Swarm 2020: It’s time to rethink what you thought you knew about online community

by Amber Robinson September 15, 2020

This year’s SWARM conference for community managers was a bold experiment, with an entirely virtual, nine-day event replacing the traditional two-day conference.

The benefits of a COVID-safe virtual event quickly came to the fore, with an expanded and diverse program featuring a number of international online community experts and wide-ranging topics up for discussion.

Feedback on the new format was overwhelmingly positive, reflecting the expanded opportunities for networking, participation and collaboration. It helps of course, that an audience of community managers tend to be highly engaged, collaborative and friendly!

As always, the content mix was wide-ranging. Some major themes emerged, however – some by deliberate programming and others by coincidence. If you missed out, here are a few that the Quiip team found interesting.

Power, authority and control

As communities become larger and more sophisticated, and as digital literacy grows, several speakers suggested that community managers should consider giving up somecontrol of their communities and instead look to co-create and co-design community experiences for more shared value.

Polina Ross, Content and Community Manager at Woolworths Group, shared how members influenced the design of the Woolworths Bunch community, while Nikki Gladstone from Access Now shared how the RightsCon community of 10,000 designed their own 4-day summit.

We also learned some vital lessons from Dr Bronwyn Carlson, Professor of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, on Aboriginal cultural practices such as yarning circles, which distribute power amongst all participants, while truly giving each member a voice, without time limits and other arbitrary constraints.

Enterprise communities can often be subject to larger organisational politics and power plays. Shira Levine urged us to focus on what we can control in our communities, such as owning our own narrative – and retelling our story again and again, embedding value.

Finally, when creating a governance plan for a community, Founder & Chief Consultant at PeerSense (and Swarm co-founder) Venessa Paech gave us the PACMAN framework (Power, Access, Consent, Mobility, Agency and Norms) to help us create both practical and responsible governance practices within our communities.

A rethink on engagement tactics 

Gamification, in the form of badges, levels, points and leaderboards have long been considered a classic online community engagement tool. However, community experts globally are rethinking extrinsic motivators like these – not only can they encourage a quantity of interactions over quality interactions, they tend to lose effectiveness over time.

Holly Firestone, Head of Community at Venafi, shared her handy O Snap! Methodology for community incentivisation, which balances perks and status systems (e.g badges and rankings) with intrinsic motivators like a sense of ownership, shared values and support. The opportunity to allow engaged community members to influence product roadmaps and participate in beta testing is another example of Access privileges which should be considered for support communities.

Self-care and resilience

We know now from data collected both in Australia and internationally that community managers are particularly susceptible to overwork, burnout and vicarious trauma through the stress and 24/7 demands of dealing with online communities.

Self-care and resilience have been identified as two toolkits to help community professionals (including managers and moderators) cope with these demands.

Dr Jennifer Beckett from the University of Melbourne provided guidance on how to create a self-care plan and deal with a negative inner voice. She also stressed the importance of firm work/life boundaries and gave us all permission to embrace the word ‘no’.

Listening, evaluation and measurement

When so much of community management can feel like alchemy or guesswork, knowing what to measure can be just as challenging as actually measuring it.

Majorie Anderson from Community by Association suggested aligning community goals with organisational goals and rather than looking at engagement metrics to qualify success, look at measures such as how the community has contributed to organisational change, higher awareness and customer loyalty, to name a few.

Feverbee founder and Swarm favourite Rich Millington asked the provocative question –  are collecting data to prove that we are good at our jobs or collecting it to be better at our jobs? (There is a difference!) He suggested a quarterly process of analysing community data to discover which numbers are going up and down and then interrogate why that might be happening.

Adrian Speyer, Head of Community and Lead Evangelist at Vanilla Forums, generously shared his top five community failures, reminding us all of the importance of self-reflection and commitment to continual improvement. I’ll be checking my platform and partner contracts with a fine-toothed comb from now on!

Getting communities off the ground

Reaching critical mass is often the hardest part of launching a community. Author of Building Brand Communities, Carrie Melissa Jones, spoke of the importance of getting your founding members right. Ask yourself, ‘How will this founding member group help participants become who they would like to be?’

Tyson Yunkaporta, author of Sand Talk, shared how Indigenous thinking and practices can guide and support online community builders and managers. He suggested that we survey the landscape and “look for the groundwater”. Where the ‘water’ is flowing and pooling will indicate where there are pockets of natural connection and human interaction that lend themselves to an engaged community.

Gardening and nature were recurrent themes. Rachel Happe, founder of the Community Roundtable, suggested an alternative model for community governance where we think of community governance as less like a hierarchy and more like ‘a garden trellis in which people thrive’. Can you seed a community by providing the right amounts of purpose, meaning, mastery and fun?

These are just a few of my take-outs from the event. If you had tickets to Swarm2020, you can catch up on all of these presentations via the Swarm Digital Swag Bag (see email from Swarm for more details.)

I’d love to hear what resonated with you from this year’s Swarm. Join the conversation on LinkedIn to share your thoughts.