Should I Stay or Should I Go? Considering switching platforms in an early stage community

We’re now mid-way through the first year of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Today, Fellow Melissa Varga looks at the challenges of switching community platforms.

The first cohort of Fellows is made up of 17 scientific community managers working with a diverse range of scientific communities. As they continue to develop their community engagement skills and apply some of the ideas and strategies from their training, the Fellows will report back on the blog, sharing their challenges, discoveries, and insights.

A stack of cardboard boxes
Moving Day by Nicolas Huk under CC BY 2.0

There’s one piece of advice I’ve heard from multiple experienced community managers about switching platforms: don’t do it. Switching platforms is painful; it means uprooting your community and potentially losing some members (or losing their trust), disrupting the flow and familiarity you’ve been working hard to build among members and between you and your members, not to mention creating a ton of work for the community manager on the back-end.

However, these same experienced community managers cautioned that if you absolutely must switch platforms, it’s best to do it in the earliest stages of the community. Without getting into too much detail, that is the situation I find myself in now with the community of scientists that I am managing. And while hindsight is 20/20, here are a few things I wish I had known last summer, when I was getting ready to launch our new online group.

“What people say they want in a survey is not always the way they actually engage online.”

1. What is your community seeking? Are you sure?

The data we have about what our members want from an online community came from surveys; some of the data was from the initial scoping for an online community that happened four years ago, before I even joined the organization. This survey data, while a useful baseline, has demonstrated that what people say they want in a survey is not always the way they actually engage online. Focus groups, more carefully worded questions, and more thorough beta-testing would have been useful to better understand how people would actually use our group. For example, seeing how much time people spend in other online communities, whether they feel comfortable connecting with people online, and the types of content and programs that most resonate with them would have given me a deeper understanding of how they’d be likely to engage in our group.

“One of the biggest things I overlooked was how [my community platform] would let me track whether I was reaching my goals.”

2. How do your metrics tie to your goals—and does your platform allow you to easily track those metrics?

We started a LinkedIn group for a number of logical reasons, but one of the biggest things I overlooked was how it would let me track whether I was reaching my goals. LinkedIn groups don’t provide analytics. The metrics I collect, with the exception of number of members in the group, are all by hand. Thanks to some data-minded colleagues, I’ve figured out some workarounds that allow me to compare engagement in the group to their overall engagement in the community, as well as comparing engagement levels of people in the group vs those who haven’t joined yet. But one of the long-term goals of the group was spurring connections between members, and there is no easy way to track that that I’ve yet discovered.

“Assessing the landscape would have forced me to step back, see where my internal champions were and how I could leverage them.” 

3. How much organizational support do you have for your online community?

I’m a big advocate of working with internal advocates to gain support for your efforts—I’ve even done some internal power mapping to help identify ways to gain more support for my community. I wish I’d taken my own advice and done some of that power mapping in the lead up to the launch of the online group! Assessing the landscape would have forced me to step back, see where my internal champions were and how I could leverage them to help me push for a community platform that may have been a better fit from the beginning.

The last year has been challenging—getting the online group off the ground has been slow and frustrating at times. But knowing what I know now, I do feel more empowered to advocate for my community. I’m taking the next few months to collect in-depth information from a broader swath of the community to see what they’d like to see from an online group, how they would use it, and whether that means we need to reassess our current platform. The learning process may have been painful, but I’m coming out of it a better community manager than I was going in.

You can find all of the CEFP Fellows’ posts here.

About the Author

Melissa Varga is the Outreach Associate and Online Community Manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists.  She manages the online community for the Science Network, a group of nearly 24,000 scientists and technical experts interested in science advocacy, which offers its members resources, trainings, webinars, and opportunities to get involved in the issues they care about.

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