As coworking space managers we make a lot of assumptions in the beginning. Assumptions about how we should structure our membership plans, what services we should offer, how we should market our space, how to design the space, and most disastrous of all: assumptions about what we think our members want, or will want in the future.
This is the first installment in a series dedicated to overcoming the assumptions we all make when starting and managing coworking spaces. For our inaugural post in this series, we’ll be focusing on a controversial topic among the coworking elite: community. Specifically, the tools we use to manage our communities.
For a long time I’ve held the opinion that most coworking spaces think they need all sorts of tools and services, both online and offline, that they end up not needing at all. Among these tools, the most notorious are probably online collaboration and community tools.
Now, before you get carried away, I want to say that I love many of the creators of such tools. What’s more, the platforms they’ve built are very impressive. And there are certainly times when such a tool would be a great thing to implement in your space. Indeed, they can provide a much needed communication platform for established communities. However, this doesn’t change the facts:
- community doesn’t come as a SaaS product and
- members want less apps in their lives, not more.
As of today, I’ve had the unique privilege of starting a large coworking space, working with coworking brands all over the planet, launching Coworking Insights, and now working with Habu building simple and fast coworking management software. It’s safe to say that I love coworking and have a ton of experience from just about every angle of the coworking industry. It has been my entire life for the last 4 years. And so I hope you can trust my observations here.
In the beginning, at Impact Hub Salt Lake, I thought I needed online collaboration tools for my members. I firmly believed that the online community platform provided to us by Impact Hub Global added value to real-life members, helping to justify our relatively high market pricing in an area with little-to-no experience with coworking. But this assumption was quickly squashed as I progressed through my coworking career.
Here are a few examples from my experience over time:
2014. Impact Hub Salt Lake: A Facebook-like tool called Hubnet which was supposed to be used to collaborate with other locations all around the world. It had almost no adoption or stickiness and it quickly became a spam machine. Except for a few locations, everybody stopped using it. The platform was private. You needed to be an Impact Hub member to join. You could get email notifications about activities, but details were limited unless you logged in.
2015. PARISOMA: Member Slack group. There was higher adoption of this tool (not surprising as people already have Slack on their computers). Some members used it to coordinate lunch time gatherings and a couple of other things. In general, engagement was still fairly low. The group was private for members, but Slack is available for free to anyone to download.
2017. Impact Hub Budapest: Member Facebook group. It tends to work well. About as much engagement as you’d expect as if you’d posted from your personal account. While it’s mostly the staff that post things, occasionally members post and ask for help on projects or recommendations on things and they receive meaningful responses. The group is private, but almost everybody is on Facebook every day. Most people receive notifications just as they would about posts from friends.
Notice the trend?
The more friction a platform or activity has, the less likely there will be engagement or adoption.
And the less native engagement or adoption a platform has the more work you’ll have to put in to get people to use it.
Seems like common sense, right? Well, that’s because it is.
Think about it. Your members are busy running their businesses. They are worried about getting customers, improving their marketing, developing software, hiring new employees, managing those employees, and firing those employees. Along with these activities comes a plethora of software platforms: Slack, Facebook Groups, Facebook Pages, Adwords, Buffer, Twitter, Trello, Asana, Skype, Stripe, Google Apps, Github, Xero, WordPress, Mailchimp, Dropbox, Zendesk, and probably a dozen more.
And then you come along and want them to use another platform? How unkind!
I’ll just come out and say it as bluntly as I can. You do not need an online tool for community collaboration. And having one certainly won’t create community in your space. And in many cases it will be more work to wrangle your members into using one than it’s worth.
However, this doesn’t mean you should never use an online community collaboration platform. In fact, there are cases when that’s precisely what you’d want to do to take your community to the next level, which is why I’m still a big fan of tools like Bisner and Hylo. But only at the right time and place.
So this begs two questions for which there are a few answers:
- when is it useful to use some sort of online community collaboration tool; and
- if, for whatever reason, we want to use a more closed or private collaboration tool for members, how do we increase adoption?
Community first, tools second.
There’s a useful maxim that I came up with: a community tool is only as good as the community that uses it.
In other words, you need to have some semblance of a community first for a tool to be effective. Just having a community tool doesn’t mean community activities will begin to take place. A tool can’t replace your regular community engagement, it can only amplify it, for better or worse. Community first, tools second.
So why do so many tools like these get implemented in the absence of a solid in-person community? It can come down to any number of reasons ranging from over-excitement, frustration, a lack of creative solutions, fear of failure, or even laziness. It comes down to community managers or directors avoiding the sometimes arduous, exhausting, and stressful emotional labor of interacting with the people in their space in a meaningful way.
I know, I know. This is tough work. But it’s human work. And I’m sorry to say, but the robots aren’t there yet. You still have to be a human. At least for now.
Host your online space like you host your physical space, if not moreso.
How do you get people to show up to happy hour, attend a members lunch, or take time out of their day to be in the community photo? Well, we all have our proprietary community building secrets, but my guess is that yours involves something a little more sophisticated than haphazardly moving your mouth and flapping your tongue about (a.k.a talking at). It requires finesse and effective one-on-one communication (a.k.a talking with). It’s absolutely no different online.
Think about it, you wouldn’t walk into your coworking space and shout at the top of your lungs, addressing nobody in particular, to try to convince people to come to the marketing workshop in the conference room in 30 minutes. No, you’d walk up to Sarah and say, “Hey Sarah, we’re putting on a really great digital marketing course in the large conference room in 30 minutes. There will be free lunch and we’ll be talking about retargeting ads. I know that’s totally your thing.” You’d use this approach because it’s more personal and you’re likely to get better engagement.
So then, why is it acceptable for you to yell at nobody in particular within the confines of your online community platform? In short, it’s not.
The value of a network.
Traditionally, Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. It would make sense to translate this law to the online collaboration networks we try to build for our spaces, whether they be on Slack or Facebook or a dedicated tool like Bisner or Hylo. Therefore it would seem reasonable to say, as I did earlier in this article, that the value of a network that is closed and has access friction is inherently lower than a network that is open and frictionless.
But that’s only partly true.
The value of a network, and therefore the adoption of the network, is also dependent on the value of the individual connected users (or nodes). This means that yes, if the people in your community are valuable enough you can have a closed online community collaboration tool that’s filled to the gills with friction and still have higher adoption rates than a free Adele concert at Madison Square Garden. And what’s more, if the tools available inside the platform make it possible for these valuable individuals to do things they otherwise couldn’t do then it has a stickiness factor.
Medium is one great example here. Medium is better than a blog in the sense that it has a social network built in. Medium is also better than a social network in that it has advanced publishing features and ranking factors for interesting and curated content. Better for everybody? No, but better for some, and so it has been adopted.
Another great example is the blockchain community. For most, the concept of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain make a distinct whooshing noise as they fly overhead. But for some, the blockchain community is filled with immense value, whether in the form of skyrocketing cryptocurrency prices or the very real potential for building a “trustless society.” The community is, to most, highly inaccessible. Merely getting verified on various cryptocurrency exchanges in order to get involved is a several week long endeavor. Lots of friction, not that open, but incredibly high adoption.
Pay close consideration to the value you’re delivering within your online community. Be real with yourself. Is it really that valuable? Do your members think it’s valuable? If it’s not, you can be certain they’ll vote with their feet (or more literally, their web browser).
That’s it. That’s my rant. I think it’s really important for you to consider your assumptions as they apply to online member communication and collaboration. In many cases it makes much more sense to use what your members are already using. And if you opt for a dedicated platform, make sure the timing is right. It’s only the right time if you’ve already built a real community first, have capacity to effectively host the online space, and can pack the network with massive value.
A community collaboration tool is just that, a tool. Nothing more. It doesn’t replace the important and generative work required to actually create the community itself.