10 top tips to build momentum in online communities

A motion-blurred spinning top  

There are more and more communities online - working with people is great, and now it is easy, too. Anyone can create a network, or a movement, or a collaboration. But what works well and what doesn't?

I was originally going to present on how to build momentum in online communities at Online last year, but I ended up not having time to attend and this has been sitting in my drafts folder ever since. I'm going to put this out there and see if there's any more tips people would like to add.

As a bit of background, I've been involved with a few projects that involve online communities in one form or another:  the Library Routes ProjectBuy India a Library, and most relevantly LISNPN, the New Professionals Network. Crucially I've also been involved in at least one project which hasn't worked out, so I've had positive and negative experiences from which to put together these tips.

3 to 6 are basically about people, 7 to 9 are about promotion, and the others are general logistics stuff.

1. The first month is crucial, so work like a madman/woman

The word 'month' is flexible here, but basically the time around the launch is so, so important to building momentum which can be self-sustaining thereafter. It's worth delaying the launch of a new network / community / project until you know you (and your team - see below) have time to dedicate to making it work.

2. Stagger new developments

As much as its tempting to launch your new project in its final, ninja-level awesome state, if you can bring in new developments and ideas over the course of the first few months, this really helps keep up momentum. New things re-engage people, and make them more likely to share links to your project via their existing networks.

3. Assemble a team

Working with other people is BRILLIANT. They'll think of things you haven't thought of, spot potential you hadn't considered, and save you from embarassing or costly mistakes you hadn't forseen. (Or is that just me?) A team of people also means more natural advocates for the project, and more support for the community itself.

4. Empower the members

Trying to control any kind of online space is SO 2005. You're better off giving power and responsibility to the whole membership, rather than trying to micromanage everything. Once your project launches, accept it is going to have a life of its own and try and encourage that. Empowered members are engaged members - they're more likely to feel the kind of ownership which gets them more involved.

5. Have a horizontal hierachy

Very closely related to number 4- as much as it is important to have people acting as administrators in an online space, it's better if people aren't waiting on you (or whoever is nominally in charge) to make things happen. So allow people to edit the online space, to set up their meet-ups, to contribute resources, etc etc.

6. Utilise champions

Word of Mouth Marketing - it can't be beat! If the right people talk to the right networks, that's a far more effective way of spreading the word than doing it all yourself. Find people who love the project, and give them all the information and tools they need to spread the word more widely.

7. Disseminate online - everywhere!

This obvious but there's a really important underlying point here, which it took me AGES to learn - promotion works best if people find out about something in more than one way, and more than once. It's very rare that a single event will have a massive effect - so, a single ad in the perfect journal, or a single blog-post guesting on the perfect blog; you'd think they'd cause a massive amount of people to check out your online community, but they won't. It's actually people seeing the same thing in a variety of sources they trust and value that makes people actually DO SOMETHING - i.e. click a link and have a look at a post or a website. This is why strategic marketing works so much better than one-off-promotion - what Terry Kendrick would call a 'series of touches at the right times' result in positive things happening.

To take a really simplified example - if someone tweets a link to a blog post with a title which doesn't inspire you, you'll probably ignore it; but if 4 or 5 other people you respect RT it, you'll probably think it's worth checking out anyway, and have a look.

8. Use mailing lists

I'm not a fan of mailing lists and don't subscribe to any, but a lot of people do and whenever stuff like LISNPN got promoted on JISCmail lis-serves, there was always a huge increase in clicks on the site and people becoming members. I think it's literally because there's no gap between finding out about something and seeing it in the flesh - you just click the link and your there. For that reason, it's good to link to an intersting page!

9. Avoid print, or at least don't rely on it

I've found the opposite of 8 to be true with 9 - articles in printed publications just don't seem to bring people in. I'm sure it helps in a small way (it continues the series of touches described in number 7) but there's a massive drop-off in direct action resulting from a print-article, probably because there's no link to click so the half-interested never think of it again, and the quite interested don't remember to go back later on when they're at a computer.

10. No one wants to be first onto the empty dance-floor so you need your ducks in a row before you launch

For LISNPN, we got 50 people as members BEFORE we launched, and made sure the forum was populated with some introductory posts etc. After that, for the first month we had an average of 636 page views a day and 10 people signing up per day - that was sufficient to create self-sustaining momentum thereafter.

People are drawn to stuff which is already happening; they don't want the responsibility of making it happen themselves...


- thewikiman

One step forward, two steps back in library-land

There was a couple of really nice things I read yesterday. Firstly, Katie Birkwood got out of the Echo Chamber and presented at Ignite London 4, a non-library event, and talked about libraries. This is absolutely brilliant - a central tenant of the echolib philosophy is to go where librarians aren't, and preach to the unconverted. By the sounds of things she succeeded in converting some of them, too - you can read about it on her blog, here.

I wanted to embed her slides here because I think they are absolutely fantastic:

View more presentations from Katie Birkwood.

Another positive thing (for me) was seeing Emma Davidson's blog post about the LISNPN competition - she contrasted the energies being directed at down-playing the positivity around the SaveLibraries campagin, on the LIS-Profession mailing list, with the energies being directed at trying to improve things a tiny bit, via our competition. That was a nice way of looking at it. Emma said:

"I think it’s extremely interesting that one cohort is choosing to spend their energies deploring the current situation, whilst the other is doing their best to get people to do something about it.

Of course, some of the points made on the discussion list are extremely valid, and equally one might argue that a bunch of random acts of advocacy won’t necessarily make much difference to the overall picture, but I know which general approach makes me proud to be part of this profession, and which route fills me with gloom."

Generally speaking I think those JISC-mail lists seem to bring out the worst in people a lot of the time, I don't know why. Lots of gloom mixed in with the odd flash of anger. They can be very productive at times, though, so I stay subscribed and look for diamonds in the rough.

My own views on SaveLibrariesDay, both the positive and the cautioning, are encapsulated better than I could say it myself by this excellent piece on Use Libraries and Learn Stuff.

Anyhow, these nice things were offset by a pronouncement from David Cameron in the Commons. He's on a bit of a roll for making idiotic public statements of late, and this one was really depressing from an information professional's point of view.

"We all know a truth about libraries, which is that those which will succeed are those that wake up to the world of new technology, the internet and everything else, and investment goes in."

How utterly depressing. Needless to say in the echo chamber of this blog, we all know that we have of course woken up to the world of new technology (and THE INTERNET - thanks Dave, public libraries have offered internet access since the nineties for God's sake) a long time ago, and it is ignorant for him to pronounce otherwise. Has he been to a library recently, or is he just making it up? Has he been to his own library in the House of Commons which, despite being closer to the Victorian ideal of a library (the one that everyone thinks all libraries are like) than the vast majority of libraries in the world, still contains computers? I like the idea that if we DO 'wake up' to this stuff that we've been awake to for two decades, 'investment goes in' - well that's settled then, invest in us you fool.

Everyone tells you that living under a Tory Government will be rubbish, of course, but you really have to experience it for yourself to get the full forlorn, listless, faith-in-humanity eroding, fear-mongering, banker-pandering, xenophobic, misogynist, racist, homophobic, equality-ignoring hatefulness of it all. Good times.

Anyway, hearing David Cameron talk about libraries reminded me of an email exchange I'd had with Chris Rhodes, and he gave me permission to quote something he said which is very important, and very true, about the whole Save Libraries thing:

“The problem with the save libraries campaign [is] even highly educated people have no idea what libraries do.

‘Save the local bus route’ is an easier campaign, prima facie, because public perception of what the local bus route does and what it actually does are not that different. With ‘save the local library’ there is a massive disparity between what the library does and what people think it does.

The campaign has to both explain the role of libraries and explain why they should not be cut.”

I think he's absolutely right, and it does make the whole thing massively, massively harder.

*bangs head against desk*

Sorry, normal cheerier service will be resumed with the next blog post. :)

- thewikiman

Learning from the Orteig Prize - the sky is the limit for libraries!

It was from this Freakonomics Radio podcast, which I've refered to on this blog before and which provoked a huge number of comments, that I learned about the Orteig Prize. It's a really fascinating story, it inspired the LISNPN competition mentioned in part one of this post, and who knows what else we can learn from it - so bear with me while I go through the events of the early 1920s.

A little history

In 1919, a New York hotelier called Raymond Orteig put up a prize of $25,000 (equivalent to over $300,000 today in pure inflation terms, but actually a lot more in terms of what that money could buy) for the first aviator to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, or the other way around. For the first five years, no one could claim his prize as the technology wasn't advanced enough. But in those five years people worked enormously hard, because that was an enormous amount of money.

Eventually, in 1927, Charles Lindbergh makes the flight successfully, and wins the prize. It took 33.5 hours in a single-engine plane (the Spirit of  St Louis) and was a minor miracle of good fortune allied with supreme skill, but he made it safely to France. Lindbergh was only 25 years old at the time, and he used the massive fame he now enjoyed to promote commercial aviation. He was obviously one of those polymathic people who just operate on a higher plain (no pun intended) than the rest of us - he later became a prize-winning author, an environmentalist (can't of been too many of them at that time), an international explorer and an inventor!

Picture of Charles Lindbergh & Raymond Orteig

This was of course a fantastic achievement, but the existence of the competition catalysed massive progress in the aviation industry by loads of people, not just Lindbergh himself. In fact, $400,000 worth (in old money) of innovation happened from the combined entries to the competition - and Orteig only had to pay out once! The results of this expenditure were immediately quantifiable - the year before Lindbergh's flight, just 6,000 people travelled by air as passengers; 18 months afterwards there was 180,000 commercial passengers. Even in the months remaining in 1927, the year of his flight, applications for pilot's licences tripled and the number of registered aircraft quadrupled.

(Another ramification of the competition was, as you might expect with experimental air travel, a huge loss of human life. Many pilots died failing to win the prize. Hopefully a library equivalent won't place its entrants in such jeopardy...)

The Legacy

Apart from the 30-fold increase in commercial air-travel, which effectively gave birth the multi-billion dollar industry we know today, the prize had another legacy. Inspired by Orteig's competition, Peter Diamandis set up the X Prize Foundation. This offers a more modern prize of $10,000,000 to achieve huge goals such as commercial flight into space - again, far more than $10,000,000 is invested, in total, by all the entrants combined, so the field moves on apace. Not only that, but the Foundation themselves don't put up the prizes! They are funded by organisations and philanthropists, eager to making progress happen.

The LISNPN competition

As I'm sure you've realised, the LISNPN competition is a very (VERY) small-scale attempt to do something similar. We're offering prizes we think people will really value, and will be willing to work hard and innovate in order to have a shot at winning. Although entrants will retain full copyright of their ideas, LISNPN will be able to show-case ALL of them, and hopefully ALL of them should reach a new audience not normally involved with libraries at all. We're only giving out two prizes (again, put up by generous people who want to encourage the enterprise, rather than paid for from the - non-existent - LISNPN coffers) but hopefully the profession will benefit from lots and lots of advocacy efforts.

Are there other things we can do with competitons and libraires?

So is there scope for more library innovation on a much grander scale, adopting the Orteig prize principles? I think there must be. Other bodies must be able to run other competitions, the entries for which could be public-facing and progressive. I'd love to see one around technology in libraries.

And this links to another thing I've often thought, which is that libraries (certainly in the UK) don't appear to be as good at attracting philanthropy as other comparable areas. We need to be something that rich people and foundations think of when they're wondering where to put their money in a charitable way. Perhaps an innovation inspiring competition is a way to achieve this? What do you think?

In the meantime, good luck with the competition if you're entering.

- thewikiman

A competition to benefit everyone in libraries, not just the winners

LISNPN, the New Professionals Network, has just announced it's first ever competition and I am really excited about it.

A scree-grab showing the LISNPN competition blog post

You can read all about it on the network itself, but the short version is this: we want people who have entered the profession in the last decade or so to create a piece of library advocacy. It could be an article, a video, a slide-deck, an essay, a piece of art, a project, a campaign - literally anything that doesn't pre-date the competition. The only criteria is that it gets some pro-library ideas to people who wouldn't normally engage with libraries at all. The idea is to indulge in a bit of stealth advocising - to package up some library advocacy in something so intrinsically awesome that it reaches new audiences. Doesn't even have to be particularly stealthy - just reach new people.

The first prize is a full pass to Umbrella, CILIP's biennial conference which takes place in July this year. We're working with CILIP on this competition so thank you very much to CEO Annie Mauger for agreeing to be part of this - the prize is worth up to £500 (based on what the pass would cost to buy; it'd be slightly cheaper if you are a CILIP member already) and includes refreshments, social activities and the Gala Dinner. Attendance at such a conference is usually out of the reach of New Professionals due to the cost, so we're really hoping the competition sparks loads of interest and is entered by people who would love to attend but couldn't normally. Not only that but there is a second prize of attendance at the New Professionals Conference this year! This has kindly been donated by the Career Development Group. Full details of this year's NPC are still to be decided, but it'll take place in June, somewhere other than London. You can read about last year's conference here to get an idea of what it's all about.

We'd really encourage as many people as possible to enter, whether it will be your first attempts at library advocacy, or if you're a veteran. You can read the full Terms and Conditions on LISNPN. (And thank you muchly to the LISNPN admin team for spending ages with me working those out!)

Apart from the great prize, and it being another step forward for the network, there's another reason I'm thrilled about this. Every single entry should benefit the library community, whether it wins or not. Many competition entries are inward-facing rather than out-ward facing - an essay about why you want to win, only ever seen by the judges, for example. That's fine, but this is different. Because every single entry to this competition will be a little piece of library advocacy, a small effort to raise awareness about the profession and the industry. The beauty of a competition format like this is that one prize inspires multiple efforts - to actually commission 10 or 20 or 50 people to create advocacy would cost a fortune, whereas here we only 'pay out' once, or rather twice as we have a second prize. So lots of innovation is (hopefully) catalysed. When this happened in the air-travel industry, with the Orteig prize in 1927, it moved things on by years in a single leap! Not saying that will happen here, but I'm still excited at the prospects of what we can do.

You can read more about the Orteig Prize and how we can use the method to advance the library profession, in the unofficial part 2 of this blog post, here. It's a really interesting story!

- thewikiman

Echolib / LISNPN / Advocacy: New Year's Round Up

A quick catch-up post for all the stuff I've not mentioned in previous posts but which has happened in the last couple of months.

The Echo Chamber

Lots of echolib stuff has been happening recently. The article I wrote a while ago for Library & Information Update has finished its embargo and so now can be made available - I've been displaying it on the Echo Chamber Netvibes page, but you can also download it in PDF format, here.

Continuing the Stealth Advocising theme from a few weeks back, I created a video version of my If you want to work in libraries... slide-deck. It has some funky hip-hoppy latin music in it that I wrote when I was about 17! Woof. Here it is - as ever, in the interests of spreading the messages far and wide, feel free to use this however you like, embed it wherever, etc etc.

The Slideshare version of this has now been viewed more than ten thousand times, so surely LOADS of those people must be outside the echo chamber, right..?

I also wrote an article for PostLib, the journal for retired librarians! I was really pleased to be asked to do this, I like to see the divide between senior and new professionals being bridged whereever possible. The resultant article is now available: Statistics, the Media and the Library Legacy (PDF) - and owes a big debt to Ian Clark [Thoughts of a Wannabe Librarian] who read it over for me and gave me his approval to use some of his ideas! It mentions the echo chamber in passing - but really the main thrust of it is to note that, if you take combined footfall and internet usage stats, public library use in the UK is actually UP over the last couple of years (quite considerably), contrary to popular reports.

Laura and I will present a new version of the Echo Chamber presentation in Cambridge in a couple of days, to an audience of 200 or so people - the biggest we've spoken to yet, so we're really excited about that.


There's also a couple of articles I wrote about LISNPN, the New Professionals Network, available elsewhere. They're both on CILIP platforms but both are freely available to all - Moving forward together opens Library  Information Gazette in digital form, and The LIS New Professionals Network takes you to CILIP's Information & Advice blog.

Look out for a BIG competition on LISNPN later this month, with a library-related-prize worth literally hundreds of pounds and well worth winning.

Library Routes Project

Remember Library Routes? It's still going! And there's plenty of great entries that have come in in recent months - there's now over 150 contributions from Information Professionals about how they got into librarianship, and their path through the profession. Check it out if you haven't already, or if you've not done so for a while. The project homepage has more than 25,000 views now, so maybe some of those will be from people outside the Echo Chamber too.

Gazette Profile

I was really pleased that Debby Raven featured me in the last but one edition of Gazette, following up on the Essential Careers Advice for New Professionals post. You can read the interview, again via the Digital Gazette magazine platform, here. Incidentally the permanent, to-be-added-to, and containing the wisdom of the people who've commented on the original, version of the Essential Careers Advice post is here on its own page of the blog - check it out and tell if there's anything that needs adding to it. What do you know now that you wish you'd known earlier?

All of these articles are available together on the Papers & Presentations page of my website.

And finally...

I created a hectoring advocacy poster a few weeks back - it's deliberately harsh and provocative, but I do think there is an underlying truth to it.

Poster that says there's no such thing as abstaining from library advocacy


- thewikiman