The founding elements of every community

As a community manager, you always need to keep in mind the core elements of your community, and the business value your community brings to the company.

I presented two frameworks to identify and describe them: The 7P’s of community, and the SPACES model. To the road for an Indispensable Community.

(Italian Community Managers Lab #1, March 2021)

Key principles to organize a community event in Virtual Reality

Organize a community event in virtual reality

You’re excited to organize your next community event in Virtual Reality. You know the reasons for doing it, but you don’t know how to do it. In this post, I’ll list the key principles to keep in mind while organizing a VR community event.

Explore, test, iterate

VR is still a very new medium. Community builders need time to understand its peculiarities, and how they can serve their communities. Especially at the beginning, it won’t be all rainbows and unicorns, and getting everything right at the first attempt is quite rare. Instead, exploring, testing and iterating is my best recipe for success.

Luckily, VR shares many of the social dynamics happening during in-person activities, so figuring our how a community experience can be doesn’t require to start from scratch. Nevertheless, it’s a new medium. Best practices are shaped and refined constantly, platforms evolve, what other community builders are doing today heavily influences what others will do tomorrow.

This is why the way I suggest to understand how VR works is to get hands dirty and explore events organized by others. Being a curious community builder allows to learn about the platform(s) UX, to collect ideas, discover common behavioral patterns, take notes on how the space is built and arranged, notice how communities express themselves in VR… To learn from others!

While the VR-awareness is built, it’s useful to put it under test using the lens of the community event to be organized. Immediately, without waiting to have the full big picture in mind on how everything should look like. Iteratively, because modeling a community event in virtual reality requires to take care both of the content, and the (virtual) environment when it happens. Finding the right synergies between the two, inside of a new medium, cannot use something different than an iterative approach.

Follow (almost) the same rules for organizing an in-person event

It’s astonishing how much people’s behavioral expectations overlap between real life and virtual reality scenarios. Circles are naturally formed while a group is chatting. If a circle is small and tight, there is an uncomfortable feeling to break it (so, Pac-Man rule is still valid). Before a person disconnects, they generally goes around to say goodbye to other attendees. If someone is close (maybe waiting in a queue), it’s quite natural, and accepted, to break the silence and start talking.

The direct consequence is that best practices for organizing an in-person community event apply also to a community event in virtual reality. From having spaces to take selfie together, to reserving time for unstructured networking opportunities (yep, they work very well in VR). From welcoming new community members, to pay specific attention for attendees that joined in VR for the first time. From having a prominent and visible stage to keep attendees engaged with the speaker(s), to a decent volume of background music, not too loud to cover people’s conversations, but audible enough to characterize the space with a positive mood.
There is already a lot of material available, and I suggest to take a look to The Art of Gathering book.

Why does this happen? Because VR is truly immersive, and we feel we’re really somewhere, body and mind.

Carefully pick-up a platform

In real life, there are many interchangeable places where a community can host its events. In virtual reality, the different platforms play a crucial role in the final experience offered to community members. Potentially, all of them can host a community event. In reality, a lot depends on the purposes for the meeting. It’s an intimate meetup? It’s important to leverage the network effect of the platform to acquire new members? It has to be a fun moment? The main goal is to be productive and move forward in a community project, or to share knowledge? There are specific platforms for each one of the listed objectives, and I’m sure more will come in the future.

In addition to specific use cases that each platform focuses on (or doesn’t), there are also technical aspects to consider. For example, how many people the event could host (>10 / 50 / 200 / 1000+)? Recording and sharing afterward is important? What level of space customization is required (total terraforming, changes some details of pre-defined environments, ability to do it only inside VR vs importing from external tools like Unity)? How much the avatar can be adapted to members’ preferences (heavily customizable in every aspect, clothes included, vs standard and coherent, more photo-realistic vs cartoonesque, etc)?

Finally, it’s important to take into account the platform transition cost. Each user has preferences, and it won’t be easy to move community members from one platform to another. New accounts, new UI and UX, different supported hardware, etc. With the due exceptions, it’s important to choose from the beginning a platform “to partner with”, and try to stick to it as much as possible, to build the user base over time. Among the exceptions, a community of pioneers, that makes the “experimenting with what’s new” its reason to exist, or meeting for once somewhere else, as a kind of “VR roadtrip experience” offered to the community members.

This is where someone with virtual reality experience can really help, saving a lot of time while matching the community goals and habits, with the right platform to fulfill them.

Keep building the community identity

A common identity, and shared experiences, we know, are among the cornerstones that build a sense of community. Customizing the VR space, to make it able to narrate the community identity and bring out these shared memories, is a crucial element for running a successful community event in virtual reality.

There are two senses that could be leveraged in VR nowadays: sight and sound. If the community already has past experiences in real life, it’s fine (and suggested) to create a continuum between these past experiences and the current VR setup. Placing pictures of past events somewhere in the VR space works really well. Recreating in VR known places, where the community had meaningful experiences is even better, at the cost of more effort. If there are physical routines the community is used to (for example singing a hymn, saying particular sentences, use specific objects, etc) it’s a good idea to translate them in their VR counterparts. Music or songs that are connected with community memories could be used as background music. If the avatar’s clothes can be customized, why not creating a VR community t-shirt, and ask event attendees to wear it?

If identity and past experiences are connected with other senses (taste, smell or touch), it could be useful to place in the VR environment objects that can be used as a proxy for them. It’s (still) impossible to reproduce the taste of a food, but using a 3D object could recall the memory associated with the taste, and the experience around it. The same for a particular odor, where maybe the specific shape of the dispenser, or the object that generated it, could work as a good proxy.

Put accessibility at the center

Unless the community is VR-focused, chances are low its members have the necessary gears to properly experience a VR event, like a standalone headset or a PCVR. In addition, there are people that suffer from motion sickness, so cannot really use a headset. While planning a community event in virtual reality, it’s core to make the event as much accessible as possible, examining entrance barriers and friction points, and dedicate time and effort to lower them down.

For example, there are platforms that offer 2D clients, to participate in the VR experience from a desktop PC, or even a mobile phone. The price to pay is losing some non verbal communication elements, like head nodding, hands movement, eye tracking, etc. But more people will be able to participate and build common memories, reinforce their sense of community.

It is also important to dedicate some time to “onboard” people to the platform. Despite several tutorials focused on how to use the app, platform controls, etc, we all know people don’t often read manuals. My suggestion is to organize a video call on a quick intro session to VR, to align event attendees to a few standard concepts. This learning moment will also be useful to do hardware checks, like a working mic, make people used to platform controls, give them a glance of what to expect, fix errors in installing the app / 2D client, and will avoid spending time to fix problem while in VR, delaying or even ruining the experience of the attendees. Over time, more experienced members can run these crash-courses into VR, as an occasion to give back to the community.

Why you should organize a community event in Virtual Reality

Pandemic forced all of us, community managers used to organize in-person events, to interact exclusively using the online medium. I have no doubt that, post pandemic, we’ll be back to in-person activities: as human beings, we are genetically wired to this form of interaction. But I also think there is a third option, able to break this online vs offline dichotomy: Virtual Reality. To me, as community managers, we should seriously start considering to run some of our events in virtual reality, adding over time this new option to our precious “community toolbox”. Allow me to list the core reasons.

Online brought several positive elements, with two that really stood out: no more physical barriers to attend an event (not able to travel to the place, no time for commute, I have to choose between family / event, etc), and a considerably less effort for the event organizers, both in financial terms, that the time required. The same applies to VR events, and it’s already a huge plus.

On the other side, online events severely lack in two areas, compared to in-person counterparts: attendees’ attention span and connection opportunities. Both are not impossible, but difficult to obtain.
On the contrary, because VR is immersive, attendees focus on what’s happening to them “here and now”, without being too much distracted by the rest of the world (or, simpler, by the rest of open tabs in their browsers).
And because of the “spatial” element of VR events, where attendees can move around in the virtual space, during moments of unstructured networking people tend to naturally gather in small groups and talk to each other. Similarly, they can listen to a discussion happening close to them, and then decide to join it or move to another group. Or spontaneously start interacting with an avatar close to them. I’ve seen this happening to every single meetup I attended in virtual reality. For what it’s worth, Remo.co brings a very similar “spatial” paradigm to online conferences, and it works pretty well, for my personal experience.

Virtual reality experiences offer also several options to reinforce two key elements of every community: a sense of togetherness, and the perception of a common identity.
Going around in a virtual event, it’s possible to perceive the mood and the vibe, if attendees are awake and proactive, or just passive listener. It’s hard to explain, but it happens, like it happens for real events. And when the mood is positive and energized, attendees feel part of something bigger, are happy to be there, and not somewhere else, and there is a positive peer pressure to contribute. It’s empowering!
For the identity piece, the space in virtual reality can be customized to breath the community identity. From putting around picture of past experiences that bring good shared memories to attendee’s minds, to symbols disseminated everywhere, that are unique to the community. It’s even possible to re-create real locations where the community was used to gather. Avatars too can contribute to the community identity, for example by wearing a common dress.
All of that mainly because the intrinsic immersive aspect of a VR event, and the maturity of the VR platform used, in terms of environmental details and space customization options offered.

Another additional considerations it about the Gen Z and Gen Alpha habits: they’re already used to interact with friends and other people in a 3D space using a 2D client (e.g.: Fortnite, Minecraft and other platforms). So, for them, the transition to an immersive 3D world is pretty straightforward, I would even say expected.

Virtual reality is a new frontier

Of course, virtual reality is a new frontier, it may be scary for someone (like videoconferences scared some people before we were forced to get used to them), it has a learning curve, and it’s difficult to get it right on the first attempt. It’s normal and expected. But personal connections make all the difference between a group of people, and a community. And only in VR I felt personally connected to other attendees, similar to how I feel during in-person events. Something that didn’t happened at the same level during the many other online events I’ve participated in these last 10 months, no matter their quality. Simply put, I believe the online medium doesn’t allow, while the VR medium can, if well orchestrated.

So, you should try, as soon as possible, to organize an event for your community in Virtual Reality. Test and iterate. The majority of the platforms are free to use, or free up to a certain number of attendees (around 50), and some of them offer 2D clients for people without a VR headset. Curios to know where to start? Here I put some key principles to organize community events in virtual reality.

Become a better dev, thanks to the community

Being a developer also means taking part in a constant journey of growth and learning. And our dev mindset often brings us to think we can solve every problem thanks to some sort of technology. Allow me to challenge this, and show you how much we can grow thanks to people close by, how much we can learn thanks to a tool way older than any silicon based technology: the community.

Slides

(Codemotion Italian Edition, Nov 26 2020)

Create a Community Strategic Plan for the whole team

Using the Community Strategy Plan

There are common challenges every team of community builders faces. Contribution to company’s goal, team members alignment, long term planning and execution with the next step already in mind, a diverse and rich community landscape to support, etc. Mine is no exception, and we tried to address, or at least mitigate, some of these challenges thanks to the Feverbee’s Community Strategic Plan.

Why the Community Strategic Plan, and how?

I’m deeply rooted in the importance of the whys, the reasons motivating our actions. In the context of a brand community program, the whys are the goals the company wants to pursue, thanks to the community tool. The complexity every community professional faces is to link those goals with dat-to-day execution. The Community Strategic Plan creates a clear connection between these two extremes. Via interconnected hops, defining the overall community strategy, tactics, expected results, resources allocation and other important elements.

The first time we worked on the plan, we followed all of its canonical key elements. The second time, we deviated slightly from the manual, focusing on the following key elements:

  • Goals: what the organization wishes to achieve from the community.
  • Objectives: what behaviors community members need to perform in order to achieve the goals.
  • Emotions: what feelings to amplify and leverage, in order to influence community members to perform desired behaviors. We expressed them using the perspective of user stories. For example “I’m proud of giving back to my local ecosystem thanks to technologies“. Or “I am motivated to offer compelling content to my members to increase hands-on learning at different levels“.
  • Tactics: the specific projects the team will execute to amplify these emotions. We didn’t go too deep into defining action steps, because we made the plan in the context of an entire team. Once a person, or sub team, starts working on a specific tactic, they will also have the freedom, and responsibility, to define detailed steps.

The Community Strategic Plan and the existing team culture

In Google, we use OKRs. For the Community Strategic Plan to be truly adopted and followed, and not to be forgotten after the initial enthusiasm, we had to find a way to insert it into the “existing team flow”. Luckily, it’s wasn’t that difficult, as a mapping between the Community Strategic Plan and the OKR framework is pretty straightforward. From the OKR angle:

  • Objectives express goals and intents
  • Key Results express measurable milestones which, if achieved, will advance objective(s) in a useful manner.

So, considering the key elements of the Community Strategic Plan aforementioned:

  • A goal provide an high-level categorization of a group of Objectives in the OKR
  • An objective maps with an Objective in the OKR
  • A tactic maps to a Key Result in the OKR

Bonding the Community Strategy Plan with team OKRs was the way to keep team members focused on the tactics. In general, I strongly encourage to adapt and connect the Community Strategic Plan to the existing team habits. For several teams, adopting the plan is already an important mindset shift, so it should not be weighed down by further changes to team routines.

Work on the Community Strategic Plan in an remote team setup

Honestly, it was quite a complex exercise to work on the Community Strategy Plan in a remote team setup. Because of the many consequent steps, the many “diverge-converge-decide” phases, the non trivial amount of time, focus and effort required to formalize the entire plan.

I started making each team member aware of what is a Community Strategy Plan, and the potential advantages in adopting this new framework in the team. Thanks to previous retrospectives about the work we did together, I had enough material to support the proposal.

Then, with a sub group of experienced community builders, we set goals, objectives and emotions. We iterated twice on them, to be sure we developed quite extensively the company goals, without leaving anything behind. The experience of the sub group allowed to focus on the important elements, to interpret goals considering also “historical context”, and to identify emotions, thanks to their deep knowledge of community members.

Finally, we shared the pre-work done with the whole team, and leveraged everyone’s contribution for a tactics brainstorming. Fresh-air and alternative points of views, provided by newer team members, were really useful. We then prioritized tactics and picked up the top ones, completing the last element of the Community Strategic Plan.

Challenges and opportunities ahead

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, strategic thinking and purse team alignment while working with the full spectrum of communities is one of the core reasons we created our Community Strategy Plan. With the plan now in place, I asked every team member to constantly check if the ways they’re spending their time with communities resonate with one or more priority tactics. If yes, 👍. If not, or they may need to refocus their effort, or we may need to improve and adapt the plan, as no tool is the perfect tool, especially over time.

Speaking about time, the more you move closer to execution (from company goals down to tactics), the quicker is the “speed of adaptation“. It means goals are here to stay for the long period (ideally), while tactics may change quickly. When we prioritized tactics, we had to left behind some interesting ones, or others that needed for some pre-condition to be true, in order to become feasible. I’m quite sure, in the future, we’ll include some of those tactics into the official Community Strategic Plan.

Measurement is another area of untapped opportunities: in fact, for some of the priority tactics, we hadn’t a precise idea on how to measure the impact, or even the progress. We had a feeling it should be possible, and that was enough to commit to do it later. It’s not a “postpone-to-forget” attempt, but it could become without the right discipline. So I foresee lot of data-oriented learnings we’ll acquire executing those tactics.

(Credits to Unsplash for the post image)

How to organize a virtual team summit

After a 3 years long tradition of in-person team summits, to retrospect, brainstorm and plan the work of the team, while having fun together, we had to switch to an virtual team summit format. Here the key learnings worthwhile sharing.

One format doesn’t fit all

Core insight: the experience of a team, may not perfectly apply to another one.

Every team is different. In order to have a successful virtual team summit, it’s important to consider some team characteristics. Like number of people, familiarity of the team members, team culture, etc.

For example, if a team culture doesn’t support a collaborative environment and open discussions within team members, chances are very low a brainstorming activity can be successful. In person, even less online. The same goes for a team with several new members. The less people are familiar with each other, the less they’ll speak in team-wide discussion tables. In this case, smaller group discussions, 1:1, and a final moment of sharing, may work better.

As a reference, my summit targeted a team of 12 people, with a minority of new team members; mostly on the same time zone (within the +/- 2 hours range); already familiar with feedback oriented and collaborative activities (like retrospectives, brainstorming, etc.), but in an in-person setup only.

And this is the agenda we used:

  • Day 1, morning
    • 90 mins: icebreaker + welcome + activity 1
    • 30 mins: (social) break
    • 60 mins: activity 2
  • Day 2, morning
    • 90 mins: icebreaker + activity 3
    • 30 mins: (social) break
    • 60 mins: team fun activity

Why this format? Let’s explore the main reasons:

The importance of energy level

Core insight: several mornings are better than one of two full days.

It could be tempting to run an entire day of virtual team summit, or even more days. From my experience, it works well with in-person summits, but it’s not really the best for a virtual summit. When you work from home, life happens, and you need to leave space for it. Cook the meal, take care of family members, bring out pets, etc.

In addition, online collaboration drains more energy than in-person collaboration, so people need more time to recharge.

My suggestion is to spread the team virtual summit across different mornings, or to the closest possible scenario allowed by time zones. Morning is when, generally, the energy level is higher, and attendees can start the summit with a fresh mind, so more focused.

Alternatively, use the mornings for collaborative activities, and reserve the afternoons for reflective and individual activities. So people have more flexibility to arrange their time and work in the way they prefer.

Activity blocks duration

Core insights: start with a 90 mins block, then 30 mins break, and a final 60 mins block.

After observations, my favorite format is to have two main “working blocks”: 90 mins, followed by another 60 mins, with a break of 30 mins in between. 

It’s hard to remain plugged and productive for 90 mins, twice. Plus, a 3.5 hours (90+30+90) block is hard to accommodate in a “morning”, when the attendees cover slightly different time zones.

Blocks of 30 or 45 minutes are generally not optimal for virtual summits, for what was said previously (context switch, ease of getting lost, etc), unless there is a very specific and short activity to run.

Of course, the time slots allocation really depends on the kind of activities to run:

  • 90 mins seems OK for time boxing a brainstorming-like session: there is time to explain the challenge, diverge, discuss, converge. If the challenge is very complex, it’s possible to explain, diverge and discuss in the first 90 mins, take a breath and detach during the break, and then use the following 60 mins to converge and close the activity.
  • If there are lot of presentations, it’s better to have 25 mins slots (20 mins for the presenter, as per TED talks rule, 5/10 mins for Q&A) then 10 mins to break, where attendees have time to absorb what was said, before jumping to the next presentation. Avoid very long (+45 mins) presentations, or a 60/90 mins continuous alternation of different speakers: it’s the best way to kill audience attention, and attendees will quickly turn to do something else.
  • Hackathon-like activities would require the full morning / day slot, with teams auto-organizing their time.
  • A Design Sprint could even be run in a day, with Map, Sketch and Decide phases during the morning, and Prototype and Test phases for the afternoon, or in the following morning.

Social breaks

Core insights: 30 mins to detach completely, potentially alone.

Breaks should be 30 mins. It’s enough to move away from the personal working area, have a bio break, detach a little bit. And also prepare something to eat and/or drink, as we don’t have the luxury of catering service.

Create a different Meet/Zoom/Teams appointment, called “[Optional] Social break” for people that wanted to chat and gossip during the break. And make it very clear that it’s optional to attend, that setting separated chat groups is OK too, or even spending the whole time “away from the desk, and alone”. This is a 100% attendees truly reserved time: they should have freedom in choosing what to do with it.

Team Fun activity

Core insights: have fun, together. Contextualized to the attendees group.

Having a dedicated moment for fun is an important part of every summit. It bonds people together, allows for serendipity, helps to recharge batteries, etc. It’s even more necessary now, where we haven’t seen each other in person since a long time.

In addition to some short ice-breakers (5-10 mins max) at the beginning of the other slots, I dedicated an entire hour for a specific fun activity. At the end of the second morning, as a way to celebrate together the achievements of the summit, and to relax the pressure. There are millions of fun activities to run, and it’s important to select something appropriate for the audience.

In a just formed team, having the fun activity at the beginning of the summit could be a better choice. It could help to build the initial “social infrastructure” that will favor collaboration and interactions for the rest of the event. For a longer virtual team summit (3-4 mornings) it could be run in between of the days, to take a break.

Set summit goals in advance…

Core insight: well defined deliverables, in advance.

I’m a supporter of setting and communicating in advance what should be the desired outcome of a team summit. A tangible set of deliverables, everyone can measure the progress toward. Even more for a virtual team summit.

While in person it’s easier to be agile, and pivot and replan part of the activities in a short time, this is generally more difficult for virtual summits. In person, it’s possible to quickly identify where the team consensus is going, if some attendees got lost, the overall group emotional status, thanks to many non-verbal communication elements. Also “implicit peer pressure” exercises a strong influence (if I perceive that several attendees think this is an important topic to discuss, probably it should be important also for me). In a team virtual summit, because of the lack of many non verbal elements, the same is not always true.

Creating and sharing the agenda in advance, avoids this problem. Through iterations, 1:1s and feedback, it is generally possible to reach a wider team consensus about the goals to achieve, and how, before the summit.

A well known agenda also fosters engagement. It helps attendees to approach the different summit segments with the right expectation, a more appropriate mindset and, generally, come more prepared.

… and don’t overcommit

Core insight: less is more, because of focus and energy.

It’s easy to stuff a team summit with many desired goals, we all know. The real difficult, and valuable task, is to trim them down to very few deliverables, and run specific activities to reach them.

Context switch puts an important burden while working from home. At the end, we’re physically alone. So, it’s easier to lose track of where “the rest of the team is”. Or get distracted by “the rest of life” as soon as there is the feeling of not being able to keep up with the speed of the team.

In addition, for a moderator it’s really hard to check if attendees are “present and aware”, or if something else is competing for their attention. Again, a video/audio only interface cuts out a lot of non-verbal communication elements. 

Few deliverables help to keep the attendees focused, provide a sense of fulfillment once they’re reached, feeding engagement (we’re all happy to be an active part of something that works).

The right tool for the right session

Core insights: carefully match an activity format with the most appropriate tool to run it.

A Google Doc or a Google Sheet can be the jack-of-all-trades for plenty of collaborative activity formats. But they may not always be the best tools at your disposal. Maslow said: “[…] it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.UX matters, and I personally consider it valuable to spend (a reasonable amount of) time to find, or even create, the right tool for the right activity format. Attendees will benefit from this attention. The more they are, the bigger the benefits.

For example, here my screen setup while running a brainstorming activity:

My computer desktop while running a brainstorming activity during the virtual team summit

From left to right: the “virtual whiteboard where we collected our ideas” (a Google Drawing doc, resembling a whiteboard with sticky notes and voting dots); the Meet window, so I always remained in visual contact with the summit attendees; a countdown I used to time bound activities: the doc where the note taker took notes about the discussion. And yes, I really love my ultrawide monitor :)

Ask for feedback, and iterate

Core insights: we’re all learners, and we need quality feedback.

Surveying attendees about the “Overall summit satisfaction, on a scale from 1 to 5” is the bare minimum. Asking them why, what was the best part of the summit, the worst, and what they missed (a start/stop/keep doing/best approach), provides good insights. To really learn and improve, ask detailed feedback for each activity.

Include the feedback activity in the summit agenda. Reserve 5 mins, before closing the summit, for the survey. It will be an awkward moment of silence, but the completion rate will skyrocket (up to 90%, even more). Share the feedback with everyone. Attendees will appreciate the point of view from others, and they can always learn something. If it’s not possible, share the core insights obtained from the feedback. And use them to adjust the next virtual team summit activity.