Association communities go through involvement dry spells. It happens.
Now instead of playing the blame game or looking back on what you could have done differently, let’s look forward to 2016 and how online communities outside of the association realm get people genuinely excited and involved.
But first, did any specific online community come to mind when you first read the title? A Youtuber’s cult following? The diehard SK Gaming network? The deep and detailed subreddit universe? Did none come to mind? Associations need to start investigating the internet’s most intense online communities, especially if they want to win over younger members. These communities are more like families or small societies. They are diverse, assertive and constantly changing, and association leaders need to adapt to their pace.
Lesson 1: Program your technology (and your community) for limitless potential.
The scale of the online world can be hard to wrap our heads around. But because of access to communication technologies, sometimes we need to be reminded that our creations are only limited by the capacity of our minds, which themselves are limitless.
As an association, you want to create an environment that promotes this type of thinking, not blame technology for your shortcomings. Instead of getting hung up on your technological capacity, think of how to program your culture to engage members and tap into their limitless power.
Let’s turn to an awesomely geeky inspiration – “No Man’s Sky,” a space exploration and survival video game released last year. The game can create endless amounts of galaxies and planets for gamers to explore based on millions of variables programed into its system. Many are even generated spontaneously as gamers visit them based on their algorithm. While it’s tempting to use the I-word, technically, the possibilities stop short of infinity at a cool 18 quintillion planets (that’s with 18 zeros).
This is a great vision for how associations can use the potential of technology and the human mind. Nonprofits and associations often attempt to rigidly define their space, purpose and capabilities. But what they should be doing is establishing a culture and attitude that allows for endless exploration – this allows the community to grow organically and decide the best ways to manifest itself.
Regardless of what type of community structure an association plans for, if your community is truly engaged, it will either advance beyond your original definition in a positive way, or outgrow the structure you’ve set up and head for greener pastures.
Lesson 2: Study how other digital spaces find and nurture niche communities.
You may have a good handle of your general community roster, but have you identified and interacted with your different niche communities? This is crucial if you want to encourage growth and development among your member base as a whole.
One of the rockstars of defining and supporting strong niche communities is Youtube, which we’ll focus on for this particular article. Youtube has given a voice to anyone with a webcam and an internet connection, and as a result, thousands of life changing communities have cropped up around various people and channels. From social causes, to education, to a DIY revolution, people find welcoming places on the website to learn, socialize and share. Places they feel they belong, because they are continuously given reasons to feel accepted and involved.
Many of these communities are built specifically around people – Youtube personalities, or vloggers as they refer to themselves. To put these community followings into perspective, many of the largest vloggers have tens of millions of subscribers. You can view a list of Youtubers with the largest followings (and earnings) here. In addition to these Youtube celebrities, there are also thousands of other channels with deeply passionate fan bases of only hundreds of people. But they’ve been devoted for years and they will be devoted for many more, which is where the impressive potential for growth lies. A great example is shown here with The Vlog Brothers – “Youtube Stars Create Communities, Not Fans.“
Lesson 3: Produce content to continually reinforce your community's strengths.
Youtube has done a great job of reshaping their brand around these communities and inspiring them to continue engaging viewers. A great example is their annual Rewind video they produce, which features dozens of the platform’s most influential personalities rehashing online trends from the past year. Every single person you see in this 2015 Youtube Rewind video is the face behind a successful channel with thousands of devoted subscribers. Essentially, it’s a pop culture and Youtuber cameo heaven. Aside from being viral and highly entertaining, it gives a great idea of how many resources Youtube puts into entertaining these communities and shows how they’ve become a cultural institution.
Every Youtuber in this Rewind champions their own purpose, their own culture, and their own following. This circle of entertainment is wide, but people have found an accepting family in these communities. And the reason they feel so drawn to them because of the Youtuber’s boldness, openness and effectiveness in defining their following. Association’s need to tap into this intensity by creating exciting spaces and content for their current and potential member base.
Remember that a diverse, involved community can be your most powerful asset. Associations can affirm member identities and help them form strong bonds around their cause by providing spaces to explore and maintaining a reliable stream of content, interest and energy.