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Garth Moore Michael Silberman and Liz Butler 11 min read

Part Two: Offline-to-Online-to-Offline: Lessons Learned in Building a Custom Community Platform

Earlier this week on Frogloop we discussed how four grassroots campaigns (1Sky, Clean Energy Works, the Energy Action Coalition and Focus the Nation) tried to build the Climate Network an unprecedented online community platform. We discussed our vision, our plan of action, what went wrong and how we tried to correct it. But what could we have done differently to make this project a success?

Listen to your audience – Getting those initial requirements from our audiences to meet their needs, instead of assuming needs on their behalf, would have helped us develop a platform that they actually would have used. Talking with supporters right from the start would have helped us get their buy-in for testing and promoting the platform. We might have even anticipated their needs and given them something they didn’t even know they wanted, but liked. These are some essential sources for information: social networks, blogs, interviews, surveys, polls, and in-depth interviews.

Be visionary, but be realistic – You may have a unique concept that no one else has ever envisioned before, and that’s great. However, be mindful of what you are trying to achieve and how to get there. What impact are you trying to create? What goals are you trying to achieve? How will you engage your local communities and supporters? How are you helping them succeed in their own communications and community building? If you can sell the big vision, sell it. Then temper your expectations after listening to create smaller, bite-sized goals that your community can achieve.  It should be clear how these smaller goals and milestones add up to the bigger vision, but the lessons from these smaller tests may increase your chances of successfully arriving at the ultimate destination.

Get internal buy-in – You need your staff to be on board to develop, support, and champion a project. If your staff doesn’t understand or support the project, the project will fail because of they won’t know how to support it, won’t want to support it, and won’t want to help spread the word about it. Your staff can always be your biggest champions and when they’re proud of a project, they’ll tell everyone they know about it. This goes for your board, your top volunteers who may be very close with the organizations, and your funders. Get them all buzzing about it and the word can spread like wildfire. Having everyone on the same page is critical for success.

Partner with good technologists – Make sure your tech vendor is sharp, savvy, and completely shares your vision and has the ability to make it happen. If they can build with a free tool or can build at costs, even better. For larger projects, make sure their design and network acumens are forward-thinking. A good developer will listen carefully, interview all stakeholders, plan everything down to the last detail then build quickly and cheaply. Plus, they can turn around small projects post-launch with little difficulty and they prefer open source projects so other can develop with them.

Develop the most essential features first – Make sure your top supporters, staff, and technologists all understand what the most essential requirements for success are and build them in right off the bat. Don’t think you’ll get to it later, because you either won’t or you will pay a lot to get it done. For example, if supporters say they want to connect to a highly popular social networking platform like Facebook to tap into their networks, get it in first.

Make it look good - Usability and design are just as important as the technology. If people can’t understand what you are trying to do upon first glance, they’re likely to sustain little interest in your website. The software can have all the features in the world, but if it doesn't have the user experience to back it up, good luck trying to get anyone to use it.  Be sure to invest time, money and focus on having a simple, highly intuitive interface.

Test everything – Don’t expect your staff and technologist to do all the testing; they’ll inevitably miss something or jump to a conclusion or justification so they think it will work. Ask five or six supporters to walk through it. Look over their shoulder if possible. Does it work? Do they like it? Can they use it? Would they use it? These supporters can inform the process and even champion the platform as they become part of the testing cycle. Even a small step like adding the word “Beta” to your project or logo tagline will help obtain buy-in and smooth expectations during the rollout process.

Budget for outreach and marketing – Nothing grows in a vacuum and unless your supporters and new audiences see your platform being used, see it promoted on places they visit online, and know about it in all your offline and event materials, they may not know it’s there. Don’t rely only on a couple of full-list emails and few Facebook posts to promote. Make a list of where you can promote your community platform, get quotes on how much it will cost to promote your network vision, create a budget, and then start promoting it. Try to get some free word of mouth from other organizations, partners, and friends.  Expect to pay a little to get attention as well.


Above all, ensure that you have clear and compelling reasons to talk about the new platform, beyond the technology itself. There’s nothing newsworthy or interesting about new web tools – but if your mission and campaign is irresistible enough, then outreach and marketing efforts can help accelerate adoption and interest in your campaign (and your community platform by extension).

Budget for future development – So, you’ve built it, tested it, and promoted it. But there will be fixes and new features and they will come with a cost. Save some budget for future development for at least 12 months, and set up a quarterly review and development cycle to make improvements based on supporter comments and new tools that come into play.  Make sure any real bugs that occur are handled quickly and cost-effectively. Many hosted software providers build support into their contracts; make sure that you’re not paying for their mistakes, only future development.

In the end, we learned what many organizations and causes have already learned about building an online community: it’s tough to gather your supporters together, engage them in meaningful activities that help achieve your mission, and keep your campaign fresh and inviting for new supporters and community members.

Given the continued enthusiasm for the project from all partners and the lessons learned, the project was not a failure. All the partners continue to build online communities and engage their online supporters in impactful offline activity. 1Sky recently relaunched its Get Local platform at http://www.1sky.org/local with organizer content and event tools based on volunteer feedback. Through this streamlined system, 1Sky’s grassroots organizers can easily share their events announcements and post-event stories with their online social networks and other volunteers and showcase the true breadth and depth of the movement. 

We hope our story will help keep your community building efforts on the path to success and enable you to avoid a few hurdles along the way.

*Garth Moore is Internet Director at 1Sky. Liz Butler heads 1Sky as camapign director with more than 17 years of online organizing and grassroots experience. Michael Silberman is the co-founder/partner with EchDitto and served as 1Sky's Internet Director during its first year.