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If we build it, will they come? Lessons from creating the #NASPA22 Discord Community

Header graphic: If we build it, will they come? Lessons from creating the #NASPA22 Discord community

Since leaving on-campus roles almost ten years ago, I have learned that part of my job as a consultant and executive coach is aiding organizations and leaders through the process of change and experimentation.

So to no surprise, I found myself in a similar role serving on the conference leadership committee (CLC) for the 2022 NASPA Annual Conference, offering both a place-based experience in Baltimore, as well as a virtual one. I was specifically tasked to lead the virtual experience, alongside my phenomenal co-chair Jenn Kosses, Dean of Students at Wentworth Institute of Technology.

I am sure you have attended plenty of virtual conferences over the last three years – more than you’d ever hope for. I get it. Some may have felt engaging, using an active chat or a carved out digital space like Slack to hopefully connect with other participants and presenters. Others may have fallen far away from your expectations or hopes for engagement, with lackluster pre-recordings, or you may have been faced with constant scheduling conflicts where you weren’t even able to experience the sessions.

We’ve seen online conferences flop, as well as organizations attempt to do both in-person and virtual. Let’s be honest, hybrid is attempting to pull double duty. Sure the goal is to have integration, but you better be prepared with the staff and volunteers to intentionally weave the experience together and make it meaningful.

Jenn and I kept all these realities in mind as we began to reflect on and intentionally plan the #NASPA22 Virtual Experience. Thankfully, last fall, virtual educational program submissions flooded in, and we confirmed all keynotes and SA Speaks programs would be streamed live. We grew in excitement knowing virtual participants would take away so much, at half the cost.

My primary focus was on building community for all-conference participants, no matter where they were logging in, virtual or in Baltimore. National/International conferences have a reputation for feeling overwhelming and cliquish. Then you add on concerns of COVID – well, my heart (and a decade of experience) knew just how much this experience needed an intentional digital community.

Actual Professional Development Needs and Approaches in 2022

Sorry, y’all, especially in light of the Great Resignation, extreme burnout, and overall disillusionment in higher ed, a keynote, half-day, or educational session alone isn’t going to wrap its arms around the challenges higher ed pros are facing right now.

We must look for a yearlong curriculum and community-based model that uplifts and educates the future of higher education. This must also be human-centered: professional development grounded in humanity.

At our institutions, we develop and produce programs and initiatives to meet students where they are –
timely, impactful, and personalized. Campus pros often bend over backward to do so for students.

Why don’t we do this for the humans that have chosen to commit their careers to serve these students? The service to students and our institutions has had a grave cost indeed.

Last month I wrote about how campus decision-makers need to put the same priority on those employed under their care as they do on students. One way I recommend doing this is to provide staff with more flexible work delivery including remote and hybrid options.

Adult education//professional development programs and initiatives need these same considerations: accessible, immersive, and holistic. We don’t need another conference with hundreds of programs and celebrity keynotes. We need more means to connect, learn, and be seen.

Because of all this, the 2022 NASPA Discord Community was born.

Discord in Higher Education

The quickest way I can describe Discord is Slack meets Facebook Groups.

Discord specifically defines itself as, “Discord servers are organized into topic-based channels where you can collaborate, share, and just talk about your day without clogging up a group chat.”

There is a good chance that your campus already has a Discord server – most likely created by your own students – or there will be one very soon. If you are looking for a deep dive on the platform, check out the panel I hosted with three other campus pros.

Each digital communications platform has its own look, feel, and culture. Discord declares itself different, the organization aiming for the platform to be a place to call home, “Discord gives you the power to create your own place to belong. Your Discord server is your home, shared with only the special people you invite.” To be more descriptive, while a very active Discord server can feel chaotic, it’s actually an organized conversation with topic-based channels.

Now, back to NASPA and the Discord server that we began building in the fall for the 2022 conference.

Before I thoroughly dig into Discord, I want to loudly proclaim my gratitude, appreciation, and awe to the 2022 NASPA Discord workgroup, made up of Virtual Experience volunteers and NASPA staff. Sending love and admiration to: DJ Hauschild, Queena Hoang, Eena Singh, Sattik Deb, Shannon Taylor Ashkin, La’Tonya Rease Miles, Scott Fuller, Amy Shopkorn, and Gretchenrae Campera.

I’ll share a few lessons that I hope you can apply not just for building a Discord server for your campus, division, or program – but also how to better approach digital communications and community building in higher ed.

Up front, I also want to thank NASPA leadership and the CLC for saying yes and believing in it (trust me they didn’t say yes to all my ideas). I’ll be honest, even with years of experience doing this kind of work – sometimes I never fully know how a digital-based initiative will be received and adopted until it’s out there.

I wondered, “if we build it, will they come?”

And goodness did #NASPA22 show up. Or at least they exceeded our expectations.

We hoped for a few hundred registered participants.

What we got was 1,412 members; 800 of whom were active users. Digging in deeper – on the first full day of the conference – Monday, March 21, 2022 – there were 460 posts, and one of the most popular channels #say-hello had over 700 posts! Part of the conference evaluation also included a couple of questions about the Discord community, and we very much look forward to reviewing feedback and themes.

But alas, it also wasn’t perfect. It was beta. We had to build it quickly, it grew far too fast to keep up with, and some channels never really took off. But all in all, I’m darn proud of it.

So I’d like to share what I learned about digital community building and the higher ed industry because of it.

Lessons from Creating the #NASPA22 Discord Community

Don’t build community alone. There were a dozen individuals who took part in the entire process of dreaming, creating, and producing this first-ever Discord server for a NASPA conference. I also highly recommend you train, build trust, and create systems for a core group of moderators for any digital community – especially Discord. I also urge you to include members you are actually serving and building community for in the Discord in your core group. For example, if it’s a Discord for students, make sure you include students.

You don’t have to be a Discord expert. I’ll admit, I had some fraud-y feelings when I first pitched the idea of using Discord over a Facebook or LinkedIn group to the NASPA conference staff and leadership. Discord is actually pretty new in my world, at least as a user or moderator/manager. I made this clear and how important it would be to include campus pros who already run Discord servers. NASPA doubled down and brought in a developer to help on the backend. The lesson here is, while you can be honest about your current experience level with a tool, the best way to learn a digital tool is to use and surround yourself with others who can educate you along the way. A HUGE shout out to DJ Hauschild who was my Discord mentor and a huge asset in creating what the #NASPA22 Discord server ended up looking like.

Community Moderation vs Community Management. In Discord, there are roles you can assign to users. A moderator has more tools for moderation such as creating channels, removing members, etc. That term aside, philosophically I encourage a community management approach over moderation. Moderation approaches feel more robotic – literally in Discord you can install “bots” to help you moderate, which can be helpful when strategically. Community management, on the other hand, asks you to be actively invested in members, be an active part of conversations, listen to better support the community, and lead the future of the community. One of the strongest community managers I know in higher education is La’Tonya Rease Miles, who has grown a Facebook Group called Empowering First Generation College Students which has grown to over 7,000 members. It should be no surprise that I recruited LT to be part of the Discord Workgroup.

Make it about your people. Even on Facebook, LT gets it – you can’t just create a community space and talk one way. That FB group has created space for all the intersections, celebrations, and challenges for first generation college students. For example, on April 10th she is hosting an event called, “Peter Parker & First-gen Identity in Spider-Man.” So no surprise some of the most active Discord channels were not about the conference at all. They were about our pets, family, or other identity/experience-based groups like first-gen professionals. Digital communities at their best are when the community can show up authentically and organically. This in turn will build trust and comfort in the community over time. Even though this was a “professional” conference, real people are beyond each username – and to ignore the human element in digital spaces is to leave our humanity behind.

The Future of the #NASPA22 Discord Community

Even before the conference concluded I began to receive private messages on what the future of the Discord community would be. I’ll be honest, we were so wrapped up in creating the space that we had yet to know the strategy to sustain it after the days of the conference. The reason we did not announce or project the future goes back to the title of this piece – we needed to see if conference participants used and received this newer platform and our philosophy/approach to the community. But I think we were on to something…

One participant posted, “This is probably the best virtual conference experience I’ve ever had, not just with the quality and quantity of sessions, but also the sense of virtual community.”

“This is probably the best virtual conference experience I’ve ever had, not just with the quality and quantity of sessions, but also the sense of virtual community. Thank you @JennKosses @JosieAhlquist and team! Great job!

Part of my pitch in the fall to NASPA was that this space has the potential to be a year-long member engagement tool, far beyond one conference or region of the association. I am not writing to you as a NASPA spokesperson, but from initial conversations, there is a lot of excitement and interest in further investment in this platform.

As of writing this, the server is still open. There is no plan to close it. If you registered for the conference, you can still join. Find any of the conference emails you received leading up to the conference, and there is a link to follow. I will add an update to this very piece with more specifics.

Were you in the #NASPA22 Discord? I’d love to hear from you and get your honest take. Simply reply or make sure to complete your conference evaluation and add your experiences there.

I’d love to hear if you are considering or are already part of Discord as a digital community-building tool, whether it’s related to our work in higher education or not.

To close, I want to again thank the conference Discord workgroup, the virtual experience subcommittee, the conference leadership team, and NASPA staff. I’m still fully coming to realize and reflect on my experience as the virtual experience co-chair. But what I know for sure is that there is much work to be done in our industry, and I feel pretty lucky to have had this experience and have the opportunity to support campuses

Platforms aside, it always comes back to people.

You may ask, just like I did, if we build it, will they come? whether on a campus app, email newsletter, Discord server, or the countless other tools available.

Well…there is never a guarantee in this type of work. There is a risk in innovation. I believe it’s worth it, though. However, if you build a cold, business-only communication strategy – your people indeed will not come. They will not show up, share, or feel seen. So truly see your people, center them in your communication and community strategies. Then tell me what happens from there.

Recommended Discord Resources

*This post was originally created for my newsletter, Digital Leadership Download. Subscribe and keep up with everything I’m writing, podcasting, and speaking about!

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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