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Community Structure: Defining a variety of ways to design an online community

An online community structure is the design of a communities’ features, and member benefits, aligned with the vision for the community through its mission and purpose established by the community host. 

Leading an online community requires understanding how you want to communicate with your members and how they enjoy communicating with you and each other. 

Maybe your members want a dedicated place to respond to questions, and polls or to share challenges, thoughts, or ideas. 

Social media is no longer a “warm and fuzzy” place to hang out as friends, connections, or followers tend to share their opinions freely without thinking, intention, or considering the consequences of their remarks. 

Sharing graphics, images, GIFs, videos, or creative representations through apps can allow members to express themselves in a zone where they feel offering their creations for the view of fellow community members will only lead to a positive outcome of getting validation and inspiration or recommendations of resources. 

Educational communities that offer a space for students to practice a craft, learn a skill, or build experience through action could offer a combination of these communication styles. 

Ultimately, the Community Host sets the stage for the community culture, building habits and cultivating rituals.

In addition, it is essential to consider making your online community accessible to all to offer support to as many of your ideal members as possible to access your content in your community.

Digging deeper into how you communicate with others daily will help you clarify your communication style as a community leader. 

In his book Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us, Seth Godin shares his vision of rallying followers, employees, investors, customers, clients, readers, or fans, around an idea. 

 

“Leaders create a culture around their goal and involve others in that culture. Leaders have an extraordinary curiosity about the world they’re trying to change. Leaders use charisma (in a variety of forms) to attract and motivate followers. Leaders communicate their vision of the future. Leaders commit to a vision and make decisions based on that commitment. Leaders connect their followers to one another.”

Community Structures
Graphic Creator: Deb Schell - Creative Commons Expected if shared

The Community Structure Flywheel offers new community builders different kinds of community structures to consider when evaluating a community strategy, community concept, and in launch preparation. 

Designing your community with features and benefits that serve you and your members

A feature can be described as how you solve the problem within the community.

Do you have a specific place for people to post questions and receive coaching from you and other members? 

So many clients I work with want to know the best platform to build an online community, but with so many new platforms emerging all the time and the complexity of designing a community from scratch, selecting a platform can hold up the entire launch. 

That is why we start with gaining clarity with questions, knowing the features, functionality, and experience you as a host want to have, and gaining feedback from your ideal members before building an online community. 

When you know the essential components of your specific online community, you can review platforms that meet your particular needs and spend less time in “platform tech” research. 

One of the things to clarify is the purpose of your online community and how that connects to the community structure. 

Suppose the mission and purpose are to develop deep, meaningful conversations through a virtual call. In that case, there may be less activity within a “feed” or “forum” between calls because the engagement happens on that live session. 

However, if you are hosting a course, training program, or coaching members, you may need to have a space to share their experiences and challenges as they do the work between the virtual sessions. 

For example, let’s say you will have a weekly virtual call because you’ve determined that is the best way for you and your members to communicate. 

As a community leader, the ability to provide a virtual space that includes breakout rooms is practical for creating a safe space.

When you have at least 5-10 participants who you will give a prompting question or thought before the breakout session, then partner them in pairs or groups of 3-4 if the group is more than 20-30 people. 
Would your members feel more inclined to share thoughts, ideas, or challenges with a smaller private group through a chat feature instead of posting or commenting on an activity feed? 

There are also members who you may find feel that they don’t want to type, but would rather talk via a voice messaging software or application. 

For a community with challenges, you might want members to share photos or videos of their progress or project stages.

This means there would need to be a feature or function within your community to allow members to quickly know how to share a photo or video and where to upload it so that other members can see and view it. 

It might seem like “common sense” to you, but consider that not everyone will be able to understand how, where, and why they would share a photo. 

You’ll need to explain this during the onboarding process, which we will discuss in a later section.

A benefit is what the member gets out of the community. Your community members join because they have a problem that only you can solve and the gift for them is that they can leave the community with a solution. 

Sometimes that means that you help them solve a problem within a specific timeframe, such as a 4-week course, a 6-month coaching program, or a year-long community of practice. 

A benefit to them is that you are to connect individuals who aren’t in the same physical place and with whom they are unlikely to meet except through this specific place because you bring people together who have shared interests, values, and challenges. 

Another benefit that exists for members is the shared wisdom of the group.

Does your community serve individuals at the beginning of a journey?

One more benefit of an online community is that members can receive feedback about their problem, project, idea, or challenge in real-time and get immediate suggestions from a group of peers in a space they feel comfortable sharing because the area has been identified to them as safe. 

For example, if you have a book idea, you might not share that on your Facebook page or your Instagram story. Still, suppose you had a support group of new and experienced authors who want to support each other. In that case, you could feel encouraged to share your idea, knowing you’ll gain feedback that will inspire you to continue clarifying that concept, not tearing your idea down or putting yourself as an individual down. 

It is easier on social media to tell someone how they can do it “better” than or just say “nice idea.” Still, to get critical feedback that supports someone in a meaningful way from experts and peers, that’s something that can only be achieved through an online community with a structure that cultivates this kind of environment. 

When they can share what their roadblocks are, and the community members step up to offer suggestions on solutions, then there’s a better chance for members to feel that they are heard and empowered to know that they can help others. 

Alignment of your community structure with your vision

As a community host, leader, or manager, you’ll need to facilitate conversations to guide the members and provide them with what they need while also telling them what this community cannot provide them. 

As we’ve discussed at the beginning of this section, it is essential to know what your community vision is and what stops on the journey for you and your community members. 

This roadmap can be something developed by you and your team to be clear on how the members can benefit from participating. 

 

If it is a support community for people struggling with anxiety, but you aren’t a medical doctor, practitioner, physiologist, or counselor, then make sure that the members know if they have specific issues, this may not be the right place to discuss those personal problems. 

Deciding on the frequency, level of content, and time commitment you and your team are making, will help you identify the best structure for you now. 

 

Just because you don’t have time to do an 8-week program right now doesn’t mean it will not happen, but identifying different phases, will help you find a bit of calm in the process. 

If needed, list phases 1, 2, 3, and more in order of importance for your goals.

If money is the most important and finding an investor would be the top priority, or working to build a crowdfunding campaign or identify your pricing structure based on your expenses, range of profits, and the timeline for hitting benchmarks. 

Don’t worry about writing a content plan, figuring out the platform, or how you’ll gain new members, that’s something to consider but not a focus point for you. 

Once you’ve gotten clear on the priority and in which order, you’ll be able to see the best structure for your community based on your needs, lifestyle, goals, and vision. 

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