digital/social media team involved, but without them dominating.
In this blended setting, both the community and your colleagues benefit from having a more direct and accountable space to find and exchange views, expertise and updates. While "lurkers" comprise the majority of all communities, the very fact you're hosting a forum open to input brokers a new sense of collective ownership.
Equally, within your organisation, planning, strategy and delivery can be more inclusive and better optimised thanks to community input, in step with the transformation agenda. In turn, blending community content and activity with other web channels and offline pursuits helps keep it visible and grows participation.
(5) A community is for life and meeting bigger challenges
This gradual, user-centred approach to community building is the polar opposite of the quick fix marketing push or digital serotonin hit. It's not about trending on Twitter or selling more tickets next week.
Well managed, thriving communities can support such demands but unlock much greater powers – helping organisations with some costly and complex tasks such as improving visitor and customer loyalty, gathering unvarnished and detailed feedback on your services, supplying ideas for your output and direction, recruiting staff and volunteers, and creating a sense of cultural co-ownership that is credible.
Change and communities of purpose
As the boundaries between virtual and real dissolve further into everyday life, hosting an online community has a logic that syncs with present day habits and expectations. If we're to transform into becoming more receptive and permeable trustees of culture, facilitating a digital community can fuel and support the processes for achieving that aim..
The big advantage cultural organisations have is that audiences are naturally enthusiastic. Just as they come to you seeking fun, inspiration and meaning, they're also constructive critics. If you plan to be around for the medium or long term, your online community can play a vital role in helping you adapt to change, and stay relevant and engaged with your audiences' lives and aspirations.
We'll be running more DigitalFWD coverage on both digital transformation and online communities, so let us know if you've any suggestions for guest posts, or tips on things we should feature.
Deirdre Molloy is Head of Content at DigitalFWD and a digital media consultant to media, education and cultural industries. You can find her @deirdrenotes.
Header image credit: Amit Burnstein. In line images by Oriz Zebest and O Palsson. All via Flickr, Creative Commons By 2.0