5 things I’ve learned from running a popular online community

You can never tell where a project will go when you first begin it. And when I co-founded the International Geek Girl Pen Pals Club in 2013 with my friend from the UK, Farquharson, I had no idea what uncharted waters I’d be traversing, and what new skill sets I’d be forced to develop as a result. The club is by far one of the best parts of my life now. I’ve learned so much from the staff, taking on challenging new projects, and tackling problems as a team. It’s been a real roller coaster, with ups and downs, and of course, crazy butt-clenching scream-your-head-off fun.

I can imagine how someone who is about to embark on a similar journey might be terrified, and I know I myself could have used a few pointers before running blindy, headfirst into this. Don’t get me wrong, the friendship adventures have been well worth it. But in case there is someone else who might need a few tips, here are some of the things I’ve learned from helping to run this magical friendship machine.

Photo by @rqup

1. Work specifically with people’s talents and personality quirks.
When attemtping to give people work to help your community out, play to their talents. Make sure they are doing something they love, or are good at. I was stupidly surprised to learn that not everyone has the same skill sets that I do. Surprise, surprise, haha! Not everyone is proactive, or creative, or aggressive (like I tend to be). I mean seriously, sometimes I have energy of 1,000 rabid wombats. So make sure, if they are not a wombat type of person, that they have appropriate work loads that cater to their particular skill sets. If they are confused as to what they should be doing, outline work on a task list. You can tell a lot about a person by the little things they say, or what they post online, so find out their unique way, and make sure to give them work that helps to accentuate their talents and passions. Try to keep a balance of many different personality types in leadership roles, especially people who work well together. Additionally, I’m a fan of Myers Briggs tests for compatibility.

Photo by @earthtogirl

2. Never stop trying new things with the community, because you never know what they will love next.
You might have a plan in mind for the things that the community will do, but always continue to try new things. You never know what new idea might be the next IGGPPCamp (our highly successful annual summer camp). Take tips and pointers from other online communities, or collaborate with them. It can get stagnant for long time members, so always give them something fresh and fun to do. Even if it flops, at least you tried. Consult the community often to see what kinds of new things they want to do, or what new things they want the staff to do. Make sure your staff is all on board, and excited, for new projects. Excitement is contagious, and has a trickle down effect if it comes from the top. Remember to actively take part in the community, and new things, the same way that your members do. This will help with bugs as well, if you can see the process for your users, and help to ensure the flow is flawless.

Photo by @bettercallbecky

3. Shit will go wrong for no reason, or for reasons. Sometimes you will have no control over it.
We all make mistakes, even when we’re supposed to be flawlessly running something. We need to make sure we handle it. If you make a mistake, own it, don’t pretend it didn’t happen. If things start going wrong, due to the drama that tends to crop up online, manage it. Make sure to monitor potential problem makers, but give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and a second chance. If it comes to it, ban trolls or repeat offenders. But remember, we all have bad days, and deserve a chance to redeem ourselves after we’ve cooled off. Appoint level-headed and consistent community members as little baby sheriffs to keep an eye out for potential problems. They will appreciate being recognized for their dedication, and in turn will help to keep the community water clean, and free of tidal waves.

Photo by @kuriouskatie

4. Cherish your members. Be real with them. Reward them. Without them, you are absolutely nothing.
Always cater to the reason the community exists – the community. They are really the ones running the show. Whatever they want, try to facilitate. Be honest with them. Be transparent. Reward them for being loyal and amazing members, either through a nice piece of snail mail or even just an e-pat on the back. Find out what they are doing in the community, and engage. Be present for them not just through the community, but through other social media. They are the real stars of the show, so make sure you’re working for them in as many ways as possible. Hug them. Pet them. Feed them cake.

Photo by @cori.cee

5. Online communities are like little baby alien creatures that will grow random arms and legs.
The organism that is the online community will grow, change, sprout random limbs, and take on a complete life of its own. Things will go wrong for no reason and things will go right for no reason. Be flexible, understanding, but attentive. You have to keep watch at all times and be vigilant. That alien creature could wonder off into the street and get hit by a car, so take care of your baby. Nurture it, and let is become that freaky critter it can be. Be prepared for the extra and unexpected workload that comes from parenting a cute alien baby. This little creature might even take you out of your comfort zone and into new projects and priorities, but don’t be afraid to try out those new things. Dare to be the best mommy to that alien creature you can be. It might grow and change into something you did not plan, but let it happen. It’s its own thing, after all. Let it all hang out.

Photo by @dezpresso

Thanks to everyone for your patience and help throughout this entire project. The club has changed a lot, but grown and matured in so many ways. And I want to thank all my new friends, especially my staff members, for being amazing contributors to the success of this community. We’re pretty awesome, iggles. xoxo

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