Community architecture: Building an effective structure for your online community that your members (and you) value

When I first started thinking about working with groups in a coaching program online, I was really excited to learn about how to set up and design a community.

What I learned was that all the time I spent on the design elements held me back from really working out the structure of the actual program. This is why I really focus on working on the foundations with clients about the programs and communities they launch. Getting the framework of the problems the program solves and who it is built for are the key objectives in the beginning. But once you have that down, you can have a bit of fun exploring what features and functions will be helpful versus what will be overwhelming for you and your members.

The architecture of an online community refers to the structure you’ll build. This includes the features, member benefits, user experience, and the structuring of content and resources within the online space.

A well-thought-out community strategy aligns with the vision, mission, and purpose established by the group’s host. Leading an online community requires understanding how you want to communicate with your members and how they enjoy connecting with each other. When working with a client to help their team restructure their community, I helped to identify a purpose for each area of the community. Recently, I wrote an article about this for clients who are building a community on Mighty Networks; you can read that here.

Common Design Challenges for New Community Builders

Many community builders struggle with knowing how many areas (or spaces) they should offer for people to meet, connect, and engage. When working with one client, whose challenge was a lack of member engagement -we learned members didn’t have permission to share posts within the community, which is why they were posting in a different space than the host expected.

This is why I ask clients to consider a community like a website. You wouldn’t see 10 options at the top of a website; you would see 5, so consider that when building the framework with your community architecture. In addition, if your members don’t know where to post because there are so many areas (or spaces), it is confusing to them and will lead to members not returning. When working with this client, we learned to focus on one core area for the members to engage and work there to focus energy instead of splitting it between different areas.

The structure you establish will influence other design elements like your community’s culture. It will provide the container for your host, leader, and manager to help your people build habits and cultivate rituals. Think about how you want to communicate; your style is an important factor to consider. In addition, your community must be easy to access. Consider how your members will enter, what they will see, and how they will remember to return.

When envisioning your structure, research communities you’re attracted to as a member.

Here’s an activity I recommend clients do at this stage: Go visit an online community that you haven’t been to for a while. Log in like it’s the first time.

Pay attention to everything you experience.

  • What’s the navigation like?
  • What features do you get?
  • How easy is it to find resources?
  • Is there a chat space?
  • Who posts what?
  • What are the guidelines?
  • Can you ask questions?
  • Is there a member directory?

Check out fellow community members and see who you’d like to know. Introduce yourself to one member, and see if they respond. Ask a question of the host, and see how they reply. Do they get back to you with comments or questions?

Take notes on what you love visually and what you don’t like about the visuals. Notice if there are too much text or complex explanations. Ideally, Everything should be clear and easy to understand.

Evaluate your time spent in this community. Think about the value of investing your energy and money there. Consider the other members and identify if they’re people you want to know better. These things will help you define your own community. Being thoughtful now will encourage confidence in your decisions once you’re up and running.

The last thing that I’ll ask you to do is to figure out if you’d like to build on or off of social media. Define your answers in writing, outlining why it is important to host this community on a specific platform (if that’s the case).

You’ll need to determine if you’ve got what it takes to learn the platform or if you’ll hire a designer. I strongly recommend hiring someone for tech support. Navigating tech is the least important task, yet it consistently delays and frustrates new community builders, especially in the beginning. Let go of the “shiny new things” and focus on who you are serving and why. Before spending too much time, effort, and money on any platform, get clear on your community’s concept.

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Deb Schell, Author and Community Strategist

Community Strategist, Author, Podcaster, Designer. Find Calm Here, where community strategy meets intentionality.