18

Our small community here on Stack Exchange has some excellent content and some knowledgable, helpful users. But we're not thriving, and have been struggling for a while. I really, really don't want to lose what we have; I don't think SE will shut us down for low activity, but we're not going to draw in, or keep, other contributors if we can't improve this somehow.

How do we go about that?

A while ago I asked Attracting experts to a young site with little expert content and got a pretty detailed answer. I've tried to apply some of that advice -- community-promotion ads on other sites, tweeting interesting questions, linking to relevant CB questions elsewhere, welcoming and engaging with new users, contributing good content. But a few of us on our own don't seem to be making much of a difference. What can we do collectively, and what else should we be doing individually?

Edit: It's been a while since I asked this and it still applies. I still think there's a lot of value here and we've seen some new users come in, but we don't have a lot for people to do. How do we expand? We'll always be a niche topic, but I think we have room to grow. How do we do that? (Yes, I recognize the irony of this question on a site about community-building.)

  • Have you guys thought about emailing various communities? I'm not sure if that can be considered spam because you're not selling anything by that. Maybe some of the mail recipients would be interested in learning or contributing something. There are lots of bloggers who are pro PR and CM who post their ideas about things that would be on topic here. I don't know if that is the kind of content you would want though. – user1306322 Aug 26 '16 at 15:27
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    @user1306322 Spam is not defined by the message selling something, but merely by it advertising something - and even in very loose definitions of advertising. If you do go to other communities to try and draw in users, the message needs to be both relevant and interesting to that particular community. – animuson Aug 26 '16 at 16:54
  • Right, so I guess only do that if you can come up with a reasonably relevant/interesting invitation. But you guys are the pros here, so I'll leave it to you. – user1306322 Aug 26 '16 at 17:58
  • @ani There has been one question in february 2018, out of topic: communitybuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/2907/… ... why is the OP so sure that SE will not shut down this site for low activity? – user2987828 Mar 8 '18 at 15:33
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    @user2987828 because they said they wouldn't. We're low-volume but we're maintaining it; we're not letting spam live and AFAIK flags are handled in an appropriate amount of time. – Monica Cellio Mar 8 '18 at 15:38
  • @MonicaCellio : They said they wouldn't close an open beta, but they closed area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/4296/personal-productivity five days ago. What about that ? – user2987828 Mar 12 '18 at 8:02
  • @user2987828 as I recall (I saw the shutdown notice but of course it's gone now so I can't refresh my memory), they were down to one moderator and nobody else wanted to step up. (And I think that mod wanted to step down, but I might be mixing things up.) Communities do have to be able and willing to self-moderate. – Monica Cellio Mar 12 '18 at 12:53
  • @MonicaCellio The link I just shared in my comment above specifies "You can download the data dump of all questions here". – user2987828 Mar 12 '18 at 14:25
  • @user2987828 I'm not going to dig through all that. :-) But if you do, look for a recent meta post -- probably the newest one on the site -- that explains the shutdown. – Monica Cellio Mar 12 '18 at 15:44
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We are almost a meta-topic. We are a community about how to build communities. I think our largest problem is that Googling "Community Building" topics isn't the easiest thing in the world to do. Very few of our questions are a single paragraph or contain error messages or a phrase one would hop onto the internet to search. Instead, we have questions that provide context (very important) and end goals (also important), but one doesn't type a long sentence into the search box. The quality of our questions is a huge benefit to us, but it also makes us hard to find.

Advertising hasn't worked for us, thus far, because it's hard to get someone excited about such an abstract topic. Our most popular ads last year were ones that directed to specific questions.

All of that said, I think we can do more to increase traffic and our use engagement. We have many questions related to specific instances of issues, problems or possible alternatives that should have been taken in a community.

Each of these is a problem or discussion that has taken place else where. The discussion was brought here for the perspective of a community builder. Our answers can differ from the official response, we can provide a post-mortem analysis of a problem, or point out areas where the user may not be thinking about the issue from a community leadership position. I love these types of questions. They are practical and allow for the in depth analysis of issues and potential solutions (or at least areas to start trying to improve).

I think more questions that ask about how or why a community followed a certain course of action or alternatives to the "crisis" is something we can provide answers to. Of course, we don't want to be just a "let's profit on other's misery" type of site (seems one of those just lost a lot of money in a lawsuit against a wrestler...). There are plenty of good things communities are doing that others may want to replicate.

I encourage these types of questions. It means you are involved in multiple communities and you want to improve those communities. If community A makes a mistake, it may be necessary to understand some of the underlying problems that led to the mistake. Community B is very similar to Community A, but doesn't seem to have the same underlying issues. Why is that?


In short, I recommend more questions related to "real world" problems from other communities. Both good and bad things that others have done are important to understand so that we can improve our communities without repeating the bad things.

6

I will tell you why we are not thriving. After a long time and looking through some of our questions, I found a conclusion which could have a slight correlation with our site growth.

@Andy already mentioned a very important point: It's a meta-topic and it's highly abstract. But I don't want to just repeat @Andy.

Let's take a look at some questions:

These are all questions that are, compared to other questions on this site, highly upovoted and there highly appreciated. People really want to know how to handle this one situation as they are interested. But let's now look onto the answers and you will see a repeating pattern. While the questions oftentimes are very interesting, the answers provided to them don't seem to satisfy everyone. (I don't want to express that any of the answers provided are of low quality and I personally can agree with a lot of these answers!)

So, where is the problem? The natural answer would be that at the time the question was being upvoted, there just was no good answer to be upvoted. Well, in this case, we could see a slight delay between the ratio as users would certainly return at some point to satisfy their urge for information. But, wait, this doesn't happen at all. Why is that so? What are we doing wrong? The answer is we aren't doing anything wrong at all!

But before giving my idea on this topic, let's look at a few other questions:

These questions are different. The answers are at least somewhat aligned to the votes of the question itself - the last two questions have even less votes than their designated answers. But how can this be?

Let's look at this whole concept of Community Building, Online Communities, Physical Communities, Managing Communities and so on. The main similarity is the communities and what are communities? They are groups of people. And there we go. The whole topic of Community Building is about people.

Community Building is no science, it is an art. There could never be an absolutely aligned consensus on anything as we are consequently talking about living beings which we as person don't understand ourselves. Yes, there is, for example, the Community Health Index and probably a thousand more tools to assess the probability of a community being successful, but it always is only a probability. It's no science as there is never this one way to handle groups and masses of people. But it's an art or a craft as you can learn to at least succeed more often and more likely.

And while being an art, it also means that there are people who are more gifted and some who are not. There are also different perceptions of success and having an attractive community. There is no scientific formula to describe a group of people expressing the desire to form a community.

The different approaches of designing a community can also be very pleasing to a lot of people. Why? Because it's an art. There are paintings, buildings, sculptures and many more things which are seen as very beautiful by a vast majority of people. This explains the second-listed questions. These are questions that have answers a vast majority of people can agree with because they feel heavily bounded to it. Why? We don't know.

@Andy said the topic is abstract. It's abstract because it is an art. We will probably never understand why there are people who are just born and made to lead and build. We could never really grasp why people are following one person so religiously. The whole topic is an art and having success or hitting the road hard is absolutely correlated to the personality of the person trying. We can't even define charisma objectively, so how can we objectively measure one's capability to lead and build?

The problem boils down that we will never have scientific evidence of why community skyrocket or not. Yes, there are tools which are themselves proven scientifically to be efficient but the right implementation of tools can not be measured. One builder needs tools, another could do the same or even better job without even knowing about these tools. There are so many factors that research could never catch up, nevertheless examine the irregular regular personalities of these beings involved, humans.

So, how do we build an art? By finding the master craftsmen of the art. Because master craftsmen often have a vision which is appealing to a lot of people. A vast majority of people call someone a master if a vast of majority likes their approach.

But this is the key problem. As this whole thing, out of my viewpoint, is an art and even a highly complex art as it's about the most irregular regular thing we know, we have the hardest problem right at our feet. Generally finding craftsmen is hard, finding a craftsman in this discipline can proven even harder because most of the people who are gifted with the ability to simply impress and build are doing it and hence often have no time to share it.

So the thing is that we need to find some craftsmen who are willing to share but these will not come if they are not treated with something in return. I find @Andy's idea most appealing. Talking about community consequences that already happened and why a course of change was made is probably a good thing to fuel the steam engine of growth. These questions can be very entertaining, insightful and complex at the same time: the perfect material for experts on our field.

So, hence my answer to your question is that we have a hard time and will always have. This topic is no science, it's all about the people. And we all know that people can be very surprising. Fueling the ever-growing seed of the growth tree with content is our only solution to eventually attract the pretty butterflies.

Questions concerning...

  • ... physical communities,
  • ... past actions of communities,
  • ... non-government-organizations,
  • ... actions to take if a community is in unrest,

are in my opinion good things to start. But even this time: This my opinion and in my subjective mind, it sounds like a good idea.


Somehow I didn't feel quite satisfied with my answer as I didn't really answer the "what to do" but more the "why", so I thought about it more intensely.

While thinking about how to promote our field, I thought how it's related to other fields and I came up with various related fields:

  • UX design
  • Politics
  • Clubs about various topics (chess, sports, etc.)
  • Leadership and management
  • Start-Ups

These are just some fields but I noticed that a lot of Community Building isn't always done as something separate but more as something that is mixed up with a lot of different topics.

If we look into a Start-Up, we will see a professional working at the marketing strategy. While full-grown businesses usually have dedicated people for Community Building, Start-Ups and medium sized companies, at least in my experience, don't have them. So the professional tasked with the strategizing of the marketing campaign also is tasked to build a reliant community which steady grows in order to sell a product. It's done simultaneously and is merged with other topics and fields to somehow reduce personal costs.

Another example is any HR manager of HR staff: a large part of what they do is Community Building. They hire and fire people, they can influence the company culture and provide staff with team building workshops. So Community Building is often merged with already established fields and it's reasonable as well. As long as a community doesn't grow exponentially or at an insane linear level, oftentimes no dedicated professional is needed.

So the question is how to reach these people who don't do Community Building as main task but as something on the side. I also thought about this more extensively and found that there literally are thousands of workshops all around for Leadership, Management and how to become a good manager. These both things seem absolutely unrelated: What does Community Building have to do with Leadership and Management?

Well, a big part of building a community is leading and managing it - there are many aspects to organize, to take care of. Customer / user care, support, engaging in the community, moderating the community, everything. It's a job for allrounder and people who are comfortable to lead and take on challenges. This seems ludicrously stupid but I took some of my time and took a deeper read-in into some of the descriptions of these workshops.

And there we go: oftentimes Community Building is a big part of such workshops, be it how to handle disruptive users / customers / staff or how to form a new community / team or how to measure the performance output of a given community / team / organization. These are all topics which are a perfect fit for our site, unfortunately they aren't asked here as there are workshops with real people to discuss about it.

The whole topic is a niche topic, perceived as a niche to fit and stuff it into the work schedule of the professional who has the best bets to take care of it. And in order to train them for such tasks, they are sent to leadership workshops or workshops which teach you how to become a better leader.

So the problem is that there a lot of problems, even problems in companies but these aren't solved here but at a workshop situated in a real city with real attendees. And I think that a lot of possible problems are solved and discussed there in order to avoid them in a company setting. Nevertheless, this also means that people are already equipped with the right means to work on the topic and don't need to come to us. However, if they have a problem, they will most likely seek out for those who they have met at the workshop because those people are known and not distant - another employee with some aligned tasks.

So the best bet would be, in my opinion, to prepare some ads for a workshop which is about these matters. This could help us to reach out for a relevant target group. As all programmers and coders know StackOverflow, everyone specialising in HR should know the first location to come to to discuss about disruptive users, policy changes and changing a team.

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