What I’ve learned about community management through COVID-19

Tips for creating a global virtual community in a pandemic.

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Tips for creating a global virtual community in a pandemic.

When I started working for Teacherly in April of this year, my unique challenge as their first Community Manager was to connect with teachers amidst a global pandemic. How was I going to create a community when I couldn’t meet anyone in person– let alone bring a group together– and when teachers were so exhausted they didn’t have time to think? Community management is all about getting to know your customers; what are their hopes, fears, and dreams? How can you offer them the best channel to provide feedback on your product? How do you make them feel connected to each other?

To me, there is nothing more human or more personal than a story. Stories can cross national, cultural and temporal boundaries and make people feel connected with those they would never have the chance to meet. Stories have never been more important than they are today, in a world that is fraught with political unrest and anxiety.

With the onset of the pandemic, many of us turned to the arts as a means for human connection when we couldn’t go outside. In some parts of the world, people made music from their balconies, others took up watercolours or short-story writing. I took inspiration from this surge of lockdown creativity, as well as a well-known series, Humans of New York, by photographer Brandon Stanton. Teacherly Stories is my way to honour and connect with teachers from around the world, and it has been a successful solution to an ongoing problem for community managers in 2020.

In this series, I interview teachers via video call, record our conversation, and transcribe it into an interview that’s full of stories. Why did they get into teaching? Which moments were most meaningful to them? What have they learned along the way that they would pass on to other teachers?

Almost every single person I have reached out to has been warm and receptive, even though almost all of them were strangers before we spoke. I reached teachers through my colleagues’ networks, through my parents (who both work in education) and increasingly through Twitter and Linkedin. The result? A tiny yet healthy teaching community that’s growing little by little each day.

How do you start your distant community from the ground up?

  1. Do not limit your conversations to customers only. Potential customers are just as valuable.

Almost half of all the people I interviewed were not involved with Teacherly, and hadn’t even heard of it before I interviewed them. This choice might seem odd, considering the fact that community managers are supposed to build and moderate customer or user communities. But non-customers gave me insight into what teachers needed, and more importantly, I knew their stories would be valuable to our readers. The interviewees told me their thoughts about technology in education, pain-points as teachers, and what they wish they had known earlier in their careers. I was able to learn what the general teacher needs, and create content that would be beneficial for all teachers. 

  1. Reach out to well-known community managers and find yourself a mentor. 

When I started out in my role, I had never heard of community management and didn’t know what it meant. My mentors in Teacherly were able to give me a lot of valuable guidance, but when it came to community strategy I needed to turn to the experts. I started reading many op-ed’s and articles by community managers, and one blog that really helped was by Noele Flowers. I found her email at the bottom of one of her blog posts, sent a quick message, and was surprised to hear from her the next day. She talked me through community strategy and helped me think of next steps. I also signed up for a mentorship program through The Community Club where I was connected with Gustave, a community manager for jodel. These mentors have been invaluable to me and I would highly recommend finding your own community of community managers, especially if you’re just starting out like I am.

  1. Use the power of stories.

There is a reason why Humans of New York has more than 20 million followers on social media. People love to read stories, and people also love to tell their stories. Once you break through the initial awkwardness of talking to a stranger and get into the heart of the interview, you both forget how little you know about each other. I’ve learned how to think like a teacher, which has helped me develop a community strategy and content that’s specific to them. 

  1. Share the stories, start small & connect slowly

One of the best pieces of advice I got when I spoke to Noele was to start small when building a community from scratch. She told me: when it comes to community, the quality of engagement is more important than number of members. If you introduce hundreds of people to a group chat or forum, they’re much more likely to be intimidated into silence. If you start with 10-20 people, you can foster genuine connections. After writing more than 15 interviews, I brought just four members together into a group call so they could get to know each other. Then I moved that call onto a Whatsapp group, where we send each other memes and funny videos. Now that this group is comfortable, I’m better able to expand it. 

  1. Cultivate empathy

It might seem obvious, but it is the most important part of building community. You need to empathize with your audience and to listen to what they need. During a community chat, I asked teachers what kind of content would be most helpful for them right now, and one teacher told me she wants to stop being thought of as just a teacher. “I’m also a human, I want to see funny things, I want to switch off from teaching sometimes.” She taught me that teachers have so much content pushed at them about teaching and their wellbeing, but nobody was creating content for them that was just fun and silly.

I am still learning what it means to be a community manager in an ever-changing digital landscape. I am starting from scratch and my community is spread across the world, but part of what I love about community management (and working for a startup) is that I get to try something different every day. I’m definitely a newbie, but I know community is essential to wellbeing, and as the world continues to change and become more interconnected, we’ll need more people in roles like mine. 

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