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.
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
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.
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).