The Community Building Team

Posted by Leon Tong on 30 Nov, 2012


It’s no surprise that building and sustaining a large-scale online community requires resourcing. It is, however, a surprise though that many online community platforms are built technically and launched before the human structure is put in place to maintain and grow them. As the community fails to meet expectations post-launch blame is often directed towards the platform ‘the website doesn’t work properly’ or the community ‘they just don’t participate’, when a probable cause is the actual under-resourcing of the humankind.

Actually, I’m talking from experience here, let me tell you about a project in China in which we set up an online community of 130,000 members, but only after we’d recognised the limitations of trying to do this with just two enthusiastic individuals.

In brief, the English Online website was a British Council project to establish an online community of English teachers and learners in China. It started with just a core team of two and we were initially very much focussed on the development and building of the site for the first 6 months. We knew we were creating a community site and we knew what functionality and content we wanted – we even had a community and content strategy, so we were clear about the direction we were heading. The site launched to much internal fanfare and slowly users began to join, but within a couple months of the launch, we realised that just the two of us couldn’t manage the site and take on all the responsibilities. We had been blinded by our pre-occupation with building the site and hadn’t really thought ahead beyond the launch.

It didn’t take long to recognise the fact that we required help and over the next 6 months we recruited and built up a team around us that allowed us to fulfil and exceed our expectations. Here is a brief description of that team and their individual and collective roles.

Project Manager 

The PM was responsible for the overall strategy and direction of the community. In an organisation like the British Council, accountability is high and a large part of the PM’s role was consumed with internal communications and keeping stakeholders informed. The site was actually a proof-of-concept for a number of other sites to be built for a global market and so there was a lot of reporting to other internal teams. The English Online community was just one part of a larger ecosystem around teaching and learning English in China and the PM was also responsible for relationship building and creating alliances with key influencers such as the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Information, teacher training colleges and universities, local media and other large websites in order to add value to the community. In China, the building of relationships with key partners is an absolute must for any foreign entity hoping to do business and particularly the online arena is so heavily regulated that carefully curated relationships and connections at a high level are integral to the success of a project.

Content Development Manager


The CDM was responsible for all matters on the site relating to the development and implementation of a content strategy. The content on the site could be grouped into user-generated content from the community in the form of blogs, comments and posts in the forum and also to British Council produced materials for language teaching and learning.
One of the key hooks to bring users to the site was the quality of the latter content and a lot was invested in producing top quality podcasts and video series. The conversations in the community were largely built around this content. This gave the site a big competitive advantage over other similar sites’ locally produced content and with the added authority that the British Council badge gave to the content this created an attractive shop window with which to attract users into the community. It also helped in the building of partnerships with other influential websites as content was syndicated in exchange for exposure to already established communities.

Content Editors (2)


The content editors managed much of the day to day administration of the site, uploading content, moderating user comments and responding to user requests. Since the site was multilingual (English, Chinese Simplified and Traditional) they also did all of the translation.  Most importantly the editors had a very visible role on the site and were active in the community in terms of engaging with users and at times enforcing good behaviour, clearing spam, highlighting positive contributions and generally keeping the community ticking over.

Marketing Manager


Although we were growing an online community much of our marketing was done through face-to-face events held on university campuses or teacher training colleges and education events and the marketing manager was responsible for setting these up and creating relevant campaigns tied to the academic calendar. He also worked with digital marketing companies on ‘word-of-mouse’ campaigns, PR and media relations. The role also required entrepreneurial skills as he took on the business development side of things looking to generate income through the website and we were lucky enough to gain support from the likes of Nokia and RenRen (China’s equivalent to FaceBook). 

Marketing Assistant


The marketing assistant implemented much of the marketing strategy.
Champions (7)
The British Council has offices in 5 major cities in China and Hong Kong. Promotion on a national level is difficult with a country the size of China and so we enlisted the help of colleagues in each of the offices to run things locally.
Their role was to represent the site both internally for their office, looking for cross-promotional opportunities with other BC work streams and also externally with locally organised events. They each had their own marketing budgets and created their own locally tailored marketing campaigns. They established and managed relationships with local partners that couldn’t be handled from Beijing where the main project team was based. Analytics reporting showed us that we had reached users in 900 cities in China and this is in large part I believe to the localised promotion that we conducted.

Ambassadors (25 volunteers)


The site ambassadors were university students recruited by each of the Champions. Typically they would be English majors or trainee English teachers, who were enthusiastic about learning English, keen to engage with an overseas organisation such as the BC and probably already active members of their university English club. In fact, it was no accident that they matched the profile of the target audience and they were used primarily as recruiters and evangelists for the community. They would spread the word to university English clubs, at university events, on bulletin boards and through social media and were also active members on the site, creating conversations, setting the direction of conversations, engaging with peers on an individual level and cultivating relationships within the community.
The roles I have outlined above are quite typical of online community sites, ranging from high-level strategy and relationship building to marketing, content generation, site administration, user recruitment and engagement. Not all communities would necessarily require a team as large as the one we built for English Online, that would very much depend on your ambitions, the size of your company/organisation, the size of the community, whether you can leverage internal departments to take on some of the workload, willingness of volunteers to help out and so on, but in planning your community it is well worth giving serious consideration to how you might resource it over the project life-cycle.