The Sunset of Google Plus Communities and the Sunrise of a National Geographic Society Community
If you’re working on launching a new community initiative, there are so many case studies, tools, and knowledgeable community professionals to help you along your journey. But what if you’re tasked with sunsetting a community?
In this conversation, Patrick and Luke Zimmer, manager of the educator community for the National Geographic Society, discuss both instances. Luke has been tasked with managing the community for educators interested in geography education and after evaluating the limited capabilities of Google Plus, decided to go with a platform that offered more in the way of customization and data ownership. And, plot twist: Not long after making this decision, Google announced that it would be sunsetting its Google Plus consumer product, including the Google Plus Communities product.
Launching a new community or sunsetting an existing one are both complex undertakings. As Luke puts it, our online communities are microcosms of the culture around us. What happens when that culture and those connections are wiped away?
Patrick and Luke also discuss:
- A full rundown of the Google Plus Communities sunset
- Why having an anthropology background is helpful for working in community
- How the National Geographic Society is structuring its new online community and plans to measure success
Online communities as microcosms of larger cultural movements: “When an organization chooses to foster a community like [IMDb did], they’re choosing to support a subculture of that particular group. When they choose to stop supporting that community, you’re essentially getting rid of that subculture, and you’re wiping out a culture. It’s unfortunate that that happens. … [But] in the grand scheme of things, that happens all the time, throughout history. Cultures, they rise and they fall and they ebb and they flow. It’s natural for online communities to follow that similar pattern. That’s one of the things that really fascinates me about online communities, that it really becomes a microcosm for these larger cultural cycles that we see throughout history.” –@LukeTZimmer
On migrating a community from Google Plus Communities to Higher Logic: “Google Plus has four metrics that they give you. That’s just not enough if you’re really looking at the return on investment of your community. You need [a community platform] that really provides detailed support for programs and multiple programs, like National Geographic has for its educators. … I was definitely supportive of finding a platform that could integrate with our customer relationship management system, and making sure that we had as much access to our member data as possible.” –@LukeTZimmer
Opening a closed community to the public: “Because it’s been a closed community and we’ve been working with a very specific population, even within our audience, it’s been pretty easy to understand the community and to manage their expectations and the culture of the community. One of the things that I’m most concerned about [is] opening up a private community to the public [and] maintaining that culture, that positivity that we have currently in our closed community and making sure that inviting these new populations in doesn’t throw off the balance.” –@LukeTZimmer
About Luke Zimmer
Luke Zimmer graduated from Indiana University with degrees in journalism and anthropology. He has worked with associations and nonprofits for more than five years with a specific interest in social media and online communities.
In addition to his work as a community manager with the National Geographic Society, Luke also volunteers with the American Society of Association Executives where he is chair of the ASAE Communication Section Council. He has spoken at a number of ASAE events in addition to contributing to the ASAE newsletter, Associations Now.
Luke has also spoken to webinar audiences for the online community platform Higher Logic, the National Association of Bar Executives, and AssociationSuccess.org. When he finds the time, Luke also blogs on community management, social media, and technology news and issues at Skariphos.com.
- Luke Zimmer on Twitter
- National Geographic Education
- Luke’s blog, Skariphos.com
- The American Society of Association Executives
- Higher Logic
- The National Association of Bar Executives
- Elizabeth Koenig on Community Signal
- IMDb shutters its online community
- National Science Teachers Association Conference
- Google Plus shares plans to shutter its consumer product
- Google Takeout allows you to download all of your Google-stored data
- Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship Program
[00:00] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to Community Signal. The National Geographic Society wants to empower educators and as part of their efforts, they host online communities. Luke Zimmer is responsible for those communities and joins the show today, less than one month before a big launch, to talk about that launch, what their community will look like, and the closure of Google Plus communities.
Our Patreon supporters are a group of listeners who find value in the show and choose to financially support the program. Thank you to Luke, Marjorie Anderson and Maggie McGary for being among them. If you’d like to learn more, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Luke Zimmer graduated from Indiana University with degrees in journalism and anthropology. He has worked with associations and nonprofits for more than five years with a specific interest in social media and online communities.
In addition to his work with the National Geographic Society, Luke also volunteers for the American Society of Association Executives, or ASAE, where he is chair of the ASAE Communication Section Council. He has spoken at a number of ASAE events in addition to contributing to the ASAE newsletter, Associations Now. He’s also spoken to webinar audiences for the online community platform Higher Logic, the National Association of Bar Executives,and AssociationSuccess.org. When he finds the time, Luke also blogs on community management, social media and technology news and issues at Skariphos.com. Luke, welcome to the show.
[00:01:39] Luke Zimmer: Thanks, Patrick.
[00:01:40] Patrick O’Keefe: As a point of disclosure, Luke is a supporter of our show on Patreon and that doesn’t really have any impact on my selection of him as a guest. I think one of the secret, not so secret things about the show is I talk to who I want. Our most popular podcast last year was someone that has less than a hundred Twitter followers. I don’t really care about someone’s reach. Certainly, Luke has a platform. I’ve read his blog many times, we follow each other on Twitter. I’m familiar with that but I really wanted to have him on the show but I think it’s important to mention that sort of thing. Nonetheless, actually, I did my random draw of Patreon supporters to mention at the top of the show and it just so happens that you were at the start, Luke. He was on the random draw number one so let’s get that out of the way. Thank you for supporting the show, Luke.
[00:02:21] Luke Zimmer: Yes, it’s my pleasure. I think this is a great podcast, Patrick, and it’s great to have a platform that community managers can turn to to hear from each other that’s not a discussion board. It’s nice to just, sometimes, be able to sit back, relax and take it all in rather than having to feel like you have to contribute to the conversation.
[00:02:38] Patrick O’Keefe: Awesome. It’s both an excuse for me to have digital coffee so to speak with someone when I can meet them in person. As I told you just before we hit record here, it’s like, a lot of time these are the conversations I would have with people if I was in DC and we got together or whoever I’m talking to and it’s also kind of self-care for me. I work remotely, I work from my home office but I don’t, actually, meet in person with a lot of community pros. I look at this almost as a form of self-care for me to talk shop every couple of weeks with a professional that I want to learn more about or that I respect, so thank you for indulging me.
[00:03:09] Luke Zimmer: As an introvert myself, I appreciate the one-on-one conversation so it definitely takes the pressure off.
[00:03:15] Patrick O’Keefe: You are, at least, the second person we’ve had on this show that has a degree in anthropology. Is there a reason you think, coincidence?
[00:03:25] Luke Zimmer: That’s a really good question. I think that there is definitely a connection between online communities, community management, and anthropology. I think it definitely involves a lot of introspection and thinking about how people are interacting with each other, which is a big part of well…Especially, social and cultural anthropology, which is relatively similar to sociology, that’s a big part of what I studied. It was a lot of how do groups of people remember things together? How do groups of people carry on essentially means, or strings or ideas across time, across generations, across groups, and across populations?
That’s something that’s always interested me and I think that’s a natural fit with online community management. Especially when I’m working with a new community or a new group, I really enjoy the process of getting to know that group, getting to know how they communicate with each other, what their expectations are for the community and then really just helping amplify that. Essentially just finding the purpose for your community and building on it from there.
[00:04:32] Patrick O’Keefe: The other guest was Elizabeth Koenig. We actually named the episode Cultural Anthropology and Online Communities, if anyone listening wants to check it out. I remember talking about the idea that we’re creating the future archives online right now and online communities. This is when we will look back, however many years into the past and we try to understand what people were talking about, how they were talking about things, what the climate was like in any number of things politics, obviously being one of them but where the world is at, cultural change, online communities are certainly part of that conversation now, and how painful it can be sometimes to see an established online community go away. Depending on how influential the community was in a space, you’re kind of wiping out something that is, not to make it too grandiose, [laughs] but in some cases, is a meaningful point of discourse around that subject that has some historical significance.
[00:05:24] Luke Zimmer: Yes, I would definitely agree with that. I think that I’m blanking on the community. I think it was IMDb that recently shuttered its community, and the feelings about that, not just about…It’s a place for people to connect and to express a shared interest and it sucks that there’s no longer that platform for them to do that, but there are other places where they could.
I think the really interesting thing was the worry about all of the knowledge and the loss of that community as an archive of just discussions and ideas about cinema itself. I think to your point, when an organization chooses to foster a community like that, they’re choosing to support a subculture, essentially, of that particular group. When they choose to stop supporting that community, you’re essentially getting rid of that subculture, and you’re wiping out a culture.
It’s unfortunate that that happens. Of course, when you think about it, in the grand scheme of things, that happens all the time, throughout history. Cultures, they rise and they fall and they ebb and they flow. It’s natural for online communities to follow that similar pattern. I think that’s one of the things that really fascinates me about online communities is, that it really becomes a microcosm for these larger cultural cycles that we see throughout history.
[00:06:47] Patrick O’Keefe: The National Geographic Society was founded in 1888, and it’s one of the largest nonprofit scientific and education organizations in the world. In 1988, and I love the symmetry there, I just love the symmetry. 1888, 1988. I’m a sucker for that stuff, the society launched a formal effort to bring geographic education to classrooms, and you manage online communities tied to the current day iteration of that effort aimed at pre-k through grade 12 educators. The online community part, what does that look like?
[00:07:15] Luke Zimmer: That’s a really interesting question. Also, just to blow your mind a little bit more with those dates, Patrick, I was actually born in 1988.
[00:07:23] Patrick O’Keefe: Okay. [laughs]
[00:07:25] Luke Zimmer: Our new online community, it’s launching at the National Science Teachers Association Conference in April, and April 14 is my birthday. We’re literally launching this community 30 years after National Geographic launched its original educator community, and it’s also happening on my 30th birthday, or, well, it’s my 31st birthday, but close enough. I think it’s pretty fantastic that there are all those symmetries.
[00:07:49] Patrick O’Keefe: I love it. You’re launching a community. What does it look like right now?
[00:07:53] Luke Zimmer: That’s a really great question. It’s actually been quite a process. It started about six years ago with my colleague, Allison Zapinski. She and some of our leaders within the National Geographic Education Department had decided that they wanted to start to build an online presence for our network of geography alliances, which is what started in 1988 with Gilbert Grosvenor.
The online community, it’s been nascent for a while, we’ve been thinking about it quite a lot. Then there were some structural changes that happened with National Geographic as an entire organization a couple of years ago. As a result of that, we had to put some of our community work on hold. After that restructuring, Allison and her team really focused on our education certification. That is a program for pre-k through 12 educators, both formal and informal educators, to essentially go through a program that certifies them in what we call the National Geographic learning framework.
That learning framework is a set of attitudes, skills and knowledge areas that teachers can use in their classroom as an underlying framework for all of their teaching in the classroom. We call it our explorer mindset. It’s really about building things like curiosity and responsibility and a sense of caring and understanding about the world, so that both natural cycles and people. As a result of that certification, we started building an online community just for those certified educators. It lived in Google Plus.
That community grew out of certification and rekindled the fire that Allison had started about six years ago with our geo-educator community of really just building an online space for all educators interested in sustainable habits, and creating a planet in balance, and also creating that explorer mindset within their students. About a year and a half ago, Allison brought me on board with National Geographic to start launching that next iteration of the community.
In that time, we have slowly migrated our Google Plus community into a new platform hosted by Higher Logic that our digital team is building on with a couple of our other partners. We’re planning to open that new online community to the public in April at the National Science Teacher Association annual conference in St. Louis.
[00:10:16] Patrick O’Keefe: Very cool, so you’ve been migrating things quietly behind the scenes. There’s a Higher Logic instance right now that has some people in it. You’ve got that foundation and you’re planning to finally open it up, talk about it in public. I know you have a form on the website now for people to register their interest in joining the community. This is really taking that thing that’s really private and bubbling and then bringing it out to the public finally.
[00:10:38] Luke Zimmer: Yes. While I’ve been here, the first part of my assignment so to speak was to identify a platform and to start building a platform that we could migrate our Google Plus members into. That’s been a big part of it. At this point, we’re almost finished with the site design. We’ve got a couple of last minute things that we want to change before we officially open it up to the public. Since then, we have been migrating in small chunks. We’ve essentially gotten to the point where we have all of our members out of Google Plus and into the new platform in preparation for the launch in a couple of weeks.
[00:11:14] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s great. When did you stop your use of Google Plus? When was that milestone reached?
[00:11:18] Luke Zimmer: We reached that milestone earlier this year.
[00:11:21] Patrick O’Keefe: I saw a post on the Google Plus page in January for, not the community but the page mentioning the closure.
[00:11:27] Luke Zimmer: We had to speed up our timeline a little bit as a result of some of the changes that Google’s making to the platform. There was definitely that that threw us for a loop a little bit but otherwise, we were just glad that we were already in the process of migrating this group out of Google Plus when we got the announcement that they were planning to shutter the platform in August. Then when they moved up their timeline to April, that didn’t actually make a big difference to us because we were already hoping to or planning to have all of our Google Plus members into the new platform by April anyway. It’s actually just fit right in with our existing rollout plan.
[00:12:04] Patrick O’Keefe: You probably all felt like geniuses.
[00:12:06] Luke Zimmer: A little bit, yes. I definitely took credit for that wherever I could even though I had little to do with it.
[00:12:11] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s funny because when I approached you about coming on, I didn’t know that you were on Google Plus communities. I actually didn’t anyone who have had used them. I know they’re in use. I knew them as a tool but hadn’t really talked to anyone. When I saw you mention that in your pressure questionnaire, I was like, “I want to bring that up. I’m want to talk about that a little bit,” because as you mentioned, in October following a data leak, Google announced that they would close Google Plus toward the end of August.
Then in December, following another data leak, they abruptly moved the closure up by more than four months just like that. finally settling on April 2nd, meaning we’re now less than a month from that. People who had had their August timeline in mind were not given the notice that we would like to have. From a community management perspective, now that you’re on the other side of it and you’re done with Google Plus, when it comes to Google Plus and being a responsible platform for communities, how do you think they handled it?
[00:13:01] Luke Zimmer: We were definitely caught by surprise by some of the announcements but in all honesty, when I came on board, one of the options was for our community to essentially stay on Google Plus. Having worked with other community providers, I knew that there was a better way for our organization to leverage a community like that and to still be able to have more ownership over our data and to have more control over situations like whether or not the platform even exists.
Early on, it was pretty clear to us that we needed to move off of a platform like Google Plus simply because Google doesn’t provide a lot of support for it in the first place. It’s difficult to really customize the platform for specialty communities and for groups that need to do unique things with it. When I came on, we really started looking at platforms that were either out of the box or had some open source framework that we were really able to manipulate so that we could make sure that something like what happened with Google Plus wouldn’t catch us by surprise in the future. Whether or not that was foresight or just a stroke of luck, we could debate that but we were definitely lucky.
[00:14:16] Patrick O’Keefe: Go with foresight. [laughs]
[00:14:17] Luke Zimmer: I guess, yes. It was definitely a little bit of foresight because that really was a big issue for us early on. When I came on board, that was one of the biggest things that I identified within our team is that we just didn’t have a lot of access to all of the information and the data that was coming out of our community. Google really owned that and that really shouldn’t have been the situation. We really should have been owning that data.
We needed to be able to just have access to it and to be able to crunch our numbers, look at metrics. Google Plus has four metrics that they give you. That’s just not enough if you’re really looking at the return on investment of your community and you need something that really provides detailed support for programs and multiple programs like National Geographic has for its educators. I think early on, I was definitely supportive of finding a platform that could integrate with our customer relationship management system, and making sure that we had as much access to our member data as possible.
[00:15:14] Patrick O’Keefe: That makes a lot of sense. I mean, it’s foresight, because, first of all, I think most and I don’t want to phrase this in a way that’s insulting but I tend to find that most community professionals who’ve been at it for a while, see the value in hosting your own data and having access to that data. Even at the time you joined, the writing is on the wall of Google Plus. Definitely a good idea.
I will give Google Plus credit for something in a couple ways. I think, on one hand, I don’t like to see platforms that say they want to host communities disappear quickly, but the reality is, of course, when you put your community on someone else’s platform, eventually, everything comes to an end. I guess two points I give them credit for beyond sort of the whole data leak thing, we’ll second into that, but as far as a community platform they did two things I think are really good.
They did give time. I think they should have just probably stuck with August, frankly, but at that announcement in October, that would have been a 10-month window which would be very generous. Moving it back to April is a six-month window and they changed that up in December. That’s still a five-month window or four-month window rather, and frankly, I’ve seen things close a lot quicker. I like to see that sort of window because when people sunset products, it tends to always be like a 30-day thing or a 45-day thing, 60 days is generous.
Four-month window for people to move is frankly better than a lot of people do, and also they’ve enabled some level of downloading of information and data which I’m not exactly sure how they pulled it off because I feel like Facebook would say they couldn’t do that because of the law or privacy laws or something. They would find a reason not to with Facebook groups, but that they’re giving any data at all, they deserve some credit for. I mean, obviously, they’re cutting down the launch date or the closure date is not good, but I’ve seen a lot worse community closure tool efforts.
[00:16:59] Luke Zimmer: Yes, and Google Takeout service, I think that’s what you’re thinking of. You can actually use that service to download all of your Google Plus data. We actually haven’t had a ton of luck getting our actual conversations and posts out of there, but we’ve been able to download a list of all of our members and stuff like that. That has definitely been helpful throughout this process. I think to your point, it’s good to just have a contingency plan, I think, and just to know that these kinds of things do happen. That platforms don’t last forever, and it’s not something that we necessarily want to think about but it’s something that we should think about.
I think I have a tendency to do this myself because one of my first jobs in this particular career, I was working for an association of risk managers. Working for that particular group for a few years, it’s not that I ever had to do any risk management myself, but you kind of start to pick up on those habits that they’re just things that we don’t necessarily want to happen, but we should plan for because they’re really likely to happen for the same reason that you should have an emergency savings account. Stuff happens, and it’s not possible to predict everything.
[00:18:04] Patrick O’Keefe: The funny thing about Google Plus too, or one of the funny things is that, for a lot of people, Google Plus would have been a successful product at the size and scope that it was. You don’t need to be the biggest of something to be successful or to be a good product, but in the Google lens, and the lens of, I don’t know how to phrase it, venture-backed startups, and Silicon Valley pressure that exists, Google Plus is a failure.
If it came from a different company, a different lens, less pressure to have the user base they had, being a second, third, fourth, fifth social network, actually, you got some people to use it. Google took their shot in a really aggressive way. The YouTube integration for example, and how they did that was something that turned a lot of people off, frankly, but they went for it. For user adoption and they put a lot of pressure on it and it kind of made this push to take on Facebook. From that lens, it’s seen as a failure, but I think any of us would love to have the number of users that they had.
It’s funny how things change based upon perspectives and how with big companies and also with venture capital funding, there’s just no room, it seems in a lot of cases, for a company that isn’t a unicorn or doesn’t have that aspiration but still has millions out, five million, 10 million, 20 million users. It’s kind of an odd trap that has been set in a lot of cases for social networks, and even maybe community backed plays, who need to abandon community principles for the sake of scaling quicker, faster because of their investors. It’s sort of, I don’t know, someways I think it’s unfortunate.
[00:19:38] Luke Zimmer: There are definitely users who are going to want to be on Facebook, they’re not going to want to be on the biggest social network, but they’re still going to want to be able to connect with people somewhere. I agree with you that I think that there are definitely spaces for not necessarily top tier communities like Google Plus. That’s how the market works sometimes, especially when you are dealing with groups like Google that are not just focusing on community, they’re focusing on lots and lots of different things.
Somewhere along the line, I don’t understand what all the balls are that they’re juggling, but I’m sure at some point, they have to figure out which balls they want to juggle and which ones they just got to set down.
[00:20:14] Patrick O’Keefe: Bottom line, this community launch is long-time coming, like community launches take time, we all know that, they take research. Higher Logic is an investment, certainly. You’re finally sort of, there’s no finish line, but you’re at the finish line of launch, let’s call it. You kind of run this marathon since you got there, and now you’re finally at the spot where you can open the doors and let more people in. What are you excited about? I know that owning the data is big. I know being able to do more with these users is big, but top of mind right now, what are you most excited about that moment?
[00:20:44] Luke Zimmer: I think what’s most exciting about our community is the opportunity to really raise up educators as leaders not just within a community of other educators but also within National Geographic’s community of explorers. Our explorers, our grantees, those are the folks that you read about in like National Geographic Magazine and see on the channel that are out doing all of these amazing things, scientific research and discovering new things and exploring new places.
The most exciting aspect of this for me is seeing the excitement on an adult’s face when they meet somebody or interact with somebody that they’ve read about in all of these different places who they become kids again, in a way. It’s something that I even noticed when we were doing a video shoot earlier this week with some of our educators to prepare for the launch. At one point, they were taking out some microscopes and they were just looking at the microscopes for B roll for our footage. The teachers who were there, they started out. They were just kind of acting, and then one of them noticed something in her microscope that she was looking at and she gasped and then they started passing around the slide that she was looking at and all of them had to look at it. After a while, they forgot that they were shooting a video with us. They were just discovering things together, they were just enjoying that process of learning.
That’s what makes, I think our community of educators so special is that it doesn’t take very much for them to just become kids again, to become explorers again, and to be really curious, and to just not be afraid to dive into something and to ask questions and to just get messy with things and to understand that even as teachers, they don’t necessarily understand everything in the world, they still have lots of things that they’re learning.
Our teachers don’t necessarily see themselves as teachers. They’re not just educators, their lifelong students, and they see themselves as learning right alongside their students. I think that’s what I’m most excited about in terms of launching this is just kind of finally having the space for all of these educators who, regardless of whether they teach in the classroom, or teaching in a museum, or teaching an after-school setting, they’ll have that place where they can come to just be inspired by each other, to just be curious together and to be learning together and to have that safe space where they can say, “Hey, I don’t necessarily understand this, but I want to learn more about this, who can help me?”
That’s the thing that’s really keeping me going through. It’s a lot of like working on the weekends and long nights and stuff like that, but just thinking about those moments of joy for people who worked really long, hard careers sometimes and they just find that new spark, that new spark of energy that this community can ignite in people and it sends shivers down my spine just thinking about that we can reignite that passion in an entire group, in an entire generation of teachers.
[00:23:41] Patrick O’Keefe: Looking at it tactically it sounds like just structure is something you’re excited about having, moving beyond this one feed system or kind of limitations of Google Plus communities, or in my case, Facebook groups because that’s what we’re on at my day job and being able to have a structure where you can put like-minded people together or where you can put people together based upon pursuits or where they’re at or what they’re learning or if they want to learn and just be able to flesh out those journeys and those experiences.
[00:24:08] Luke Zimmer: Yes. As we’ve progressed in developing our community strategy, we’ve identified our different educator personas. Even though a teacher comes to us and wants to become a member of our community, well, we recognize that not all of them are as enthusiastic as others. We are creating a strategy that allows educators who are interested in National Geographic and are interested in this explorer mindset and this learning framework to join us, but then there are lots of other opportunities that are going to bubble up in this community that are just ways that they can interact more deeply with National Geographic.
I know early on, I said that this community grew out of our certified educator program, but after the launch, we’re really going to see this community as a funnel into our certified educator program and we’ve seen such massive response to that online course that we’re capping registration. That cap is really high. We had 3,500 educators who signed up for our certification program in our last cohort. We do three cohorts a year and we still had even more people who are on our wait-list.
We’re almost using the community as a filter to help us find those teachers who are most passionate. Those educators who are most likely to really take this learning framework and our explorer mindset and run with it. That’s another thing that I’m really excited about is in a lot of the communities that I’ve worked in, we’re trying to get our numbers up to that 99/1 rule where we have at least 10% of our population that’s contributing or responding in some way, shape, or form. A lot of communities struggled to reach that, but what’s been amazing working with this community is that we actually see proportions that are much different from that. We have a lot more people who are interested in contributing to our community, who want to respond to posts and contribute new questions and more discussion ideas and other things to the community. How can we leverage community activity as almost a filter for moving this really, really super excited population into our other much more exclusive programs? Things that maybe only take 3,000 teachers. We have programs like our Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program that we only accept 45 teachers each year.
How can we use the community to help us identify the teachers who are best for those programs? Then how can we also use the community to continue to engage those teachers who maybe don’t necessarily make it into the program the first time? How can we use it to support them to maybe stay in touch with us until they’ve completed their certification program, or to continue applying for really competitive programs like our Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program, or Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship until they’ve gotten accepted to it?
I think that’s one of the– I’m kind of geeking out now and just like we’re vomiting all over the place, but this is the stuff that I love about community. It’s been really exciting to work with National Geographic and to be able to comic community from this new angle where you’re not necessarily trying to build an audience, you’re really trying to harness the power of an existing audience. To really help shape it and to direct that energy into a place where it can be most effective.
[00:27:22] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s awesome. That’s what excites you, what concerns you? It better not be that you care too much.
[00:27:28] Patrick O’Keefe: What concerns you? What are you worried about? What’s something that, maybe worry is not the right word, but what’s something that you’re thinking about extra hard?
[00:27:37] Luke Zimmer: I think one of the things that’s just been lurking at the back of my head is throughout this process of building this new community and migrating it, because it’s been a closed community and we’ve been working with a very specific population, even within our audience, it’s been pretty easy to understand the community and to manage their expectations and the culture of the community.
One of the things that I’m most concerned about and I think anybody would be concerned about this if you’re opening up a private community to the public but it’s just maintaining that culture, that positivity that we have currently in our closed community and making sure that inviting these new populations in doesn’t throw off the balance. That’s one of those things.
Of course, our community is so positive. I’ve been here for a year and a half and I think I’ve had to moderate one message and that was just because it wasn’t really on target or on topic. We very rarely have negative posts or people who are just trying to game the system or anything like that. I think that gives me a lot of hope that when we do open this up to everyone and their uncle or their aunts that positivity and that positive community culture will still shine through, but of course, like I said earlier, I worked for a risk manager. You got to have your doubts about everything.
[00:28:57] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs] You told me before the show that on Google Plus you found that an increasing number of members were not enrolled in the formal certification program that the National Geographic Society offers, will the new community serve those people as well as those who are certified? How do you approach those audiences differently?
[00:29:17] Luke Zimmer: That’s a really good question. That’s been another one of those things that we’ve been teasing out throughout our beta process. Early on, we started the platform with the intention of just inviting certified educators into it. It was going to be a closed community for them. Out of that, we expanded it to encompass a broader audience. That audience that we were seeing growing in Google Plus of increasingly educators who had either signed up for the certification process and just hadn’t completed it or they had heard about our education products through a colleague or a co-worker and had joined the community that way.
The certified educators were top of mind for us. We knew going into it everything that we needed to make sure that we had, something that served as a little bit more of a catch-all for the folks who didn’t necessarily fit into that certified educator bucket. As we teased that thread out of all of this stuff, we realized that there was a pretty big contingent of teachers who were interested in engaging with us, but maybe weren’t quite ready to take on the challenge, that is our certification program.
I’m going to try not to mess up the timeframe. It’s a multi-week program with three different phases. You have to do a classroom activity and submit a video at the end. It’s a pretty rigorous program. While we still have really great completion rates, not everybody’s going to complete that. Long story short, we have an entire population who are coming into our community through the certified educator community.
Any educator that we’re adding to the system right now is almost guaranteed to be somebody who signed up for that program. Once they’ve completed a certain amount of the course, then they’re granted access to our certified educator community. That community, we’ve been very, very deliberate in the kinds of discussions that we cultivate there. First, we make it very clear that the certified educator community is for participants in the program, and for alumni of the program.
We have a process in place to essentially purge the roles at the end of every year, so folks who haven’t completed who had maybe signed up for a cohort and hadn’t completed it, if they haven’t completed certification within 12 months, we remove them from the community. Then they can be added back if they re-enroll in the program, but that just ensures that that population is only certified educators or program participants.
It makes it easier to set that expectation that they’re only going to be talking about the certification program, or certification related topics in that community. In the broader community, which we’re calling the educator network, that’s where we kind of move those more general discussions. Any educator who’s in the certification program also has access to our educator network community.
If they want to talk about something like just sharing a resource, or an event, or a promotion that’s happening from National Geographic education that’s open to all of our teachers, that’s something that they can talk about in the educator network. It’s been a little bit of a process getting there though. Early on, it wasn’t immediately apparent to people what they should be talking about in our certified educator community, versus what they should be talking about in our open discussion board.
That’s been a part of my change management process. A lot of the moderation work that I’ve been doing is really just moving threads from back and forth between those communities based on the topic area, explaining to the members with a candy e-mail that I have, why it is that I’m moving the discussion post. 98% of the time they understand and they actually agree 100% when I explain to them that, “If we move this from our certified educator discussion board into our open discussion board, then you’re more likely to get responses from people who aren’t certified.”
Eventually, after we launch it to the public, that will be our largest community. It will be filled with lots more educators that haven’t even heard of the certification program. After the launch, that’ll just be the home base and that’ll be where we start advertising things like our certification for educators, or different programs like our fellowships and our grants, and things like that.
[00:33:29] Patrick O’Keefe: That makes a lot of sense. Will any of that be public without logging in? Will it all be behind login?
[00:33:34] Luke Zimmer: That’s a good question. I think there will definitely be content previews that will be visible to the public, so we have something to entice people who don’t necessarily know what our online educator network is. However, to participate in the community, will definitely have a login and require everyone to create an account to participate.
[00:33:55] Patrick O’Keefe: How are you measuring success, and then how would you like to?
[00:33:59] Luke Zimmer: We’re looking at a couple of different things. Of course, we’re looking at overall size of the community, and overall number of discussion posts and contributors. One of the deeper metrics that we’re looking at is actually the rate of participation, I suppose. Essentially looking at the average number of posts that a user is contributing, or that a unique contributor is sharing within a particular discussion board, and making sure that it tracks with our expectations.
Earlier, I had mentioned that we are thinking about using our community as a filter. Essentially, we’ve got this open discussion board that lots and lots of people can participate in. Then we’ve got this kind of our top tier discussion boards, they have to enroll in a program and be accepted into that program, or to have completed that program.
We expect to see within the discussion boards, or our program members a slightly higher rate of participation because they’re essentially more invested in the program, and in their relationship with National Geographic.
It’s actually been really interesting to track that. We are seeing that within our open discussion board right now, even though it’s not open to the public, we’re seeing anywhere from one and a half to two posts per unique contributor, but within our certified educator discussion board it’s two to two and a half so it’s a little bit higher than that, and then we also have communities for folks like our certification mentors and our grantee– Well, not our grantees yet but our fellowship participants, and within those groups which are even more competitive and smaller we see an even higher rate of participation.
Especially among our certification mentors and TAs. They have a phenomenal rate of participation. The average user is posting like six times a week. Just sharing questions with staff and with other mentors about the folks that they’re helping through the certification process. It’s been really interesting to gauge that and to see as these communities get smaller and people getting deeper into our programs are they becoming more engaged in our communities, but it’s been really awesome to say that yes they have been.
In addition to just being interesting, it’s also been really helpful for convincing our staff that taking a community approach to your program can be worthwhile and rewarding in the end. My colleague who works on our certification program and works with our certification mentors, she’s the only one currently who is using our community platform to manage that very small defined working group, but I’m hoping to use that group as an example for all of our other education teams that if you’re managing a group of volunteers, a group of highly engaged program participants, you can use something like this community tool to not just provide them a place to be super engaged, but then for you to respond to those questions without having to answer all of those emails, and it’s also going back to the IMDb example, it becomes an archive or a repository for all of this institutional knowledge for these volunteers.
As your volunteers are moving out of the program or into the program, there’s this repository of knowledge that they can refer back to that we don’t necessarily have to be pulling out of inboxes, e-mail inboxes. We don’t have to be reinventing the wheel every year or every new cycle of volunteers explaining this stuff again. They’re all of these questions and answers that just live on forever in the community, and that knowledge lives on for as long as the community does.
[00:37:29] Patrick O’Keefe: You did a great job bringing the start of the program IMDb and anthropology back to the end of it. Luke, it’s been a pleasure to have you on. Thank you so much.
[00:37:38] Luke Zimmer: Yes. It’s been an absolute pleasure to speak with you, Patrick. I love listening to the podcast and I’m super excited to get to have a conversation with you.
[00:37:45] Patrick O’Keefe: Thank you.
[00:37:46] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking to Luke Zimmer, manager, educator community for the National Geographic Society. Visit natgeoed.org for more information about their work.
For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Have a great Saint Patrick’s Day.
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