Online Communities of Practice: A How-to Guide with Pragmatic Institute

Corporations, Community Strategy, Customer Stories // Can’t-miss advice from Georgina (Cannie) Donahue, Director of Community at Pragmatic Institute! She’s sharing how she planned, designed, and launched their online community of practice, with takeaways for each stage.

Kate Zimmerman
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Georgina (Cannie) Donahue has managed and built a number of communities, from support communities for customers to internal communities for employees. But now, her current gig is Director of Community at Pragmatic Institute, where she manages their online community of practice.

Pragmatic Institute successfully launched their online community of practice this year (at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, no less) – and Georgina is here to walk you through each phase of building their community.

Georgina also shared this story in a webinar, so if you’re more of an auditory learner, check out the recording here.

Communities of practice are one of Georgina’s true passions, when it comes to community building. But what makes them different from something like, say, a support community or an employee community?

According to Georgina, an online community of practice is a community space filled with professionals who are all doing the same thing – but doing it in very different industries and verticals. A community of practice breaks down those walls, bringing all these people together to advance their discipline and their careers in a peer-to-peer network.

We’ll walk through the five phases of Pragmatic Institute’s community journey.

Phase 1: Laying the Foundation for an Online Community Practice

Phase 2: Selecting an Online Community Platform

Phase 3: Online Community of Practice Design and User Experience

Phase 4: Launching the Online Community of Practice

Phase 5: Sustaining Engagement and Maintaining Community Buy-In

Let’s dive in!

Phase 1: Laying the Foundation for an Online Community of Practice

What does a virtual community of practice look like at Pragmatic Institute? Because they offer courses, their online community is all about alumni engagement. Pragmatic Institute has 200,000+ alumni who are all trained in the same methodology and speak the same language – all trying to put the same product philosophy into place.

Georgina has said herself that the buy-in for community was already in place before she joined Pragmatic Institute, which you don’t always find. Her leadership was really excited about using community to engage their alumni. They knew their alumni leave their courses all jazzed up – but then they start to have practical questions, like, “How do I take this first step?” or, “I wonder if I could find any examples from peers who might have advice or examples” – and they had nowhere to go.

The need for an online community became obvious to them, so they brought in Georgina to build it.

Tips for Planning Any Online Community

Not sure where you should start with planning an online community of practice? Georgina said, “I believe that community strategy, at its core, is the only aspect of community building that doesn’t change on use case – you need to know what your potential members and your stakeholders want.” She gave a few valuable questions to help you get to the heart of both groups’ needs.

Questions for potential community members:

  • What’s valuable to you? What would make your life easier, better, faster, more accessible?
  • What’s the most annoying part of your day?
  • What’s something that you do that you don’t think you should be doing?
  • What is the one part of your day that you’re most excited to do – the thing that you rush through other things to get to, so you can spend more time doing that?

Georgina also suggested some questions to use with your internal stakeholders. They’re most likely the ones paying for the online community platform, so how can you provide the most value to them?

Questions for your internal stakeholders:

  • What are the pain points in the organization?
  • What are the high-level organizational objectives that we’re trying to achieve?
  • What are the outcomes that you’re looking for?
  • What are your wildest dreams for the community?

Once you’ve done this, create a Venn diagram — figuratively or literally — to identify where both groups’ needs overlap. That intersection is where you generate shared purpose and shared value from the community.

Once you move beyond this step, everything starts to segment, like the behaviors you encourage members to do, the platform that you choose, the metrics that you measure, the programs that you run, the design, the culture, the tone, the language, and the images. But at the root of all communities is making sure you have a harmonious balance between your members and stakeholders.

 “No matter what kind of community use case you have, at the end of the day, if the members don’t see their value being met, they’re not going to participate, and you won’t have engagement. If the organization doesn’t see the value they want being met, they’re going to pull the plug on your budget. Because why would they pay for it without getting value out of it? So if you want continued engagement and continued buy-in, strive for a harmonious balance of your member and stakeholder needs.”

Georgina (Cannie) Donahue, Director of Community, Pragmatic Institute

Takeaways

  • If you want to build an online community, seek out your advocates within your organization and bring them on board. For more tips around this process, visit this eBook.
  • Communities extend value. You don’t want an initiative to be a one-and-done? Create a community of practice around it. This can apply to events, courses, etc.

Phase 2: Selecting an Online Community Platform

After you’ve documented your members and stakeholders’ needs, the next step is vendor selection. Georgina shared how they selected the online community platform for Pragmatic Institute’s virtual community of practice. The three needs they identified, specifically for a community of practice, were these:

  • Ability to scale an intimate experience for each member
  • Proven experience creating online communities of practice
  • Tool for product ideation

Let’s look at each criteria a little more in-depth:

Scaling a Personalized Experience

Georgina knew she’d be building a comprehensive ecosystem – she didn’t want the platform just to have questions and answers, or just resources, or just discussion. She saw that the vendor they chose, (which ended up being our community platform, Higher Logic) could support Pragmatic Institute’s community of practice as they grew.

Scaling a personalized experience as an online community grows can be difficult on some platforms. But with Higher Logic’s community management tools, like automation rules, Georgina knew she could scale personalized communication with community members in a way that made them feel understood – even when she had thousands of members.

Proven Experience with Communities of Practice

She also looked at history with creating communities of practice – which vendor had done that successfully? Because Higher Logic has had communities of practice baked into its core since its inception, based on its extensive work with association membership communities, the fit for Pragmatic Institute’s online community of practice made perfect sense.

Product Ideation within the Community

And finally, Georgina knew she’d need a product ideation tool. With a community of product people, Georgina knew they’d want a way to give feedback and suggestions, so that was a must.

 Takeaways

  • Finding the right vendor can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! Find our checklist for selecting an online community platform in this post about the foundations of online community engagement.

Phase 3: Online Community of Practice Design and User Experience

When Georgina began thinking through what the community experience would be like, she started drawing. She started thinking about the behavior pathways she wanted to create, to make the workdays of her members as easy and streamlined as possible. She asked herself this question: “How do I use the design and layout and implementation to drive the behaviors that will fuel our topline goals and strategy?”

Norman Wong, art director at Pragmatic Institute, designed an interactive wireframe people could click through to test out the community based on a mockup Georgina created. Only after she’d shown this to her stakeholders did Georgina realize how much it helped.

She knew her stakeholders understood community at the top level, but once they saw the community mockup, it made them realize how much work it would be – giving Georgina the perfect opportunity to showcase the value of investing in a community team.

Structuring the Virtual Community of Practice

Georgina worked with eConverse Media to design a dynamic online community homepage for their members. When members click into a new member checklist, for example, it asks whether they’ve seen the community guidelines or made their first post. Once they’ve completed the behavior, it’s automatically checked off the list.

Another important design feature of the Pragmatic Institute’s community is the way they’ve organized sub-communities and grouped information.

Their community of practice launched with about 12 distinct sub-communities. And because Georgina planned for that number to grow (and it has), she worked with eConverse to design the communities so that each sub-community contains all the articles, discussions, trainings, podcasts, and more under each topic. This helps members find what they need all in one place, instead of having to jump to different areas of the community.

Takeaways

  • Create a mockup for your stakeholders so they can experience what the community will be like.
  • Explaining online community basics is okay – and necessary. Georgina said, “Don’t underestimate how much you know about a community and assume the basics will be obvious to everyone else. It might seem like you’re insulting them or being too elementary, but they may not know as much about it as you think, and it’s good to have a shared baseline of information about community.” (Want to learn more yourself? Check out Online Community 101.)

Phase 4: Launching the Online Community of Practice

Georgina pointed out that launching a community can feel very different from any other product launch. Not only do you need people to adopt a product in all the literal senses (logging in, filling out a profile, etc.), but you also have to get into the psychological – onboarding them in a way that builds trust, accountability, and commitment, so they feel like they’re part of a real community.

Also, when it’s time to launch, you might be tempted to do it with a big bang. After all, you’ve put in all the work to develop a community strategy, buy a platform, hire a team, fill it with content, make it look nice – and understandably, you want to celebrate.

But Georgina advises against this – why? It usually creates one giant burst of engagement, but it’s not sustainable, and then you’re working hard to get people to come back. A community launch is not a one-time event, it is a process that typically takes 8-12 months of sustained and strategic effort. In her words, “You need to sustain the excitement in both your members and your stakeholders. If you go for one big-bang at once, it will become more difficult to create lasting and meaningful habits. You lose the opportunity to have those quiet moments of connection and the subtle opportunities to learn tacit knowledge from another human being. It’s the community equivalent of waiting for someone else to stop talking so you can speak.”

So what’s a better way to launch?

You have to balance the enthusiasm while taking an approach that will sustain value. For Georgina and Pragmatic Institute, this looked like creating a phased launch plan.

How to Create a Phased Launch Plan for Your Community

If you think about a community launch like hosting a party, this means making sure when your guests show up, they don’t feel uncomfortable being there early. So you invite your five best friends to come early and kick things off. Nobody wants to be the first one there, so you rally an inside crew – your most fervent fans who you know can help start the party.

That’s what Georgina did with the Founders program – which has become a high-level leadership and advocacy program. To ensure applicants were truly invested, Georgina had the application take around 15-20 minutes to complete.

The Founders were the first people to come into the community. Georgina created a series of challenges and requests for the community and had them start conversations in the community so that the content was organic, authentic, and crowdsourced.

But back to that big, exciting launch…

After the Founders had “started the party,” Pragmatic Institute opened pre-orders for community registration up to new members with a discount. To spark enthusiasm, they welcomed all these new members into the community all on one day.

But that wouldn’t have been as successful without first establishing the Founders program. Georgina sees the Founders as her anchor for her online community’s culture. They set the expectations and rules of the road, so that when new members join, they already have a sense of the community culture.

Takeaways

  • Consider a phased launch for your community – and don’t put unrealistic pressure on yourself around metrics. Georgina said, “Online community growth is a long game – due to all the psychological and dynamic factors that play into it. I think a community should and could consider itself to be launching for up to a year.”
  • Try creating a community advocate program before you launch your community, and rely on those users to help you beta test, create seed content, promote the community on their own social media channels, and get others energized. For in-depth advice, read our guide to launching an online community.

The Phase 4 Road Bump – COVID-19

Yes, you read that right – Georgina and the Pragmatic Community team launched their community during COVID-19.

Georgina remembers that at the time, people expected she’d make a big pivot in her launch plan. But she decided that the most important thing would be to stay the course.

She said, “The whole philosophy and real deep value of an online community is that it’s a space that offers the stability and insight of your peers. So we decided not to pivot or delay launch plans for the community – which became exponentially more important overnight because of COVID-19.

“The online community existed as a lifeline for many of our members. Everybody was home from the office, everybody was confused, and what better than to be able to say, ‘I have a home for you, and a place to ground yourself during this storm. I’ve got a bunch of other people I can introduce you to who are working through this as well. Not only will we help you survive, we’ll help you thrive.’”

Another factor Pragmatic Institute had to consider was the cancellation of their in-person courses and how to boost their virtual courses. One of the best parts of their in-person programming was the chance to bring a bunch of likeminded people together – that community of practice, in person – but COVID-19 put a wrench in those plans.

Fortunately, their new virtual community of practice has given Pragmatic Institute a way to welcome those members in – and giving them access to even more connections than they would have had in person.

Pragmatic Institute and community of practice

Takeaways

  • An online community extends the value of an in-person network. Did you have to cancel something due to COVID-19 that you could recreate using community?

Phase 5: Sustaining Engagement and Maintaining Community Buy-In

Now that Pragmatic Institute’s online community of practice has been up and running for over 6 months, Georgina has had some time to reflect on the things she’s most proud of – which translate into more takeaways for you!

But before that, let’s see how their community is faring:

  • In 8 months, Pragmatic Institute has seen a 150% increase in community membership
  • 87% of the community content is user-generated
  • 78% of all members are “active” members, with an average of 5.4 posts per active member per month

Call us impressed! It looks like members love having a place to connect.

But Georgina also cautions: “Don’t just throw your lines out and wait to see what metrics you reel in. Define your metrics as part of your initial strategic planning (both the types of metrics you are going to watch, and the ideal numbers you want to hit!). Then, begin educating your stakeholders about those metrics and why they matter, before you even begin the launch process.”

“Your stakeholders need to be aware of important metrics from the very start so they can follow the journey alongside you and combine community outcomes with the metrics that matter most to the organization. If you aren’t consistent in telling them which early factors to keep an eye on, you may end up in a defensive position when you have conversations about how successful or not the community is down the road.”

Takeaways

Create a new member introduction thread.

Every month, Georgina has new members introduce themselves and share their questions for the group and their topics of interest. Georgina sees this as a low-level way to create that engagement muscle-memory. The community members with longer tenure have jumped in to welcome and support those new members. For Georgina, this is evidence of the culture she and the others at Pragmatic Institute have worked hard to foster.

Document your successes.

Georgina shared that long ago, when she was having a really bad day, she got a compliment, and saved it somewhere. Later, she realized you can and should apply that to your community. So every time a member says, “Thank you!” or, “That was a great resource!” Georgina takes a screenshot and saves it. Not only is it encouragement for you, but it’s perfect evidence for when you need to prove continued value of your online community.

Online Communities of Practice – In Practice

Now that you’ve got a real-life example of what it’s like to build a virtual community of practice, do you feel equipped to go out and build your own? If not, we’ve got plenty of more resources available that are all about community building. Visit our resource center or our events page for upcoming virtual opportunities.

Kate Zimmerman

Director of Product Management

Kate, Director of Product Management at Higher Logic, is experienced in product management, product marketing, content marketing, market research, and proposal coordination. She has a proven track record in product positioning and messaging, value propositions, competitive intelligence, sales enablement, and Analyst Relations. She is a skilled writer, strategic thinking, extremely organized, and driven to excel. Her focus is with B2B software companies in the Washington, DC area.

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