May 25, 2023

What People Leaders Can Learn From Online Communities

Community marketing is a huge trend—especially in web3. Here’s what you can learn from it.

Who sticks around the longest?

  1. Someone who loves their job but feels isolated at work
  1. Someone who doesn’t love their job but feels a rich sense of community at work

Almost every time, the person who feels like they belong is going to stay around longer—and add more value over time. The person who loves their job but feels isolated is just going to go somewhere where they like both.

In short:

Community always wins. And the feeling of belonging that comes with community is the most important factor for retention and growth. All else equal, it’s what keeps your biggest contributors around.

It’s difficult to quantify belonging. For one, it’s a feeling. It’s something that you can get a sense of but cannot actually measure. We’re all familiar with the feeling of belonging: security, safety, warmth, acceptance, and inclusion.

Belonging is a basic human need on Maslow’s hierarchy. Being part of something greater, whether a relationship, a group, a family, or a soccer team, is a fundamental need that the workplace should provide. And with remote work, it’s far easier for employees to feel isolated and lonely.

In an organization, it’s easy to see and feel the impact a strong sense of community has on retention, morale, and even productivity. And it’s on the leaders to develop this sense of community—starting from day one.

Unpacking community:

Community is an inherent part of how humans operate. We don’t just enjoy community—we rely on it. Whether friends, family, a sports team, or a nation, humans need to feel as if they’re part of something bigger.

Online or brand communities, no matter what kind, are defined by three main factors:

  1. Consciousness of kind: a sense of “we,” or a connection members feel toward each other. The link is more important than the thing.
  1. Rituals and traditions: social processes that signal and solidify a shared experience, like an inside joke.
  1. Moral responsibility: a sense of duty to serve the entire community, and to individual members of it.
You belong sign by Tim Mossholder

Understanding online communities:

Have you joined a new community recently? There are tons of exceptionally vibrant online communities for people ops, culture, and startups.

Like any self-respecting Gen Z founder, I’m active in a number—including some web3 communities. These are at the very heart of most web3 projects. Besides the difference in scope, web3 communities mostly exist in Discord where other online communities typically happen on Slack.

Online communities are an exceptionally powerful way to build a brand. That’s why community marketing is so powerful. But how do the best ones operate?

  1. They’re specific. Well-designed communities don’t try to do too much. They emphasize depth over breadth by sticking to a niche, making it easy for members to identify the point of the community.
  1. They’re actively managed. There’s always someone on the moderator or admin team who answers questions, points people in the right direction, and checks in on members.
  1. They’re approachable but exclusive. People opt into communities for a particular reason—they *want* to be part of something bigger. As such, not everyone is a fit, and that’s okay.
  1. They entail some kind of collectivism. Everyone in a given community has something in common that’s celebrated by other members.
  1. They build trust. The best communities crack down on spam to promote authentic connection. And they provide meaningful ways for members to connect, like coffee chats or intros.
  1. They’re subdivided. Good communities design different spaces (like Slack channels) for general announcements, subtopics, and smaller subgroups.
  1. They’re well thought-out. Joining a new community can be daunting. Well-designed communities have a clear step-by-step onboarding process, making it really easy to get involved.

It’s about people.

Ultimately, a community is only as good as the people willing to engage with it. Once a core group of contributors gets invested, others will follow along. Within communities, there must be leaders.

More than a place or an organization or a group, community is a mutual feeling of belonging held by a group of people, and it often has to do with some part of your identity. In a workplace, people identify as being part of the same organization and working toward the same vision.

But beyond that, people feel most connected to identity-focused subgroups. These might include role groups (ex: engineers only), clubs (soccer enthusiasts), locations (Geo: Columbus, OH), advocacy groups (AAPI), and volunteer groups.

Put simply: strong communities are enabled by connection, and the basis for connection is common ground. Common ground exists between any two people—sometimes, it’s just a matter of finding it.

So much of community stems from human interaction, perhaps a conversation over food or a shared vulnerability. But that human factor can be so much more difficult to find online. There’s less organic overlap, lower chances of encountering co-workers outside of work, fewer spontaneous interactions, and less visible context clues.

Taking the first step:

So how do we apply this knowledge about online communities to the one we have (some) control over: the workplace?

  1. Identify what’s working: go through Slack and see how people are connecting. Join meetings early and listen in on the casual conversations people are having before the meetings start.
  1. Celebrate contributors: chances are, a couple people will stand out as leaders or morale boosters. These are the folks that react and respond the most on Slack. Acknowledge their contribution!
  1. Emphasize 1-on-1 connection: a really good way to build a sense of “we” is by getting people talking . . . as people. Set up casual coffee chats with members of your team! And encourage other leaders to do the same. Employee connection tools do a great job of facilitating this.
  1. Lead by example! As a leader, you’re in a unique position to establish norms, give morale boosters, be vulnerable, and get people talking to each other.

Stay in the loop.

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