This is Part 4 of a series in which I am explaining how each principle works within the specific context of online communities.
This week, let’s discuss the fourth principle: temple.
What is an online temple?
For those of us building online communities, this means the websites where we bring our members together are our temples if our members know that they can show up to the site and find people who share their values and a mutual concern for each other.
So what makes for an effective online community temple?
Well first, the knowledge that no online temple can replace the power of meeting in person.
Online temples cannot replace in-person meetings
There may come a day when virtual reality, haptics, and other technologies combine to leave little difference between our brain’s perception of an in-person experience and an online experience (seriously).
But that day is not today, and it’s well beyond tomorrow’s horizon as well.
So for now, the smart online community leader will respect the enduring and irreplaceable power of bringing community members together in person.
Vogl quotes noted community authority Stu McLaren as saying that online communities should strive to meet in-person at least once per year. I agree.
The bonds that are developed in person solidify relationships between individuals and among small groups, and these bonds carry over to make the online experience even stronger.
Of course, the smart online community leader in 2020 will also recognize how different the world is today than it was six months ago.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused worldwide cancellations of in-person events ranging from the smallest neighborhood book club all the way to the largest conferences and festivals. So in-person events, especially large ones, may be impossible — or at best, irresponsible — for the foreseeable future.
And while we should all strive to get an in-person event on the books as soon as possible once the world returns to something more closely resembling normalcy, the immediate reality is that our online temples are as important as ever.
In fact, our online temples are pretty much all we have right now for building the engagement and connection that is necessary to sustain a close-knit, profitable online community.
The 7 key features than any online community temple must have
So what are the essential features — not the bells and whistles, but the essential nuts-and-bolts features — that an online community temple must have?
There are seven (well, probably eight).
Let’s count them down …
1. The expected levels of privacy and security
There cannot be a disconnect between the amount of security and privacy that a member expects and what your online community temple delivers.
If there is a disconnect, then people won’t engage in any candid or vulnerable way. They might not even join in the first place.
Consider the example of hosting a community of folks dealing with a serious medical issue. The online temple would need to be private and secure, and — crucially — members would need to trust the privacy and security.
But also recognize that the required amount of security and privacy may be none. For example, one of the temples for my online community of Indiana basketball fans is the live chat for our live YouTube broadcasts. This chat is public so anyone can see it, and that’s fine because our regulars who show up and chat understand that it’s public.
The key here is knowing what your members need and expect, and delivering it in a way that is easy to recognize to trust.
2. Easily distinguishable member identities
Members can’t connect easily if they don’t have a way of easily differentiating between other members.
So your online community temple must allow members to create identities and profiles that express the parts of themselves they want to show to the other members of your community.
Fortunately, requisite profile features, including the ability to add a custom photo or visual avatar, are fairly standard across all types of membership sites, so this requirement should be easy to satisfy.
The only question you may have is: should people be required to use their real identity or are avatars and pseudonyms allowed? The context of your community will determine the answer.
3. A general forum for posting updates and discussing relevant topics
The only way for people to interact online and develop any type of relationship is to post content. So your online community temple needs to have at least one main feed or forum where members post and comment.
You may want to give different posting capabilities to hosts and administrators than you give to regular members. That’s advisable in most cases.
But, at a minimum, everyone in the community should be able to make a post or ask a question and be able to comment on others’ posts and questions. Otherwise, you’re not leading the conversation, you’re dominating it.
As a community leader, you can learn a lot from the topics and questions that your members bring up on their own.
4. A way for members to message each other (and you) privately
If your online community temple has each of the first three elements, then you should start to get some public interaction between some members.
It’s always nice to see long threaded comments where members engage in a lively discussion.
Once this interaction begins, you want members to have an avenue to go deeper with each other. Sometimes that can be done via public comments, but oftentimes it demands a more personal, private touch.
Giving your members the ability to correspond via private messages provides the opportunity for deeper relationships to emerge.
You also want members to have the ability — and feel comfortable — reaching out to you privately, whether by direct message or email. Not only do you want to be able to help and answer questions as soon as they come up, but you want to be alerted to problems as soon as possible so you can take action.
Speaking of …
5. The ability to remove content and ban members that violate your stated values
This is why it can be difficult to try to build a community on Twitter or other social media sites that you don’t control.
You need to be able to immediately remove content that violates your rules or isn’t in line with your values. Similarly, if members reveal themselves to be toxic to the environment, you need to be able to remove (or potentially ban) them too.
If you don’t have this level of control, then you don’t control your online temple.
And hey, that might work out okay. Hopefully you never actually need to ban anyone or anything. But a good community leader doesn’t rely on mights and shoulds to protect the sanctity of the shared community space.
6. The ability to grant special privileges to members who earn them
You can build a small, engaged online community with only yourself providing leadership in the community space. But for your community to grow beyond that initial stage, you will need to develop additional leadership from within.
So any platform that you use for your online community needs to give you a way to grant some host capabilities to members who have shown you they are worthy.
- You can appoint moderators on a YouTube channel who help you enforce standards in your live chats and comments.
- In Mighty Networks, you can grant Moderator or Host capabilities to members, which allow them to do everything from moderate comments to set up new groups and courses.
- In WordPress, you can exercise pretty granular control over who can submit posts, edit posts, moderate comments, etc.
Every community will be different. You just need a way for members’ privileges and responsibilities to grow as your community grows and develops a need for leadership beyond your own.
And finally …
7. A user-friendly experience
You could have all six elements above, but you’ll generate very little activity and engagement if your online community temple is difficult or confusing to use — on desktop and, increasingly, on mobile.
It’s just the way people are wired now as online consumers.
- We expect websites to load fast.
- We expect designs to be clean and clutter free.
- We expect to have a clear idea of what we’re supposed to do next.
- We expect to be able to find what we’re looking for in the moment we’re looking for it.
- And when we click buttons or initiate actions, we expect a frictionless experience where what we expect to happen actually happens.
When we don’t get this, we get frustrated and/or nervous … and we move on to something else.
So just like you would set up an offline environment to be as comfortable and inviting as possible, with any instructions clearly marked or explained, you need to approach building an online community temple exactly the same way.
Before I close, I want to add one last feature.
It isn’t necessarily an essential feature for all online communities, but it probably is for any online community that hopes to earn significant and sustained revenue.
8. The flexibility for segmentation
As your community grows, your general discussion feed or forum is going to get pretty busy.
Perhaps all of that content and all of those comments will be relevant to everyone, but chances are good that as you grow so will your members’ desire to branch off into sub-topics and sub-discussions.
So the online community platform that you use should be flexible enough to evolve as your community evolves.
This might mean:
- Adding new topics
- Creating private groups
- Mixing in different forms of media
- Experimenting with new types of events
- Organizing your content archive in an intuitive, accessible way
- Releasing more advanced paid courses to serve y0ur most serious and advanced members.
And on and on.
If your community platform is too rigid or limited, you may find yourself being boxed in at a time when you need to be expanding. That can kill the momentum that you’re working so hard to build.
We must have the humility as online community builders to recognize that we’ll never replace the in-person experience with an online temple.
And that’s okay …
Because we can simultaneously take great pride in building the best online community space possible and using it to create the transformation and belonging that people seek.
We also need to remember that we will quickly acquire the curse of knowledge when it comes to interacting with our own online community temple. Everything about the space will make perfect sense to us since we built it, but it may not for members (especially new ones).
So we must listen to our members, and also be willing to step into their shoes to try to see what they see, so we can fill in any gaps in the experience with the right messaging at the right time.
Now here are some additional links on this topic …
Make sure you help your new members get properly acclimated
The guys at Fizzle know a thing or two about building engaged online communities. Their tips here about onboarding and rituals are great reminders of ideas I covered in previous articles in this series.
Integrations are an incredibly important feature
This post is from Khoros, who develops online community software for big companies. So know that perspective going into reading this post, but it does offer a few additional features that good online communities will find a way to incorporate: gamification, integrations, and performance measurement.
Which online community platforms rank highest?
If you’re looking for a place to host your online community, here is tip #1: don’t do it on Facebook. Tip #2 is to survey the landscape of options and see which one has all of the features listed above AND the extra bells and whistles that fit your particular needs. G2 is a good place to start that research.
Mighty Networks is a good option for your online community temple
As of me writing this post, I currently lead three communities on Mighty Networks. They get a lot right about the online community experience, and I’ve been mostly happy with my time on the platform. I can recommend it as a solid option. There are a few use cases I don’t think it’s great for (example: if running a moderately sophisticated affiliate program is important to you), but it’s definitely worth a look as you decide where to host your community.
Mighty Networks [affiliate]
Thank you for reading this issue of Primility.
Please consider forwarding it to a friend who wants to be a better servant leader and build a strong online community.
Photo by Phil Coffman on Unsplash