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Gain trust or shut up

How a community develops and stays alive

Communities are more or less part of my job. That’s why I pretty enjoyed the lectures about community management in my master’s program Content Strategy at the FH JOANNEUM — as well as reading through sources about the subject. And yes, many aspects mentioned in them pretty match what I experience at work.

I’m working in the the department of external communications of the city of Graz. Graz has 331.359 citizens — a quite big community with lots of diverse needs and interests. As a responsible for our online and social media channels, I get in touch and engage with them. Here are my so far learned lessons and hints about communities and community management.

1. Trust is a prerequisite

Sounds quite reasonable for a governmental organisation, right? But it isn’t always that easy. That’s what especially a more than one-year lasting pandemic taught us. Citizens got more and more anxious and questioned the measures against Corona. They spoke up on social media about their concerns — and often anger — about mass tests and the vaccination. Their comments and messages indicated that a bunch of them didn’t trust the city of Graz as governmental organization anymore. And that’s a bad thing to happen. Megan Carter and Sophie van Seventer capture this in a nutshell in an article in the CMX blog:

“Customer trust is crucial to running a successful business.”

A governmental organization’s business can’t be compared with the business of a company. Earning money is not the main target of such an organization. However, trust is for the city of Graz even more important. The citizens should trust in our services and see us as a credible information source.

In their CMX Summit 2020 keynote session, Kobie Fuller and Gordon Bellamy talked about why communities are key to driving social change.

They also mentioned trust as key element to build safe communities.

Gordon Bellamy explained:

“You’re default. And now you’re able to move forward professionally in discourse.”

The key-takeaways in terms of building trust are quite inspiring:

  • Break the barriers that prevent connection. Transparency is needed to build trust. Break the barriers between community members and enable them to get to know each other!
  • Create transparency around a community’s purpose. Establish a shared purpose and set of values so community members are operating from the same place.
  • Hold each other accountable. Each community member should know how the community should act and holds their commitment to each other.
  • Don’t just punish bad behavior. Make sure to also identify the positive traits you want to see, and celebrate members who show those.
  • Build up your goodwill deposits. Invest in relationships within the community to create a bank of trust.

2. Give community members what they want and need

How to encourage trust among our users? Camille Ricketts offers many good hints in an article on the CMX blog. Ricketts analysed “Urban sitters”, an online platform connects families with babysitters. Putting a child into the hands of a stranger requires lots of trust — also in the platform, which connects you with a possible babysitter.

Ricketts talked to UrbanSitter CEO Lynn Perkins. Perkins sees the identification of user needs as crucial for earning trust and demonstrating that you are an expert.

“The best way to do this is to first identify your ideal user,” says Perkins. “You need to know that profile first so you can determine what information to show them.”

The city of Graz is the first point of contact and an expert for governmental information and services in every stage of live. We’ve got lots of content and information. It’s crucial to deliver the right one for our community and their needs. With a heterogonous community consisting of citizens with diverging needs and interests, it’s not always that easy. However, Perkins offers a good hint which I will take to heart in my daily work:

“People might have a variety of needs, but you should try to figure out what those top three scenarios are and answer those first, as fast as you can.”

3. Borrow trust

Word of mouth plays an important role in shaping people’s opinions. People trust their friends and families. UrbanSitter CEO Lynn Perkins mentions borrowing trust “wherever you can” as an essential aspect for building trust among the community. She states

“When people see that other parents from a group they belong to or respect have used a sitter, that’s compelling information.”

Comments and feedback of other users underneath a social media post also play an important role in terms of borrowing trust. Thomas Pleil and Matthias Bastian mention that

“The more positive comments are published, the more likely their readers will gain a positive opinion of a company”.

Negative comments follow a reverse logic. A single negative comment can be enough to create a bad picture of a company. However,

“the effect of negative comments is lessened when they are met with positive comments from different sources.”

I also experienced that during the corona mass tests organized by the city of Graz. People were very sceptical about those tests. In advance, there was lots of open critique about their usefulness and handling. When the tests took place, people posted positive feedback about the organization and handling. That created a positive overall picture. People visited the test stations spontaneously without advance reservation. We attributed this in part to the positive comments on social media.

4. Growth is not everything

The development and rise of our community on social media play an important role in terms of measurement of success. However, Richard Millington’s book “Buzzing Communities: How to Build Bigger, Better, and More Active Online Communities” delivers important insights and metrics — which go beyond growth.

A big, but inactive community isn’t attractive for users. Besides numeral growth, the activity of the community members should also increase. And last but not least: a sense of community. Millington states:

“It’s important to track your members’ sense of community. A community can have a good level of growth and high levels of engagement but fail to develop relationships between members.”

Engagement also plays an important role in our metrics and measurement of success on social media. The sense of community is something I will try to strengthen upon our community — a tricky challenge due to our heterogenous community, but one I’m looking forward to.

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