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Seven Steps to Building Electronic Communities


Philippa's note: This paper was originally written with Terry Grunwald for the nonprofit community in 1993, as electronic bulletin boards and e-mail were becoming more widely used. It was the basis of a talk that we gave at several international conferences in the early 90's, and continues to be referenced in publications around the world.

As I edit it for appearance on my new Website at the end of 2009, I am struck by how much of it is still relevant to the effective use of social networks today. I have chosen not to reword or update it - this is the original!

Introduction

This document provides a set of guidelines to aid managers in:
  • assessing your organization's current readiness to network
  • identifying activities which are most appropriate for the telecommunications environment
  • evaluating existing systems, or deciding to develop an independent network
Additionally, once the technology issues are resolved, we suggest methods for:
  • attracting appropriate users and sustaining their interest and participation
  • developing a plan for user training and technical support
  • determining the scope, content, and format for the promotion of public information
  • establishing a "feel" or "culture" for the network
  • generating creative ways to utilize the network to maximum advantage

Step 1: Develop a Networking Plan

A: Define your Community
  • Will this be a community of individuals, organizations or a combination?
  • Is there a common agenda? a vision?
  • Does the group already work collaboratively?
  • Is there a core group with the capacity to network during the planning phase?
  • Who else needs to participate within the next 1-3 years?
  • Who might be connected in the future?
  • Connection to other existing and planned online communities:
  • Is anyone doing similar things in your community? in the region/state/nationally?
  • If so: how do their activities compare with your plans?
    1. where are the gaps in what is accomplished?
    2. are there opportunities for collaboration?
B: Identify the Needs that Electronic Communities Might Address
  • Cost-effective communication / information sharing with multiple sites
  • Collaborative work (e.g. co-authoring documents to be edited and revised)
  • Easily-updated library of information and record of organizational history
  • Searchable relational databases, research opportunities using Internet tools
  • Public visibility via Internet gophers and World Wide Web pages
  • A private forum/conference to plan strategy
  • A means of disseminating wide scale ALERTS for lobbying efforts
  • Ongoing dialogue and debate through moderated Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists
  • "Real time" online discussions
  • An informal, online gathering place to build relationships
C: Survey your Potential Users
  • How do they currently communicate?
  • Is there consensus on a common agenda?
  • Do they agree with the needs you've outlined?
  • What tasks would they like to accomplish online?
  • What kind of hardware (computer / modem / mouse) do they have, if any?
  • Are they using a local area office network?
  • Are they computer literate?
  • Do they have access to:
    1. training opportunities
    2. technical assistance?
  • How much can they afford to spend per month on telecommunications?
  • What kind of information are they willing to share?
  • Who else do they want to participate?
  • What's their vision for your online community?
D: Determine Which of the Following Resources You Will Need
  • A committed facilitator and / or information specialist
  • A skilled system operator (sysop) / Internet guru
  • Additional information providers
  • Clerical support
  • Computer hardware / software
  • A method of inputting large amounts of information (e.g. scanner)
  • Subsidies to support the participation of financially-strapped users
  • Grants to support facilitator/information provider activities
  • Basic computer training for novice users
  • Technical support / computer mentoring for users
  • Ongoing source for funding for the years it will take to make the community self-sufficient

Step 2: Select a Networking "Platform"

A: "Go it Alone": Setting up Your Own Bulletin Board System
  • What are your hardware needs? Enough storage for growth? Phone lines?
  • What features should the software have?
  • Can you customize existing software to meet your needs / will you develop your own?
  • Do you have an experienced sysop?
  • Will you have Internet connectivity?
  • Are there no existing resources which can meet your needs?
  • Might you be "reinventing the wheel?"
B: Selecting the "Host" Network. Issues to Consider:
  • Ease of use
  • Compatibility among different operating systems
  • Availability of functions identified in your needs assessment, e.g.
    1. group e-mail;
    2. ability to send disk files & faxes;
    3. conferencing with message threading; private discussion areas; keyword search; etc.
  • Costs:
    1. proprietary software;
    2. one time and monthly subscription;
    3. online charges (peak / off-peak);
    4. availability of toll-free or local untimed call access.
  • Connectivity to other networks, echoing of bulletin boards, level of Internet facilities
  • Who are the current users? Quality of current information? Quality of communications?
  • Availability and type of technical support, training and documentation
  • Ability to delegate management functions to you & your facilitator(s)
  • Stability of host: Are costs likely to rise or fall?
C: Get your Core Group Online & Planning as Quickly as Possible
  • Use e-mail gateways / Internet
  • Develop simple protocols
  • Make it as informal as possible
  • Select an interim facilitator
  • Pursue fundraising as needed

Step 3: Market to your Users

Marketing Hints
  • Define the unique selling points of the network to your community
  • Concentrate on getting the high profile users online first
  • Where possible, market to the decision-makers within an organization
  • Use network demonstrations with overhead projectors. Know which features you want to showcase, and make sure there is plenty of recent, high quality information online
  • Plan to participate in major conferences attended by your target audience
  • Try to get on the formal agenda
  • Make sure marketing materials can be easily revised. Things change quickly!

Step 4: Training & Technical Support

A: Why Train?
  • Computerphobia
  • Manuals are often poorly written, overwhelming in their detail, and intimidating to non-technical people
  • Internet tools, while improving, are still extremely complex
  • Users need both basic training and tips to use software more efficiently
  • Opportunity for users to share experiences and build relationships
B: Develop a Training Plan
  • Identify trainers (preferably members of your online community)
  • Explore opportunities for hands-on training at conferences & other events
  • Provide for advanced training as well
  • Develop a training curriculum which goes beyond the mechanics to include "real work" activities and homework
  • If group is dispersed, consider a series of online exercises
  • Develop a simple step-by-step protocol for those not interested in using the more sophisticated features
  • Create a "buddy system" to pair experienced networkers with novices
  • Use all resources of your "host": online tours, help features, etc.
  • Don't put all your resources into an initial training. Staff turnover will necessitate ongoing training.
  • **Avoid jargon. Go slow. Be patient.
C: Develop a Technical Support Plan
  • Suggest users get compatible hardware and software
  • Encourage users to identify computer support options including volunteers in their own communities.
  • Potential resources include:
    1. local colleges;
    2. computer vendors;
    3. computer user groups.
  • If you provide technical support directly, set your limits. Will you offer general computer support or only respond to network-related problems?

Step 5: Set Up and Manage a Public Information Forum

A: Why Have a Public Information Area?
  • Supplements e-mail communication
  • Creates an online "home" you can customize for your community
  • Provides an organizational memory for new generations of users
  • Serves as a link to other communities on your host network
  • Gives your issues greater visibility
  • Possible recruiting tool
B: Tips for Managing a Forum
  • Have a paid facilitator if at all possible. Facilitation needs tend to grow; not diminish
  • Consult with experienced newsgroup or mailing list moderators
  • Identify and post the kinds of information most important to your users
  • Make sure the information is relevant, timely, and posted at regular intervals
  • Encourage all users to post items, make it as easy as possible, applaud every contribution
  • Make the forum simple to access, navigate, and search. Remove outdated items. Keep the information fresh
  • Keep up to date with technological developments, e.g. multi-media applications

Step 6: Using Networks for Collaboration & Problem Solving

A: How Can Networks Promote Collaboration?
  • Allows communication with a dozen or even hundreds of users as easily as with one (group addresses)
  • Expands the pool of practitioners available to respond to inquiries and calls to action
  • Reinforces existing relationships within your community and creates new ones
  • Maintains the momentum created at conferences
  • Promotes co-authoring of proposals
B: Tips for Successful Online Collaboration
  • Create enough value on the network that it becomes indispensable for the work of the community
  • Seek out opportunities for occasional face-to-face meetings to reinforce online activities
  • Establish a formal "buy-in" to the process of collaboration
  • Document and publicize your successes
  • Practice what you preach. Use the net wherever possible for your own planning and administrative activities
  • Nudge people -- nicely, but consistently
  • Understand and respect the limitations of networks

Step 7: Creating the Spirit of Community

Environmental Hints
  • An informal style of communication helps build a sense of community
  • Networking is an exercise in electronic democracy. Facilitators should try to empower as many users as possible to actively contribute
  • Be inclusive and remember that many users will "read only" at first and need to be coaxed to participate
  • Expect to handhold, encourage, and cheerlead. Positive strokes only!!!
  • The core group should try to model the culture of networking in their online discussions
  • Use networks to sustain the relationships formed elsewhere
The authors would welcome your questions, comments or suggestions.

© Philippa Gamse. All rights reserved.

Philippa Gamse is a Web strategy expert who spends much of her time fixing leaky Websites. She can be reached at (831) 325-3307, or via http://www.WebsitesThatWin.com

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