Love each other

I recently learned that EOD soldiers (those insanely brave and completely nutty Explosive Ordnance Disposal soldiers) often form emotional attachments to their bomb sniffing robots. Bomb sniffing dogs? That makes sense, of course… they’re cute, you can teach them to do tricks on command, and they’re always there waiting for you when you get home. What’s not to like. But robots?

Well…. Actually, I suppose a case can be made that robots can do all those things too. And you don’t have to walk them twice a day… hmmm…

One thing I’ve noticed about my time in quarantine is how much the lines have blurred for me, even me the Community Guy, between online and offline worlds. Yes, I find myself longing for the in-person meetings to resolve certain types of problems. But overall, we are all getting better (even if by force) at virtual and video interactions.

There’s been an ongoing debate for years about whether online community is “real” community. Can you make “real” connections and “real” friends if you only connect online. I was thinking about this last night as I listened to my friend, Tim Courtney talk to my other friend, Patrick O’Keefe on the Community Signal podcast. Tim was sharing his story about how he came to get involved in the LEGO Community and eventually end up working for LEGO. It was through online connections he made to people through the LEGO LDraw community.

Side note: both decades long friendships with Tim and Patrick started online and grew to offline connections then have been supported with online and offline activities over the years. Like so many friendships these days.

But most of these stories end in an offline connection of some sort. As deep as our Pandemic Connections may get, as deep as our online community connections may be over time, in my experiences, the deepest, the most rich, the most meaningful, the most valuable are the ones that end up with some form of offline connection as part of the overall mix. Even as I have bunkered down at home through the stay-at-home orders, when I wanted to offer a bit of joy to my friends and family, I didn’t reach for my computer to send an email, I reached for my stack of miscellaneous greeting card stash and started writing.

(Please don’t send me hate mail with examples to the contrary. I know there are plenty that prove this rule is not always right.)

This is the way.

This seems so obvious in the personal realm, right? But I remind clients regularly that offline components to community programs are significantly important to the success of your online program. There are three key focus areas of offline activity:

  • Events – Whether smaller, regularly schedule local meetups or massive yearly Summit events, plan (or support) ways for your community to connect offline, get to know each other for more than just the purpose of the community itself. And because it’s regularly scheduled, they know they’re coming back again. Members start to plan their vacations around these events. One of the most moving community moments of my career was seeing two grown men, LEGO fans share a lingering hug and cry because they were finally meeting each other in person for the first time. Make those moments happen.
  • SWAG – It’s amazing to me how much emotional value community members get out of getting “stuff” in the mail. One of the best physical mailers I’ve ever been part of is when my team at Apple sent a box to the super users of the Global Support Community that was typical Apple design and quality. Inside was a beautiful luggage tag and a card that thanked them for being on the journey with us. They loved it. I mean really, really loved it. It showed them we cared about them as people and partners.
  • Presence – You’re the Community Manager, right? So get out there and manage. I mean GET OUT THERE… show up in person, not just from behind the screen. Attend meetups. Attend user group meetings. Meet your Super Users one-on-one. Hell, make phone/video calls to active community members regularly. Write thank you cards. Make your physical presence known to the community. It makes your online engagement easier, and it makes the entire community believe you’re as committed to the overall mission as much as they are.  

This blog post was the first one written in my new home office. There are some things I’ve learned in my rich and storied life. One of them is this:

Never, ever buy a house shortly before a pandemic, rip up the floors shortly before stay-at-home orders are issued, then move in the midst of a full-blown global pandemic.

Live and learn. I moved yesterday and setup the office this morning. The first official act of the new office is to get this new Confessions of an Online Community Manager comic out. Marcello The Business Cat is sleeping in the chair in my office while I type this and life is good. I have to wrap this up now… it’s time to argue with him about whose chair that REALLY is….