Back to Basics: What is Community?

January 18th, 2016
Jenn Lebowitz, Director of Community Development

As busy community managers, it can be easy to get caught up in the daily work of assessments, moderating, and even theories behind community work — and get distracted from the original vision for one’s company. So it’s important to revisit how one is going about reaching those goals. At Health Union, we find that revisiting “the basics” can be a critical exercise in constantly reexamining our approach to community management. In a recent team brainstorming session, our VP of Community Development, Amrita Bhowmick, created an exercise that allowed our group to easily share our ideas about what “community” means to us, and what qualities can make or break a community.

Community is commonly understood as a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. While traditional communities were built on groups of people who were physically in the same place, the internet makes it possible to have infinite “virtual” communities for people who share common goals and interests. Communities, no matter how one defines them, can have a profound impact on a person’s life, since they provide a sense of belonging, trust, and comfort to people who may otherwise feel isolated and alone.

Here at Health Union, we manage several online health communities, providing our members with a safe place to learn and share their experiences with others who understand what it’s like to live with their health condition(s). We have spent the last five years growing these communities and examining the unique needs of patients with various health conditions, but we recognize that over time we need to make sure we haven’t lost sight of the foundation on which these communities are built.

So, we took a multi-step approach to evaluating what makes a good community, and thought it would be helpful to share what we learned…

First, we asked ourselves: what makes a good community? And how do we define a good community?

Basics of the basics: It seems the core of community can be summed up as the characteristics you’d expect: a sense of belonging, a shared purpose and goal, and connections with like-minded people. But there is so much more…

Tone: Creating a safe environment is crucial. One way to do this is by not only having, but implementing, clear guidelines and principles. For example — when someone insults a fellow member, are the rules (which we would hope forbid this) actually enforced? And is this done secretly, or in a transparent way? The latter makes people feel safe, as well as aware of the community’s policies. These tricky but key aspects can make or break the feeling of safety that a sustainable community requires. And the tone often stems from…

Good leadership and communication: One aspect of great leadership that really affects the whole community is the ability to recruit and keep people who truly believe in the values and ultimate goal(s) of the communities. This ensures that they will always try to do what’s best for the community, even when community needs or preferences may not be fully aligned with their personal interests. Good community leaders will also be willing to accept feedback and will acknowledge when things could be better. They’ll also continually work to make sure that communities are constantly evolving and improving. Most importantly, they will communicate relevant issues, updates, and plans with members, which maintains transparency and trust.

Learning: To quote Seth Godin, “people go where they grow.” Bringing a sense of shared learning and support to your community helps a successful community stay successful through the maturation process. The collective love (yes, love!) in a community like this multiplies because there is also a shared pride involved. The continued processes of learning and growing will then cultivate an environment of shared ownership that may even develop into official or unofficial mentorship, as long-timers naturally want to welcome and teach newcomers. This leads to the empowerment of both subgroups — those helping as well as those who are helped — as well as instilling a desire to pay it forward in even newer people, which continues the cycle of growth, learning, and mentorship.

Shared misery: While people love connecting on positive aspects of their lives, shared misery is also an opportunity to create very strong bonds. This is especially true if that misery is something that a person can not control, like a chronic illness. For people with illnesses like multiple sclerosis, migraine, rheumatoid arthritis, etc, sharing frustrations about day-to-day life with their condition is especially impactful when sharing with someone who understands what you are going through. For instance, it’s hard for someone who doesn’t have MS to understand what is meant by nerve pain, extreme fatigue, or muscle weakness, but these symptoms are all too familiar to many people who have this condition. Knowing that there are other people who understand your daily struggles is extremely comforting and fosters a strong sense of community.

Next, we asked ourselves: What are common community pitfalls? What are potential end results?

Lacking personal connections: People join a community because they want to feel like they are a part of something, and like when others understand how they’re feeling. If there is no personal connection, there is no incentive to return. Fostering personal connections can be done in several ways, but one way we do it well is by providing our members with a place to share their own personal stories. Many of these stories are featured on our home page, which not only makes them easily accessible to the community, but also demonstrates how valuable we feel these stories are.

An example from one of our Stories pages

Imposing obligation on people: Asking for too much too soon, and making people feel uncomfortable if they are unwilling or unable to partake in certain activities, is an immediate turn-off. Ultimately everyone, including the quieter bystanders, should feel equally valued regardless of how much or how little they participate. Most people don’t want to say “no” multiple times (or possibly ever!), so they’d rather leave than stay and feel uncomfortable.

“No matter how unique or specialized your community is, it’s important that you don’t take the ‘one size fits all’ approach — ever!”

Lack of segmentation: No matter how unique or specialized your community is, it’s important that you don’t take the “one size fits all” approach — ever! Every community will have members with unique needs and preferences, and it’s important to make sure that you are as inclusive as possible. For instance, in our MS community, there are people with varying levels of disease severity. While the majority of the general population has relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), there are many who have more progressive forms of the disease. So, while many people with RRMS are still able to work, exercise, and have a somewhat “normal” daily routine, many of those with progressive forms of MS are unable to work, are bound to a wheelchair, and require much more assistance in their day-to-day living. We recognize that it’s important to have content that is relevant to the different segments of people within our community, for if we didn’t, we could unintentionally alienate an important subgroup of the population.

Group think: Communities are by nature a group of like minded people (to an extent), so there is always the risk of group think. It’s important to keep a checks and balances system in place to ensure communities aren’t operating with blinders on. This could be as simple as one brave community member who stands on the opposite side of an issue that everyone else seems to agree on — but the lone community member will only do this if you’ve created an environment where it feels safe to do so — bringing us back to one of the key components of community building mentioned above.

As a community manager, it’s easy to focus on the specific goals of your communities, like making life with a chronic condition better, but it’s a valuable exercise to occasionally revisit the key elements that make up a community. While the specific needs of your communities may grow and change over time, the foundation of what makes a good community remains the same. Revisiting the foundation on which it is built may actually help you come up with new, innovative ideas to foster growth of that community.

Special thank you to those from the Health Union team who were part of this brainstorming session: Amrita Bhowmick, Kristine Zerkowski, Kelly McNamara,Stephanie Huston, Dana Lortie, Jeanette Cucura, Brittany Booth, Brittany BesierJeff Orban and Lauren Lawhon.