By taking a phased approach to community building in
asynchronous online training programs, you can increase traffic and
build loyalty for your initiative, product, or brand.
Community building is a matter of course in the sphere of
synchronous online training. Guided discussions, collaborative
projects, and other classroom activities that foster community can
be reasonably replicated in a real time web-based session. But how
do you create community in asynchronous online training? Is it
possible to build community in these programs as well?
The answer is yes, and there's good reason to do so. If you look at
your user base, chances are you will find that they're forming
communities spontaneously outside the realm of your training site,
whether it's at the water cooler or in threaded discussions on the
Web. This is not surprising when you consider the many benefits of
community, including facilitating knowledge, sharing ideas, and
alleviating feelings of isolation that can occur in an online
By harnessing learners, natural inclination to form communities,
you can learn more about your audience and increase engagement in
your training program. The outcome is increased loyalty and buy-in
for your initiative, product, or brand.
A Phased Approach
OK, you're sold on the merits of community. All you need to do now
is launch a message board and let the dialogue begin, right? Not
quite. Robust threaded discussions don't happen overnight. While
the right infrastructure is important, you also need a willing and
trusting audience. Instead, allow your community to evolve
naturally by adopting a phased approach.
The development of community in asynchronous online training
programs can be broken into three phases, each providing distinct
benefits for users and training program managers.
Phase 1: Anonymous Community
In an anonymous community, training participants know the community
exists, but they cannot meet or engage with others in the community
through the training site. Participants may feel curious about one
another, and may even seek out and connect with each other by
Anonymous community sets the stage for later phases of community
building. Anonymous community-building techniques do not require a
large investment of resources or infrastructure. Therefore, this
phase provides a low-risk way to give learners a sense of
involvement. It also gathers information about your audience to
support future community-building projects.
You can facilitate anonymous community by providing strong evidence
of the community on your training website. Here are a few potential
- Winners' announcements. Whether they've won a corporate mug or
a trip to Bermuda or have achieved high marks on a test, people
like to see their names on screen. Posting the names, locations,
and photos of winners assures participants of the validity of your
contest and shows that people just like them are winning.
- Participant rankings. Letting participants know where they
stand, based on course completions or scores, invokes friendly
competition, a powerful motivator. Announce a participant's ranking
on the welcome screen, next to his or her name and other personal
- User polls. Real-time polls allow participants to compare
themselves to others in the community. Build trust among your users
by asking their opinions about topics that are important to them.
Use humor to show you know your audience. Responses to user polls
can also help you refine your training site and make it more
relevant for your users.
- Credentials program. Credentials programs nurture the
community's super-users who appreciate recognition for their
dedication and expertise. This important segment of the community
will become regular contributors of success stories and blog
entries in later phases of community. Rewards such as a
certificate, title, lapel pin, or job-related tool enable
credentialed users to be easily identified by their peers and
tapped for knowledge outside of the training space.
Phase 2: Two-Way Communication
With two-way communication, learners share knowledge with each
other through a filter: the training program manager. Two-way
communication is similar to what happens in a classroom when a
trainer tells anecdotes about other users who have successfully
applied the information or skill being taught. Learners in the
classroom benefit from the real-life examples of their peers, even
though those peers are not in the room with them to share the
Two-way communication builds on the foundation set in Phase 1. In
this phase, users can participate more actively in the site and in
their own knowledge acquisition. Leaders emerge for later
community-building efforts, and you are able to gather more
statistics about users' willingness to participate in
Develop two-way communication by soliciting information from users
and selectively publishing that information to the site. In most
two-way communication programs, user responses are edited to meet
specific goals before publishing. Some additional methods:
- Success Stories. Users submit stories of successful application
of techniques and information taught in the training program.
Publish the best stories on the site, along with the name and
location of the user who submitted the story.
- Ask the Expert. Users submit questions to an expert. Post
questions and answers on the site, along with the name and location
of the user who sent the question.
- Knowledge Exchange. Post questions from users and solicit
responses from other users. Publish expert responses, along with
the names and locations of the users who submitted them.
Phase 3: Active Community
In an active community, participants communicate with one another
through the site without intervention or heavy censorship from the
training program manager. In a true active community, users feel
comfortable enough to speak about challenges they face on the job,
as well as the quality of education on the training site. Users
begin to know of each other by name, even if that name is just a
nickname, and your site becomes the place to go for anything and
everything related to your initiative, product or brand.
You can facilitate active community with such features as
- blogs, which give users the ability to add comments to articles
- message boards, which allow users to discuss topics you create.
If you feel really brave, allow users (or certain super-users) to
initiate new discussions. Be aware that if you provide too much
moderator interference, users will lose their trust in the site,
leaving your boards empty. If you can't let go and let users have a
somewhat free discussion, you are best off sticking with two-way
Principles for a Successful Community
No matter which phase you're at, your community-building efforts
will be most successful if you adhere to five key principles.
1. Leave room for the voice of the local
There is such a thing as being "too global." Remember that your
audience might consist of several communities. For example, my
primary audience is retail sales representatives in an indirect
sales channel, but I also have a secondary audience: field trainers
responsible for merchandising, training, and selling. Though both
groups complete the same online curriculum, they belong to two
For these communities to flourish, you will need to balance your
corporate or main message with the voices of individual
communities. Some ways to do this include
- portalizing your training site for different regions or
functional user groups, and then customizing your
community-building efforts for each portal. For example, in a
communications training program for hospital employees, you might
feature different user polls on a portal for doctors than on one
- creating discussion threads for specific audience segments. For
instance, a national sales training site might have discussion
threads for those who work at specific retailers.
- building a site infrastructure that gives local content
providers the ability to post information relevant to the local
community. For example, local RSS news feeds could appear alongside
2. Keep your behavioral goals in sight.
As trainers and instructional designers, we ensure that the
interactivity and graphics in our courses support, rather than
detract from, the concepts we are teaching. You need to put the
same care into designing your community-building efforts.
Ask yourself: What is the behavior I am trying to enforce? Then
structure your community-building program in a way that directly
contributes to those behavioral objectives.
3. Follow through on your promises.
Once you lose your community, it's extremely hard to get them back.
Keep in mind that a promise can be explicit or implicit. In the
case of a discussion board, the promise is that users can engage in
mostly free discussion. Heavy censoring represents a breach of that
promise. In the case of a credentials program, the promise is to
reward expertise with a physical token. A significant delay in
sending those tokens is a breach of your promise.
Consider the risks to your program posed by your budget,
stakeholders, outside vendors, and even the audience themselves.
Then limit your communications to those aspects of the program that
you are sure you can deliver.
4. Make sure your organization is prepared.
Do you have the resources, processes, experience, infrastructure,
and commitment to support your community-building idea(s)? Consider
a success stories program. Here are just some of the questions you
might have to answer to get it off the ground.
- What criteria will you use to judge entries?
- Where and how often will you post winning entries?
- What are the legal requirements?
- Will you edit entries before posting?
- What will the prize be?
5. Keep stakeholders informed of progress.
Many of the benefits of community-building in training are
difficult to measure. Therefore, gaining the go-ahead from
stakeholders, both internal and external, can be one of your most
formidable challenges. Those who instinctively like the program
might withdraw funding if not reminded of its value. As early as
Phase 1, design and implement metrics for your community-building
program. Then turn stakeholders into champions by regularly
reporting on the program's successes.
Through a phased approach, you can build community naturally, while
gaining valuable audience information that can be used to increase
the relevance of your training. As you move toward active
community, participation and engagement grows, resulting in a
richer learning experience and increased loyalty and buy-in for
your initiative, product or brand.