Five tips for establishing a virtual community

Thinking of establishing a virtual community? Here are some tips from our experience with the WFP Innovations Champions Community

By Natalie Magee

There is nothing more exciting than embarking on the journey of establishing a community and these top five tips will help you get your community off to the best possible start. At the World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator, we have established a thriving virtual community named the WFP Innovation Champions Community which supports and empowers WFP staff to become agents of change, driving innovation within WFP and accelerating solutions to end hunger. Members are provided with opportunities to voluntarily host, contribute to and participate in knowledge sharing sessions and events on the topic of innovation at WFP and connect with more than 360 fellow community members from 96 cities in 66 countries at WFP locations around the world.

We are pleased to share our top five tips for establishing your own thriving virtual community.

Some of the participants during the WFP Innovation Champions Community 2021 Co-Creation Session.

1. Set clear objectives: Do you want to establish an audience, network or community?

It is important to consider the different formats that may best suit your needs. For example, an audience is a collection of people who passively consume information which is delivered in a one-way flow from the information provider. The value of an audience is generally determined by the size of the audience. Some examples include audiences of mailing lists subscribers, social media followers or webinar participants.

A network is an interactive space where participation is based on information consumption and contributions. The value is generally derived from individual interactions and one-off outcomes. An example would be an alumni network.

Communities are highly interactive, collaborative and co-owned by the members. Communities operate based on participation, contribution, creation and collaboration. They feature a complex network of information flows between members and their value is derived from the contributions of members and the quality and outcomes of ongoing relationships in the community. One example would be a space in which your organisation forms & maintains high value relationships and knowledge exchanges with and between members on a certain topic. The community can be a high impact, personalised addition to your existing communication channels.

2. Do as author Simon Sinek does: Always start with the ‘Why?’

It is important to establish a clear reason for your community to exist and define its purpose from the beginning. Once you clarify this, you can identify how best to facilitate this community and exactly what you will do together. Once your community is well established, check that the members are aligned on the ‘why’ by collectively agreeing on the community purpose. You must be transparent and authentic about the purpose of your community and ensure that there are no hidden agendas behind the community. Community members need to be assured that they can trust the organizing team behind the community and know that their involvement will be in line with what has been communicated to them.

3. Take a Human-Centred Design approach to building your community

Before getting started, invest time in learning about and understanding your prospective community members. Deeply understanding your prospective community members and their needs will help you design a community that will be able to deliver real value, establish trust and build meaningful relationships among the members. It is important to also understand the needs of your community so you can design an attractive format that delivers real value and ensures the desired rate of participation. For example, when choosing your main communication tool, always try to meet the members where they are already — meaning that if possible, host your community on a communication tool that members are already regularly using. If working with a corporate community, understand the corporate tool preference. You will also need to understand potential barriers to entry that could make it difficult for members to participate. By learning about prospective members, you will be able to design a community that addresses any issues that may otherwise prevent the inclusion of valuable members, including language barriers, accessibility requirements, time zones restrictions, internet access and how to address dynamics may be affected by gender, nationality, hierarchical structures or cultural sensitivities. Creating inclusive and accessible spaces is key to ensuring high rates of quality engagement.

4. Establish a culture and manage expectations

It is important to decide on the desired community culture before beginning your community.

The Community Manager can lead by example and set the tone from the first points of contact with each prospective member. A sign-up survey can reinforce the tone and filter out people who won’t be a strong culture fit. For example, if trying to establish a safe-space community which is inclusive and non-hierarchical, include a joke question to set a ‘casual’ tone. Offer a high quality, comprehensive and personal onboarding and invite new members for welcome calls. You can also include visual indicators of the community culture into presentations and communications design. Taking these steps will help you to create clarity and consistency for your members and help to manage expectations.

5. Co-create a ‘Community Promise’ together with members

Instead of imposing a top down ‘Code of Conduct’, bring the members together and co-create a ‘Community Promise’ that covers the purpose, values and ways of working for the community. Outline the behaviour that is expected of members and the consequences if any member’s behaviour is not in keeping with the community promise. You can do this by hosting a brainstorming session where community members contribute their own suggestions and then vote to select the aspects which most strongly resonate with all members. Taking this approach will help community members to recognise their roles as custodians of the community culture and empower the members to maintain an atmosphere in which all members will thrive.

Hopefully these top five tips will assist you in establishing a valuable and thriving community. If you have any tips of your own to share, please add them in the comments section below, we would love to hear from you!

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

Find out more about us: http://innovation.wfp.org. Subscribe to our e-newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn and watch our videos on YouTube.

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.