How not to build a community
19 Februar 2021 - Maaike Hoogstede

“What community event formats do you offer, and how do you make sure people attend?”

It’s a late afternoon, and I’m once more hearing the most common question I get asked by fellow Community Managers. While the snow outside is slowly covering up our Berlin coworking space, I’m trying to ‘uncover’ our community management practices to one of my peers.

Have you also programmed community events with the highest expectations, to only find yourself munching the prepared snacks all by yourself? Then this post might be for you. In it, I’ll look back across the past years of running our Creative Space for impact entrepreneurs in the heart of Berlin, to extract our learnings about how not to build a community.

That famous Dutch saying

In Dutch, we say ‘een goed begin is het halve werk’ (a good start is half the work) and this couldn’t be more true for building communities. Understanding who your community members are, what they value and what they need is essential at the start of any successful community-building journey. Tools like the community canvas are a great way to make this orderly and visual.

Outdoor community activities
Community-building – handle with care.

The four community event creation biases

Knowing your community sounds like common sense. You wouldn’t organise a ‘Raising Series A Funding’ event for your ideation phase startups, or a ‘Make your own pasta’ workshop for your gluten-intolerant friends, right?

Now these are of course extreme examples, but on a smaller scale, this is often what happens. Even with the best intentions, we tend to get trapped in one of the following biases:

  • The Personal Bias (“I love this concept. I’m sure they will too.“)
  • The Legacy Bias (“Last year this worked well…”)
  • The Generalisation Bias (“Member X said this would be great, so the entire community will love it.”)
  • or The Hype Bias (“This topic is totally hot right now – success is guaranteed!”)

Oh yes, we’ve been there.

Every Monday, we host one of our most popular community events: ‘Kaffee & Kuchen’ (or Coffee & Cake) – a quick 30-minute check-in during which we bring our community together to share updates, needs, offers, and to personally welcome any fresh faces to our Berlin coworking space. A different member supplies a homemade cake each week, the community mingles, and we apply some engineered serendipity for members to meet. Call it magic.

When Covid-19 hit – “this will still work,” we thought. Digital was the new physical, Zoom – our new best friend, and our first attempt at a virtual ‘Kaffee & Kuchen’ event – a flop. Classic Legacy Bias.

It’s not like we hadn’t already learnt this lesson many times over. About a year ago, one of our members was looking for legal support for their business. We invited a legal expert in our network to host a workshop on the matter. And received exactly one sign-up. You can guess who. Generalisation Bias strikes again.

Community baking at our Berlin coworking space
Community Coffee & Cake – works better as an in-person event, apparently.

The importance of two-way conversation

To make your community programming hit the mark, you have to go into dialogue. Listen. Understand. Collect your members’ needs, and follow up on them with actionable steps. When you’re starting out, this can happen in a cozy kitchen co-creation session, with the core of your new tight-knit community. But when your community grows (as ours has over the past six years), you’d have to possess a damn large kitchen table to host them all.

An easy solution? Bring in the good old survey

What gets measured, as they say, gets managed. Every February, we launch a member survey across the entire network of Impact Hubs around the world. As well as informing our Global Impact Report, it also gathers very specific local insights that become the cornerstones of our community strategy. Gathering results from your entire community gives you an idea of whether a specific suggestion is a shared need or not, and whether your current formats are still relevant.

Were you aiming for an ‘atmosphere satisfaction’ score of 100%, but only hit 80%? Well before you start painting the walls and ordering a year’s supply of scented candles, dive into that dialogue and understand what an ideal atmosphere actually means to your community, to understand better how you can bridge that 20%.

Atmosphere at our Berlin coworking space
Atmosphere – more than just scented candles.

Ask for suggestions. Learn. And then: co-create

In last year’s survey results, a returning topic among Impact Hub Berlin members was the need for more call booths, so we repurposed an office that was underused since the start of Covid-19 restrictions, turning it into an additional private call space. There was also a wish for more peer-to-peer support on professional topics, and so our ‘feed-forward’ event format was born, to encourage members to tap into their collective creativity and collaborate on challenges.

After a number of respondents highlighted access to finance as a priority, we also established a partnership with public funding experts VDI/VDE, and piloted our Impact Investor Community last year.

And – in one of our favourite survey outcomes – we also uncovered a shared desire for a larger social event beyond the Impact Hub opening hours. So, alongside some enthusiastic community members, we co-created the first ever Impact Hub Berlin nature retreat – a full weekend of activity out in the woods in Brandenburg.

Sharing is caring

Survey outcomes might not be the most appealing piece of information to share (unless you’re a lover of spreadsheet data). My suggestion: it pays off to share them, but only in an accessible format. Not only is this a sign of appreciation and transparency towards those who take the time to respond, it also serves as a base for common understanding and open communication.

Proper statistical analysis will give a clearer picture of whether that one specific ‘Tea-Leaf-Reading for Financial Success’ event suggestion is likely to be a priority. (Ok, we made that one up).

It’s important to remember that even when you’re building your community event formats based on frequent feedback and data, there will always be outcomes that flop. But hey, then you learn. You don’t have to hit all home runs. (And an accidentally intimate-sized event once in a while just means more snacks per attendee.) Community management is learning by doing and being comfortable with changing demands – constantly. So go out, exchange, listen, and have fun.

Maaike, Head of Community at our Berlin coworking space

Maaike is Head of Community at Impact Hub Berlin, and has many more famous Dutch sayings to share. Interested in becoming a member? Find out more or join us for a coworking trial day.