An online community development expert tells us about building robust and engaged communities.
Bill Johnston, an online community development expert is the chief community officer and founder of Structure3C, a consultancy that develops strategies, programs and experiences that help organizations grow their customer communities and develop transformational digital business opportunities. Here, Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, co-founder and CEO of MissionBox, talks to Bill about the role that robust online communities play in empowering all types of organizations.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am the founder and chief community officer for Structure3C. As our firms' principal, I do a lot of speaking and content development around the emerging edges of communities and the community opportunity. I research best practices specifically for large organizations, startups and increasingly, nonprofits and NGOs who are using community and crowd to further their mission, vision, and in many cases, transform the way they operate.
How do you begin the process of helping nonprofits expand their engagement and effectiveness?
We typically start by working with key stakeholders — with leadership or executive director participation — to frame the vision, mission and transformational purpose of the community. We conduct stakeholder research with potential community member segments. We then follow up with staff to develop a playbook on creating engagement in the community to deliver on goals.
At times, we’ve gone deep into helping with the actual delivery of programs and developing analytics dashboards to help clients gain a greater understanding of what the data means, and to glean key insights. We also help them understand how to structure content, programs and staff, along with the platform experience in order to meet their goals.
How did you become an expert in building communities?
I’ll just humbly put forward: It was a little luck and a bit of hustle. My big break was to land a job at what became TechRepublic.com — one of the largest communities for IT professionals in the world. I helped design and launch the first version of that community, which grew from zero to two million members in less than two years.
After my startup experience with TechRepublic, I went onto senior positions with Autodesk and Dell, helping them develop or evolve their global communities, and key related programs like blogs and crowdsourcing communities.
I spent a few years with Forum One in Alexandria and learned more about nonprofits and the roles that collaboration and community play from working with the Gates Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A robust community can engage stakeholders in meaningful ways — ways that are much more efficient and scalable than meeting face-to-face.
“Digital disruption” has driven a resurgence of interest in communities, crowdsourcing and collaboration, combined with a renaissance of platforms. Organizations’ are trying to bring their stakeholders and communities back “home” from Facebook and other mass social media. This has led to different types of opportunities and experiences that have evolved well beyond your typical forum-based community experience. That’s why I decided to launch Structure3C in 2015; to help my clients transform their communications, engagement, fundraising and impact by developing modern online communities.
Trends seem to point to traditional communication methods and technologies losing impact when it comes to engagement. Do you think the trend will continue?
I would agree with that. We’re overwhelmed now by content and connections. If not managed well, and if not given proper toolsets or grounded in purpose, there's potential for huge levels of dysfunction and disruption to progressive developments.
Nonprofits are just starting now to really feel the heat from the failure of status quo methods of engagement and looking for ways to exercise better control over that and get better results.
You mentioned that about 80 percent of Structure3C is in the for-profit sector. What can the business-perspective bring to the nonprofit sector when we’re thinking about building communities?
I think the north star can be significantly different between those two types of organizations. Different frameworks for mission and vision, for programs, execution, and measuring and providing evidence — depending on how the organization is funded and who the partners are.
Corporations have deeper pockets and are incentivized to do certain things such as get products out in the market and generate revenue. They are learning things that are helpful in other contexts like: 'how to spread messages on social media', 'how to rally advocates around a particular topic' or 'how to spur people to action' to come together for a meetup in the real world. There is a lot that can be gleaned from the commercial side to apply to community-building and engagement on the nonprofit side.
It can be tempting to write commercial entities off as intrinsically evil, or malevolent. In some cases, they may be, but I think in a lot of cases, most commercial endeavors are going through some form of transformation right now, whether they like it or not. A commitment to sustainability, making community impact locally and keeping an eye on the bottom line serves everyone in a positive sense.
When I studied sustainable practices at Dominican University, one of the things that resonated with me most was the sustainability footprint of large organizations. It's true that commercial organizations are driven by profit, but if we can start to make slight incremental changes in their practices, simply because of the scale of some of these organizations, you’re really changing the world.
Lastly, because many commercial organizations invest heavily and marketing, customer experience and innovation, there are definitely best practices that are transferable to NPOs. For instance, one community building technique for technology companies right now is to develop or support local meetups that focus on their market. One could see a nonprofit that is focused on the homeless working with members of a “Big Data” meetup to source and analyze data and trends regarding seasonal patterns and then use that information to coordinate volunteer efforts out in the field.
What are some other things that stand out about the state of online communities now?
First, I’m really disappointed in the state of communities and social media in general and particularly, the types of discourse: the toxicity, the manipulation that’s happening, especially on the public social networks and large public communities. I think many organizations are at this really interesting decision point as we move forward collectively: what does “community” mean to your organization and how do you develop a community that provides value back to all members?
Secondly, I think the factors around how we build and engage communities over the long haul are going to rapidly evolve over the next three to five years. It's evolving because of everything that we’ve talked about, but also because of other exponential technologies like artificial intelligence.
What I’ve learned about myself through my career is that I really enjoy making positive change at scale in large organizations. I see the power of communities to not only help people support each other technically, but they all support each other with a range of other benefits, including emotionally, professionally — the whole person if you will.
I’m very passionate right now about purposefully building communities, especially communities that help individuals and organizations discover, refine and deliver on their purpose. Now that’s transformational!
Know another nonprofit visionary? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Johnston has focused on developing thriving in-person and online communities throughout his career. He designed and launched TechRepublic.com, which quickly grew to 2 million members in less than 2 years. He also developed, launched and led successful community initiatives for Autodesk and Dell, connecting millions of customers and creating upwards of $100 Million in financial impact.
While at Forum One, he established the first large-scale conference series for community professionals and pioneered the concept of the “community of community managers”. He has consulted for and advised some of the largest organizations in the world, including The Global Fund, Cisco, Salesforce and IBM.
To learn more about Structure3C and Bill’s latest work, please visit http://www.structure3c.com/blog