Reflecting on the Forgotten Human Element of Online Communities

By: Bryan Kelly 23 Dec 2016

Relationships are built on listening and empathy - even online. 

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Innovation can be exciting.

It can also feel like being kidnapped, blind folded and whisked away down a super highway to an unknown destination. We're typically the passive rider who gets to reap all of the benefits (and consequences), but what an exciting ride, right? 

We are so inclined to this fast lane being a blur of technology that we often neglect the prevailing humanity behind all of the software updates.

Communication-based technology can only do its job by relying on the user's attitude. It needs us to be willing participants. To show up, share and converse with avatars on a screen with the understanding and acceptance that they represent others' real thoughts and feelings.

We already know that online communities bring proven benefits to associations, but we want to push the conversation beyond this. 

We think so strategically about online communities - they are software, they are change agents, they are a technological undertaking. True. But they are also powered by living, breathing, curious, flawed, innovative humans. 

Keeping your promises

While making a business case and proving profitability is important, we can't forget the other visceral, personal ways that online communities strengthen associations. Online communities are a great source of revenue, but you have a lot of promises to prove to your member base before reaching that point. Much of it boils down to messaging and creating the right attitudes via your community culture.

We can never forget that user attitudes and how they react to your community will always be veiled by their own personal beliefs, past experiences and biases. This can be hard to remember, especially in professional communities. We look at these people online through the lens of their job titles and companies and assume that everyone can act and think objectively as professionals. Not so. 

A lot of people are inherently anxious about their words being taken the wrong way online. The tone and inflection are missing. Even seemingly innocuous discussions can heat up due to a difference in professional practice and opinion. 

Many will be automatically skeptical, while others will dive in eagerly. Walking the line to appeal to your general audience is a content and tone discussion that is critical to reach a clear strategy on. These member personas are people, and you need to know how to talk to and connect with all of them

One-on-one engagement can benefit all of us

Naturally, reading something on a screen that is devoid of the tone and inflection can change how we perceive it. Injecting a personal, vulnerable element to how you talk to people in the community is critical.

Without endearing cultural leadership you're more likely to receive those lukewarm responses that many community skeptics are critical of.
There is already a perception that online interactions are impersonal, even disingenuous. Prove them wrong. 

Making contact is not equivalent to meaningful interaction. But when they are able to draw out meaningful interactions, the community at large can benefit. It centers our attention, putting engagement up on a pedestal and modeling how useful the community can be. 


People take the time to be helpful because they genuinely care - something you need to recognize and thank them for. Reiterating the symbiosis of community will show them that by everyone contributing, they are building up themselves, whether that be professionally, personally or intellectually. 

Online communities require large initial time investments followed by years of engagement, but what you receive in return will be the immeasurably valuable loyalty, trust, and interest of your members.

Bryan Kelly

Written by Bryan Kelly

23 Dec 2016 in associations, community

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