Thursday 27 October 2011

Tips and advice on starting and running your online community project

So, you have a super, duper idea for an online community project! You want the world to know about it and join in, but where to start?

I’m writing this from the point of view of running the 4am Project. It’s a global photography project that asks participants to capture a view of their world at 4am. It’s had a reach in over 50 countries and over 4,000 images submitted to date. I wear many hats with the 4am Project (and it’s been an amazing learning curve!), from event organiser, pr person, community manager, press spokesperson, advisor to name just a few.

A little while ago I received an email from someone who was starting an online photography project and asked for my advice

I thought I would share some of my experience of running an online community project with you and the approach I have taken. So, with out further ado!


Who do you want to reach? Where are they? Why do you want them to take part? How are they going to take part? How are you going to reach them?

I found twitter incredibly useful for growing the 4am Project. I searched for people with an interest in photography on twitter, checked out their individual profiles (and whether they were actually active on twitter,) and I followed them.

Note: I didn’t follow people randomly. I took the time to research each person individually, as there was a greater chance that they would be interested in the project, follow and take part in the project and also tell their friends. I don’t do this so much now as the project has been established and I generally let it grow organically on twitter now.

Because my project is photography based and using flickr, I tapped into the flickr community. Again, I researched groups and individuals and connected with them. I’ll warn you now that both this twitter and flickr method is VERY time consuming, but both yielded good results as I took the time and trouble to do my research as make a personal connection. Where is your new community hanging out?

As you tick one ‘to do’ off your list of plans, others will take their place. As your project evolves and grows you will probably get a host of new ideas! The more the merrier in a way, but before you dive into them, think about what’s going to work the best and what is worth your time. Some things you will have to try to see if they work, but as soon as it becomes apparent that an idea isn’t working for the benefit of your project, drop it and move on.

Time Investment

This one took me a while to figure out, and it still does to some degree.

From day one I wanted the 4am project to be global. I invested practically all my free time in promoting the project (I had no support/staff or £ to pay anyone to do it). It did take over my life, and there were times when I was exhausted but felt I couldn't take a break from it. (I'm quite driven anyway and put 100% into everything). However, I do think that experience has instilled a new discipline in me to manage time/work/effort more effectively which stands me in good stead for other work and projects.

There were times when it felt like the project was controlling me rather than me controlling the project. Be aware of this. The larger your project grows the more people you will be interacting with. They will ask questions and comment. Are you going to be there to respond?

When your project takes off the ground, there may be press interest. You may be asked to do interviews, that might be by email, or on the phone or even in person. You will have to allow the time to do this.

Another extension of your projects is growth may be that you get asked to speak about it publicly in workshops, conferences, net working events etc. Is this something you will be comfortable with? Of course you don’t have to do it, but it can act as a good way to reach a new audience and of course build up your confidence in public speaking too!

I run the 4am Project around paid work (the project doesn't earn any £). And it’s very likely you will have to work on your project outside of your paid work too. So, start thinking now about how much time you can/want to invest in your project, and schedule it into you diary. I've got a better balance with the 4am Project now, by setting aside specific block of time to work on it ie. Rather than, ‘I’ll do a few hours next Saturday’, it’s "I will work on this next Saturday midday-4pm". Other arrangements, social or otherwise will have to be worked around this. I don’t give myself much flexibility in this area, as it would be all too easy to ‘do it tomorrow’. Don’t fall into that trap if you really want to make a go of your project.

Let's talk money!

Do you want to earn £ from your project? Do you want sponsorship/funding? Start working on that now. You can't start too early. I found with the few companies who have sponsored the 4am Project so far, and the funding I have received, that the wheels can turn very slowly. Frustratingly so at times. I have found that to even get a relatively small amount of sponsorship, it has required a big time investment. Weigh up what's on offer, what you actually want, how it will benefit the project, and whether it's worth it.

However, it’s not all about the money! I would say don’t wait for money, unless it’s an absolute critical part to get your idea off the ground. You may not necessarily need any money (though you might think it’s good to have it). What you really need is your enthusiasm, time, energy and you have all the free online tools you need at your disposal.

Hopefully this glimpse into running an online project and community doesn’t sound too overwhelming!

There are a lot of upsides. It can be a lot of fun, it can give you great experience (that can stand you in good stead for future work), it can raise your profile and put you on the ‘radar’, and it will bring you into contact with people you wouldn’t ordinarily have met.

The bottom line

What do YOU want to get out of the project? When you are deep in the middle of it all and it really takes off and it's keeping you really busy, it can be easy to lose focus, so most importantly don't forget why you have started it. Put a sign up. Remember what your online adventure is all about! :)

Say hello on twitter! @karenstrunks

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