Building Community: Struggling with Strategy

Important parts of community building that I discovered the hard way

After I changed my role to Community Engagement Manager, my first priority was to create a community engagement strategy. What I thought would take a couple weeks to complete turned into a ten month saga. I knew I needed something that a) encompassed our entire community, b) addressed all our goals and c) was actionable, but I didn’t know what that looked like or where to begin.

This led to a series of unsuccessful attempts at building all sorts of engagement “funnels”, “scenarios”, “curves” and “tool kits”. Every time I presented something to my team, we decided it either didn’t address everything or wasn't actionable. After striking out a few times, I took a break from creating this comprehensive strategy and piloted a couple of community building efforts that my team initially identified as being important. The experience of testing just a couple community building ideas over the course of a semester led me to the first of three mental breakthroughs on how to build a community engagement strategy.

Marketing is part of a community building strategy. I had originally set out to create a community building strategy that was separate from our programmatic marketing and communications. My goal was to capture all of the community related efforts that we do in addition to marketing our programs.

One of these efforts is checking in with students in our programs every semester for the purpose of relationship building. One of my first community building tests was to expand and track this practice. But when I scheduled these check-ins, I realized I was also preparing to promote one of our programs to the same students. So I combined the two efforts by including information on the program in my response to anyone who responded to my check-in.

This one instance completely changed my view of the relationship between community building and marketing. Marketing is just a set of tactics to achieve a goal, like building community. Our goal with this particular promotion was to get students into our programs. If I shift the goal to building the community of students in our programs, the marketing becomes only one piece of the puzzle. Building community also involves retaining existing students and increasing the value we deliver to them – both of which happen to be gaps my team identified when we initially decided to invest in community building.

Feeling reenergized by this initial breakthrough, I was ready to revisit the community engagement strategy. My supervisor hoped to mitigate the likelihood of another attempt that wasn’t actionable by having me start out with simply laying out what we already do. In that exercise I had my second mental breakthrough.

The pieces for building community are already there. This one shouldn’t have taken me this long to discover. One of the biggest reasons I embarked on this community building journey in the first place was that my team was already doing amazing community building work. Apparently I completely forgot that fact over the months of struggling with my own strategy. I re-discovered that we already had most of the right pieces, but these pieces were scattered across different campaigns and in the minds of my co-workers. I just had to bring them together and operationalize them.

Once I had all of our community building activities mapped out, I found patterns and connections. I began to separate our efforts into different categories. Our newsletters and blog were both programmatic campaigns. Email check-ins and holiday card mailings were both relationship building campaigns. Email campaigns after major events and in-person class presentations were both acquisition campaigns.

Developing these categories was the beginning of my new community engagement strategy. For the first time I could clearly see the relationship between our goals, our audience, and our marketing tools. Different combinations took form as different types of campaigns. After analyzing this relationship and the process my team used to manage this relationship each semester, I had my third mental breakthrough.

Community building is a strategy, not a solution. In my early community engagement strategy attempts, I tried to build a solution, not a strategy. I set out to streamline what I saw as duplicated efforts in understanding our community and what’s important to them by defining these things and building the best strategy for “solving” our community building goals.

But solutions are static and community is not a defined problem. It’s constantly growing and evolving. I couldn’t make my initial attempts actionable because the question, “what if?” kept derailing me. “What if a student starts engaging at the end of our engagement funnel?” “What if a key faculty member doesn’t respond to emails?” “What if our goals for alumni change next year?” There was no flexibility and no continuity.

By studying how we already build community – rather than dictating how we should build community - I began to appreciate our continuous process for defining, reorienting, testing and refining our community building approaches. The community engagement strategy needed a process that explained how we stayed relevant to our community over time.

With these three major breakthroughs at the core of my work, I drafted CSVC’s first comprehensive community engagement strategy at the end of 2014. It was a document that included:

  • The overall goals of CSVC
  • Our core communities and tools we use to reach them
  • The different types of campaigns that take shape based on our goals, communities and tools 
  • A process for matching these campaigns with our annual and quarterly goals, culminating in an annual community engagement plan.

This draft was by no means the final product, but it was a great place to end the year. In my next post I’ll discuss how I refined my initial draft into a living, breathing strategy. That will be my last planned post, but I hope to make this a continued series as I continue on this community building adventure.

Please share your own community building trials, triumphs and lessons along the way with a comment or tweet!