My daughter was born a few years after we launched Health Union’s first health community, Migraine.com. At the time, I wasn’t very experienced with children. I had expected to learn a lot — everything from diapering to swaddling and learning to survive (and function!) on less sleep than I had ever thought was humanly possible.
I wasn’t, however, expecting to learn how to be a better, more mindful, community professional.
At Health Union, we often refer to our communities as living breathing organisms with unique characteristics and needs that change over time, much like growing children. We have a lot of experience managing multiple community platforms that have their own needs, including Migraine.com (with 50,000 members), MultipleSclerosis.net, RheumatoidArthritis.net, Type2Diabetes.net, and HepatitisC.net. All of these communities are growing and changing in their own ways.
Since I’ve only been at this parenting thing for a few years now, I am sure (as the folks with teenagers will be able tell me) that there is still much to learn. But, just as I look forward to embracing these changes with my daughter, I also look forward to learning where my communities will take me with their ever-changing needs.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past few years that not only apply to raising a tiny human, but also to building a thriving community:
1. Every community is different.
Although there are principles that can be applied across communities — particularly when working in the healthcare space, as I do — every community should be treated as its own independent organism. What works for one community may not work for another, and addressing the nuances within communities is the best way to build real relationships and ultimately add value where it’s needed most.
While we try to streamline our work across our community platforms at Health Union, we’ll often make specific adjustments to address the needs of an individual community. For example, while most of our sites feature a standard white background, we switched Migraine.com to a grey background after hearing that members with sensitivity to light (a common migraine symptom) had difficulty with the sharp contrast of black text on white.
2. Have a plan (and a few backup plans).
It’s very likely that things will not always go as planned, particularly if you’re trying something new in your community — or with your parenting.
However, having a plan allows you to track progress and know when it’s time to shift gears. Having a backup plan (or two!) will allow you to make this transition as quickly and seamlessly as possible. We conduct detailed community assessments prior to the launch of any site. Even so, it’s impossible to be 100% sure of who our early adopters will be until the site launches. By knowing the key community segments in advance, we can monitor where we see the most growth and adjust the content accordingly.
When RheumatoidArthritis.net first launched, our content strategy focused on articles that were heavily scientific in nature. However, for the first few months, members were more interested in the “softer” content that helped them feel less alone in the challenges they faced due to RA. With a slight shift in strategy, we were able to address the needs of early members while growing into the segments seeking the more technical content.
3. Listen and observe.
If you really listen, your community will tell you what it needs, just as a child will. This might be in the form of obvious comments or discussion, but oftentimes it’s worth digging in a bit deeper to determine what type of content, tools, and resources really resonate with members.
We’ve found that it can be easy to get caught up in the feedback provided by the most vocal members, but the opinions of the “silent majority” can only be found in the data. Our monthly dashboards will occasionally surprise us when we look at performance.
For instance, sometimes articles that are never mentioned in community discussion are actually among the most read. We also find that giving members a way to provide feedback anonymously, via simple polling or our more extensive “In America” surveys, gives us great insight we may not otherwise have.
4. Mistakes are inevitable.
When mistakes occur, recognize the issue, apologize, and use the feedback to improve future experiences for members. And while there’s always room for improvement, you also need to know when it’s best to just let something go.
This rule applies whether we’re talking about a community initiative you’re really excited about (toddler yoga, anyone?) but if the community is clearly telling you it’s not a good fit at the time, move on.
5. Things will change.
Just when you’ve figured things out….everything changes! Or at least it sure can seem that way.
Although the ever-changing environment can be frustrating at times, embrace it. At the end of the day, changing needs are a sign of growth, and the role of the community professional is to nurture the community through this natural growth process. Consistency can be comforting, but it can also be a red flag.
As our community at MultipleSclerosis.net grows, we’ve started reaching an increasing number of individuals living with progressive forms of the condition. It is challenging to address the needs of members with such different experiences (articles that might be inspiring for a newly diagnosed patient may be extremely frustrating for someone who is disabled due to the disease). So, while we make sure to continue to publish inspiring and uplifting articles about people who are living with MS, we also make sure that we publish content that appeals to people who are more physically disabled.
One of our contributors who has progressive MS wrote a very candid piece called “Multiple Sclerosis: The Ugly Truth” about how terrible MS can be, which was one of the site’s most read, liked, and shared articles to date.
6. “It takes a village.”
Flying solo is no easy feat. Identify areas where you could use some help – either based on a need for expertise, or a need for an extra set of hands. Embrace the power of your community by seeking out the natural leaders and encouraging them to take on important roles within the community.
In addition to receiving some much-needed assistance, you’ll build a great team of advocates. At the core of every one of our communities is a group of dedicated contributors and moderators, typically individuals living with the specific health condition. They are the lifeblood of each community – not only providing relevant content and assistance for members, but also bringing expertise and insight pertaining to the conditions we support. Our advocates promote our platforms, spread the word regarding initiatives, and help recruit new contributors and moderators.
7. Sometimes it’s best to do nothing.
For natural problem solvers, it can be tempting to constantly “fix” things with proposed solutions to member’s challenges. However, there is a lot to be said for instead providing a safe environment for people to vent, share experiences, and validate their feelings (oftentimes a real or “virtual hug” is just what the doctor ordered).
Occasionally allowing the community to work through bumps in the road on their own can provide opportunities for members to learn and connect with each other. Sometimes what you don’t do is as powerful as what you do. Sometimes giving the community that room to grow is more important than dictating the path they should take.
8. It’s not about you.
Even if you are a part of the community you’re building, you will have to address diverse needs and opinions. At the end of the day, you want your community to grow and thrive – with or without you – and that might mean letting go of some personal agenda items.
One of the greatest gifts a parent can give to their child is the ability to make it in the world on their own, and that lesson applies to communities just as well.
9. Make rules and enforce them consistently.
Having clear community rules with strict enforcement is an important way to maintain a safe environment for members. It’s important that everyone knows what’s expected, what’s allowed, and what’s not. Although it can be tempting to allow exceptions, maintaining consistency is critical for keeping things transparent and fair.
This being said, if you find yourself thinking about exceptions more often than not, it’s likely time to revisit the rules! We found ourselves revisiting our community rules regarding solicitation, which applies to anything from research to personal fundraising, after learning that advocacy plays such a critical role in the multiple sclerosis community.
The forums now include a specific section for advocacy and fundraising, and we allow solicitation posts on our Facebook page if they are associated with an established non-profit organization.
10. It takes patience.
Children can be demanding. Building communities can be demanding. Both require a lot of patience and neither allows you to fully “clock out.” At the end of the day, though, both can be extremely rewarding.
Recognize the demands of the role and treat it with the respect it deserves. Give yourself room to rest and decompress each week. As every airline passenger knows: it’s important to put your oxygen mask on first. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you will not have the mental and physical strength to help others.
While I try to remind myself of the above points regularly, both as a community manager and as a parent, it can be easy to get caught up in the day-to-day demands of the role, whether that means hitting growth goals or just making it out the house in the morning (preferably with everyone’s shoes on the right feet).
Perhaps the most important learning is to really appreciate the journey. Make it a habit to regularly take a step back, take in the view, and fully appreciate the fruits of your labor. Celebrate success and enjoy the ride.
It never hurts to have some cake and ice cream either.