In organizations where communities form (whether around a product, mission, or otherwise), there is often a sense of perplexity or trepidation around how to engage with them. What is the proper way to talk to community members? How do I work with them, and what can I do to keep the community healthy and growing? The good news is, if you know what it takes to have a healthy personal relationship, you already know how to build a healthy community.
In a good relationship, we prioritize the other person. At Mozilla, the QA team makes it a point to respond to volunteer contributors within a day or two. A lack of response is one of the top reasons why people leave online communities, so it’s important not to keep them hanging. It doesn’t feel good to volunteer your time on a project only to be left waiting when you ask questions or request feedback, just as it would if your partner doesn’t return your phone calls.
Authenticity and honesty in a relationship are the building blocks of trust. If you make a mistake, admit it and set it right. Your tone and word choice will reflect your state of mind, so be aware of it when composing a message. When you come from a place of caring and desire to do what’s right for the community, instead of a place of fear or insecurity, your words and actions will foster trust.
Strong relationships are formed when both parties value and appreciate each other. It’s a great feeling when you take out the trash or do the dishes, and it’s noticed and praised. Make it a ritual to say thanks to community members who make an impact, preferably on the spot, and publicly if possible and appropriate.
Be their champion
Be prepared to go to bat for the community. I was once in a relationship with a partner who would not defend me in situations where I was being mistreated; it didn’t end well. It feels nice to be advocated for, to be championed, and it creates a strong foundation. When you discover a roadblock or grievance, take the time to investigate and talk to the people who can make it right. The community will feel heard and valued.
The processes and programs that support community participation require an understanding of motivation. To understand motivation, you have to be able to empathize. Everyone views the world from their own unique perspectives, so it’s important to try and understand them, even if they’re different from your own.
Understand your organization’s limitations, as well as your own, and communicate them. If your partner expects you to be home at a certain time and you don’t show up, the anger you encounter likely has more to do with not being told you’re going to be late, than the lateness itself.
Guidelines and rules for participation are important components as well. I once featured content from a community member and was met by an angry online mob, because although the content was great, the member hadn’t reached a certain level of status. The guidelines didn’t cover eligibility for featuring, and up until then only longer-term participants had been featured, so the community’s expectations were not met.
Not apples to apples
I would never want to get anyone in trouble by suggesting they treat their community members exactly the same as their partners. Answering emails from anyone while having dinner with your loved one is not advised. The take-away is there isn’t any mystery to interacting with a community. Many of the ingredients for a healthy community are ones found in healthy relationships, and most reassuring of all, we already know what they are.