Many of us would describe the communities we're a part of as our networks — but they aren't necessarily synonymous. Still, networking is an integral part of community development.
Here's how they differ and how you can help your community members build valuable networks through your community.
Both community and networks are founded on connections. The key difference is how those connections are created and maintained. A Community of Practice connects members through a shared interest or profession. On the other hand, networks are based on pre-established relationships regardless of shared interests.
Let's take your LinkedIn network, for example. It's usually made of friends, former schoolmates, colleagues, or people you're connected to through professional relationships. Without these pre-established connections, these people probably wouldn't be in your LinkedIn network. Through these connections, you can directly message someone, and they will know exactly who you are and may be able to assist your career advancement opportunities.
Communities, however, are usually made up of people you have no pre-established relationship with. Take a look at Communities of Practice — we usually join these because we share a common profession, skill, or interest, and want to be in a space with others (though strangers) with whom we can learn or share ideas.
I am a part of such a community in The Community Club, the community for Community Managers. I joined because I shared a common profession with others within the community. Still, I had no personal relationships or networks with anyone in the community — those were built over time.
If you're running a Community of Practice, career advancement can be a significant value add for current and potential community members.
According to research by Zippa, 85% of jobs are filled via networking with personal and professional connections. If you can encourage networking between your community members, it can increase retention and member satisfaction.
Creating networks within your community can benefit community members' personal growth and career development. The benefits include:
Now that we've explored why networking is integral to community building, let's look at how you can help your community members to build networks.
Here are some actionable ways you can do it naturally.
Who knows the people in your community better than you? You know their professions, usual discussion topics, and what they're primarily interested in. With this knowledge, you can start conversations within the dedicated channels in your community space to get people talking about their shared interests.
Taking this a step further, you can tag two or more people to contribute to the conversation, thus organically connecting them and alerting them to their shared knowledge on a particular topic.
The great thing about hosting community events is that it's a space outside the day-to-day community interactions where your members can connect with one other and learn. There are multiple ways you can encourage networking at an event.
Ask two or more of your members who share an area of expertise to collaborate on a topic to present at the event. This can offer an opportunity for them to prepare and build a lasting relationship.
Depending on your event's size, you can create break-out rooms based on shared interests and encourage members to get to know each other and discuss specific topics. For example, if you see a number of your members are interested in Web3, create a themed break-out room for them to join at the event and make it enjoyable with some conversation that starts to get them talking!
This is probably the most straightforward approach you can take. Create a channel within your community that is specifically for members who want to network and build personal relationships with others. It should be optional to join, and any member who joins must be open to one-on-ones with others within that channel.
Mentorship programs are a great way to encourage networks with your community. They're also excellent for junior professionals to be exposed to more senior professionals and make lasting connections that could lead to immediate or future career advancement.
The techniques mentioned above are not easy to do. They require a lot of practice to get right and can be especially difficult if you're a one-person community team.
Here's how you can get better at connecting with your community members.
Take time to learn more about your community members. This can be through studying your community analytics and interpreting what they tell you about your member behavior. With this knowledge, you can learn how your members would best be connected.
Foster a space for your community members to express their thoughts and feelings. Listen to what they say about their everyday concerns and what they want more of from your community. This will ultimately help you understand what type of networks they'll need to meet their needs.
Don’t be afraid to share if you come across job opportunities in your industry that could benefit someone in the community. For example, if someone within your community works for a particular company with a job opening, ask them if you can share their details with anyone in the community interested in the role.
Boundaries in networking make it clear to members that they can't force a network or connection with others who aren't interested.
Consider adding this to your community guidelines. It will make members feel more comfortable about networking with other members and create a safe space for it to happen organically.