Josie Ahlquist: Hello and welcome to this shorty episode of Josie and the podcast. We are back for the second half of season four and goodness it has been a long winter’s nap since our last upload. So, I am excited to give you lots of updates about what I’ve been up to and a framework for building digital campus communities.
Before I dig in a little message from my sponsor Campus Sonar what do you know? The internet is real life and for campuses what this means to perspective students, current students and families is the perception of your campus online is reality. So the question is, do you know what your reality is and if it aligns with your strategic initiatives? Social listening can help answer questions you have about your campuses online conversation both when they tag you and of course when they don’t and how to incorporate insights from that conversation into your institution’s goals and getting started, doesn’t have to be this huge investment of time or money. Campus Sonar a higher ed social listening agency has the goods to help you get started whether you’re just looking to read up or want to try a low-cost introductory project. Learn more at info.campus sonar.com/podcast.
Y’all I am so excited to be back. Well, whatever emotions that are looking like right now in the time of COVID-19 I am logging in from my home office in Los Angeles where we have been sitting put for quite some time. In case you’re caching the episode in the future I’m recording this at the beginning of August, 2020 and goodness does it look much different than a typical August in higher-ed or especially in the work that I do. I would typically be hopping on airplanes and traveling to be speaking or maybe getting that last family visit in. I am going to give you some goodies as I always try to in any shorty episode which today is going to be about building digital communities but I’m also going to share a little bit about what my behind the scenes roller coaster has been with some highs and lows since I last released an episode was back in December, 2019. Okay. Maybe not everything but I’ll give you a few updates.
The week we pretty much went into lockdown I became an aunt for the fourth time welcoming in my niece Roxy who hopefully I am going to meet someday and honestly she breaks my heart both because I haven’t met her but just all the photos that I get. It’s wild that she’s already five months. Another thing that happened pretty much right when the U.S. at least shut down is my website finally was finished. And this thing was in the works for well years so it is a little ironic that it was finally ready to go live when all of our attention was definitely other places. So, I very quietly released the new website and then I also quickly found that I would need a new page that would direct folks to a page called Work with Josie From Anywhere.
So it was just really clear that okay I’m obviously not jumping on a plane I can work with you from anywhere. And I’ve been doing that, I’ve been logging in to help cabinets and student trainings and divisional education. This week, this next week, I have five sessions in one day for a community college that’s going to be pretty wild. I’ll probably schedule in a big old nap and maybe a happy hour after that wraps up. But from being able to support faculty who have worked tirelessly and sometimes overnight to transition their courses online to administrators trying to figure out their services to go digital and students just caught in the middle trying to navigate as best as they can I am doing the same thing over here in Josie land.
In the spring, I also kicked off a webinar series. I created a few workshops but I also pulled panels together in a series called Leading Online where I featured leaders. And you’re going to hear from some of them in this back half of the season of the podcast. So, we could actually hear what was working for them, trying to connect in digital spaces whether that was an Instagram Live, to a Zoom Q and A, to blogging and those were really, really great conversations.
I also kicked off a digital community talking about what we’re talking about today. I wanted to practice what I was preaching and I first named it Digital Student Engagement and Community Building. And over the last five months we brought in over 1300 higher ed professionals doing meetups and conversations and dialogue and resource sharing in a Facebook group. But I was finding not only is it funner and more efficient to build community and do anything with other people but again practicing what I preach is digital communities is not a solo sport.
And so, I reached out to a few other digital community builders that I would have loved working with and thankfully they all said, “Yes.” And so we have relaunched this Facebook group to be called Higher Ed Digital Community Builders. And for the next few months, we have a series called We are Digital Community Builders and every Monday we have a panel of different experienced social media marketers or student engagement professionals to be able to provide a holistic picture of what it means now to do student engagement work but also just community development work as well in these digital spaces which I have believed for a long time was always possible. But of course now we are pressed into those.
Every Monday at 9:00 AM we have a panel and then the end of the week we fittingly do a meetup called Builder Brunch. And so brunch is going to be at 9:00 AM Pacific time, for me East coast that brunch will be at noon. And that’s just an opportunity to unpack what the theme was that week. Our first one is going to be about do you really need a digital community which we’re going to dig into in just a little bit when I talk about digital communities. Because it’s important to ask, “Am I just adopting and creating these stuff to prove my worth and to use this tool or is it actually needed right now?” I will include links to everything I talk about in this episode but that one, that is a group I would highly recommend you checking out especially if you’re excited about the topic I’m talking about today.
In the spring I also piloted two masterminds that were a month long so rapid fire education about yes this very topic building digital communities. And I helped professionals set up digital community spaces in a very quick amount of time building strategies and proposals. So then they could create these intentional spaces whether it was for their students or alumni or faculty or for the whole campus community. So that was fun to do a different type of format, a different service but I’m looking forward to maybe trying out a couple of other things this coming fall. And then my team grew a bit bringing on and also saying goodbye to a couple team members that had been with me that is just the evolution of life. And so it’s always fun to be able to learn from new folks on my team.
Well, of course there were also some stumbles, stuck at home in Los Angeles especially we went into quarantine quite early and we have continued to have a bit of setbacks one could say. My partner and I had also had to cancel a vacation. We were going to spend about six weeks in Germany in May and June so that was such a bummer to have to cancel. And the hopes that we would just really love to be able to have a lifestyle where we can do whatever we do anywhere because we figured out we can do that when we can’t do that again. Also, a couple months in I literally broke my back.
The setbacks were literally in my body and I definitely could admit now it was the amount of work I was doing, my posture, the exercise that I was trying to maintain. I’m sure I was doing YouTube videos with instructors who I had no business taking and it was literally I did one video and a few hours later I was on the floor in a whole, whole lot of pain. So, there’s been chiropractors and acupuncture and physical therapy and all these things that I’m risking right myself to go out to put myself out there but the amount of pain it was worth it basically to take these appointments to try to heal myself.
And as I’m recording this the pain is significantly decreased and I just want to give love to anyone out there that has or is currently experiencing back pain or any pain like chronic pain. It just takes it out of you. You really have to prioritize what’s immediate needs to happen related to work or just life and being able to let go a little bit of the rest of the stuff your wishes go.
We also had to do some hard goodbyes in the spring. We lost Izzy our cat who we’ve had, oh my goodness we got her in 2006. They think she was three. And so, it was time but it did happen quickly and again just another layer while we were in quarantine and then having to do all this odd appointments at the vet in ways you typically wouldn’t it was just like higher stakes. Being able to say goodbye to her in peace at least allowed us to release and say our goodbyes to her.
For years now as you’ve heard over episodes if you have been listening, the book has been always the roller coaster of adventure and there’s been numerous other smaller tweaks and page proofs but I recently resubmitted the last round of page proofs and we are in a really, really great spot y’all. And I don’t think I’m going to cry today but there’s going to be a future episode where maybe I just call it the tear jerking episode or something because it should be out at least by the end of September. There is a possible date of September 15th but I’m just saying it’s coming and keep your eyes on my website josieahlquist.com and then it’s backslash digital leadership. That’ll have all most updated information about it.
Just thank you if you have given any support over the years about that book and the journey I’ve been on. And goodness isn’t it needed, it’s called Digital Leadership and Higher Education:Purposeful Social Media in a Connected World. And I hope its timeliness was all the fate and the stars lined up in order for it to be pushed back to this time when we needed it the most. So I am positive that you’re going through your own rollercoaster from the start of spring until now and going into the fall. You know you can always connect with me and share a little bit of your highs and lows. You can find me at Twitter at Josie Ahlquist or in the Instagram of course at Josie Ahlquist too. We are all in this pandemic together.
Okay. So let’s dig into the topic for today, this little shorty episode which probably won’t be so short but that is okay. We need some substance right now, maybe a little bit of soul work too. So, I am excited to talk to you about Digital Communities Today a blueprint to help build them for your campus communities. When we think about defining digital communities or digital student engagement you may also see lots of other words being used out there that I have very strong opinions about. I definitely use the word digital. One could also remove that word completely or any word like online or virtual and just allow it to be the thing that it is within the context. Let me tell you for me as we look up the definition of virtual it actually means not real. And the words we use matter because it also is a replication of what we believe the tools can do or not do, that’s my philosophy.
So by definition virtual is defined as almost or nearly as described but not completely or according to strict definition. From my perspective why I use digital like digital student engagement refers to all the ways that we can help our communities as we do that authentically with the intent to build community and working towards belonging using the features and functions of digital spaces and contexts. A spoiler alert, you’re going to get a lot of insider peaks into my book where I talk about digital engagement in this greater concept of leadership. Because digital engagement is built around relationships and community building and the connection there is what I call the relationship equation. Marketing is part of digital engagement but it’s not the full equation. Relationships are at the center of digital engagement and then digital community building is one spoke of that.
So when we think about crafting digital communities in creating spaces that engage from our students to alumni, faculty, families, whoever your people are, in really meaningful ways we have to align all of this work to our mission, our objectives, and the values of our organizations. And not just running around to different technologies as a substitute or that bright, shiny thing over there that you want to bring in. Like the darn Campus Sonar ad said the internet is real life. So what we do in these online spaces is and can make an impact into the lives of our community. We really can engage whatever that community is and I’m going to use students a lot because that’s the lens of my research and work. On a social media platform, on a learning management system, on a team communication hub or an online meeting space each of these settings has the power to be useful.
It also has the potential to just be busy work and not helpful. But it’s not just adopting it and using it, it’s not just about having back to back Zoom events and meetings and call that your welcome week. We have to thoughtfully create these spaces with the intent to create community but we also have to believe it’s possible. Our beliefs and our philosophies impact how we create these spaces as well as all the different policies and programming that we put in behind it.
So let me ask, what have been spaces, experiences, and tools that have brought community into your life especially recently and if you think they worked or they’re working or not? Which ones are you called into? Whether that’s a Group Me with family or a Facebook group with other folks that are doing the types of things you are in your role, maybe it’s a Slack channel, it could also be a video game like Animal Crossing. There are people meeting each other on that platform and connecting in other ways.
Think about what it is about these digital spaces that you enjoy, what impact that they’ve made on you or what you’ve impacted in those spaces. And you could also think about maybe the ones that don’t seem to be making that impact. And then why are you drawn to them over time? There are lots of things that are calling for our attention. Why those ones are you choosing to invest time in? Because if we think about especially students they also are already very taxed with time and their attentions are getting pulled multiple places. And if we are maybe creating a new digital community space that is asking them to be on a new platform or app that’s going to be a big leap, not to say it’s not possible.
Today I’m going to share with you a very straightforward and hopefully simple framework for you to apply to current and possibilities with digital communities whether you already had one that you kicked off in the spring when you’re building or when you’re completely re-imagining. Keep in mind this could be just the way they, you use your Instagram account to creating an entire discord server that includes all your new students. If you are looking for even more like maybe you want to read and geek out even more on this I created a blog called Re-imagining Your Campus Communities and Digital Spaces and I’ll link that in the notes to the show.
So there are four I’s that can help an online community not just exist but be sustainable and impactful but it’s got to be done purposefully. These four pillars include intentional, interactive, inclusive, and impactful. And I’m going to go through each one, give you a few things to think about and examples that I have seen out there. First, let’s start with intentional. You’ve got to create any digital space with purpose whether it’s going to be a container of a digital community to an entire Facebook strategy. We have to be super purposeful in what we’re doing.
All those audiences may already feel lost and overwhelmed and so having a really clear purpose communicates what they’re going to get out of that space that hopefully is going to align with their needs. There is going to need to be moderators especially in digital community spaces like a Slack channel. Well, a Discord server, maybe even a sub Reddit page where those moderators aren’t just serving as founders and showpieces but they are actively invested in interaction and dialogue and looking out honestly for the space to hit on a number of other, the framework that I’m going to talk about.
There isn’t an equation that you need this amount of moderators based upon this amount of people but to give you an example within the higher ed digital community builder Facebook group where again I kicked it off. But I recruited six other crew members, I’m calling them, to just keep an eye out for this space, to be contributors as well as hosts. And as if things do come up we have this crew to rely on if we do need to do any troubleshooting with some hiccups that might happen. Because that’s the other piece that we know the internet is not perfect, our students are not perfect, our parents and family members are not perfect, we ourselves are not either. And so, we may have to troubleshoot along the way in these digital spaces.
So as we think about intentionality and connecting what we think people need right now to our digital community space sometimes you just need to straight up ask them and that’s what I did with that same Facebook group. I created a poll on the group. I created a survey. I asked what topics are important to them right now. What are they worried about? What are they excited about? Especially since I don’t full time work on a campus or remotely for a campus, I’m a home office. I always want to make sure I’m having a really strong pulse on what’s happening. And that’s what allowed us to evolve it into that next direction.
Even beyond the digital community space we need to be having continual check-ins, pulse check-ins, not just the end of semester evaluations to see if we’re on the right track. So some other ways that you can think about intentionality, thinking about creating intentional digital communities is your title, your visual. Is it clear? Are the graphics emotionally evoking the emotions that you would want related to your campus institution, the actual mission of the community? Because in digital spaces the small amount of times that we do get to maybe pick some branding opportunities those can really make a difference.
In a Facebook group for example, you get an about section, a community description where you can give more explanation of the background of the community, who you are, what you’re here for, as well as some of those expectations and policies you might have. And then there’s also an intentional opportunity to welcome in new members, to offer this is what’s going to be happening in this space. Say Discord server for example, has a space where you can clearly explain what each channel is and what one might expect to see in that space.
A couple examples, Mighty Networks I’m a huge fan of this platform and there are a couple of examples within higher education professionals creating these spaces as digital communities. One is called Keep Teaching Resources for Higher Ed and that was kicked off by Katie Linder and I’ll link that in the notes to the show. And Mighty Networks is just a really interesting tool for me as we think about how much more you can build out in different sections. It’s not full blown as a website but as you think about the limitations of maybe a Facebook page, a Facebook group or a Slack channel you get a lot more both visuals as well as some pages you can create internally, events you can create. So, I suggest at least joining that group to just check out what it looks like. And a spoiler alert is that I am creating a Mighty Network for the readers of my book and so be on the lookout for that invite link.
Okay. That was the first I, intentional, the next one is interactive. We want digital communities whether if it’s on Instagram or in a group to be interactive and engaging is not one directional. On Instagram how are you creating your content and your copy to evoke folks that want to actually comment? And when they do you reply back, that’s the most basic of this interactive pillar. So, while it is tempting also to use because we have so much information we’ve got to get out like a different shift in a scenario, in the way we’re welcoming our students back on campus or online. I get it we have a lot of information but with the philosophy of digital community building it should be two way. It should not always be information every second of the day as that can become quite overwhelming.
We’ve got to do more than talk at we have to listen, we have to respond and we need to talk with our communities and be open to hearing what they have to say. Again, heading back to Campus Sonar, being willing to listen on social not be reactive but using it as a tool for empathy to authentically show up will also build communities where folks feel like they can actually show up in a genuine way.
Interaction opportunities on digital spaces should not always be synchronous. Again, this is where my soap box is of back-to-back Zoom meetings and events are not functional and they are not impactful. So real time, synchronous, whatever you call that can be repurposed or done in different ways in digital spaces. So for example, the panels that we’re going to be launching in the Higher Ed Digital Community Builder Facebook Group we are recording those at a different time and we’re going to make them go live at a specific time, Mondays at 9:00 AM. But we’re going to have the panelists jump in throughout the week into the group to interact while that video is available. We’re going to have another prompt on Wednesdays to add more dialogue into the mix. And then Friday’s the brunch I was talking about, that’s going to be a very casual meet up. So it doesn’t feel like there’s a formal agenda. There’s a coffee talk, water cooler feeling to it so folks can just get to know each other, ask questions.
So how can you also package an experience with multiple components? One might be a bit more formal like the panel. One might be that doesn’t require a video that is just the we’re going to post this prompt and interact with it and reply and add resources. And another at the end of the week to unpack, to problem solve and to maybe build some energy around it. So again, it’s not just these tent pole big events anymore in digital spaces, we need to build them out so it also meets learners in a variety of ways in which they’re comfortable and they feel like they can show up in different modalities.
Interaction opportunities, I think I’ve shared this before it also talks about committing to those comments that you get even in DMs are important with your digital communities but use some of these tools that different spaces have like asking questions, creating prompts, have some kind of systematic way that the members start to anticipate, “Oh, every Wednesday they’re going to do this live stream or every Thursday they’re going to do this competition.” That also can be building consistency and trust within your community as well.
One example within this interactive example is this summer Radford University used a Discord server to expand their orientation beyond again just the video and they had different channels in their Discord server that was based on different interests, roommate matching, and a few other ones again that I’ll list in the notes of this episode that I thought was an interesting way to again build out beyond just what the typical orientation sessions would be later into the evening. So Bravo to them.
Okay. We are halfway through. We are on to digital communities must be inclusive, not need, not should, not it would be nice. We need to work extremely hard to be inclusive in all places and spaces but digitally especially we may not be able to read the room in physical ways like we used to. And so, this is everything from making sure your content is accessible to all of your community, making sure from color contrast to alt texts, to descriptions that your graphics aren’t just packed in with all this copy on a graphic that isn’t accessible whatsoever. And it also is just super overwhelming. It also means thinking from different perspectives other than your own. And as we think about our marginalized identity, our [inaudible 00:29:01] or LGBTQIA individuals how they might feel in different spaces that they see a representation of themselves in these spaces whether if it’s the photos in your Instagram feed to the moderators of your Facebook group those visuals can matter. But also tapping into them and ensuring that we’re trying to expand representation the best that we can.
We also got to consider the quirks of online communication, how we can make our interactions again more accessible and interpreting the internet sometimes it’s a challenge and you may not know what that emoji means, you may not understand that the use of that GIF actually had further layers than you had realized or the meme you suggested folks to create again came with a little bit more weight than you may have realized. So knowing yourself, your own strengths and your knowledge of the internet in ways that you might need to educate yourself a bit and ensure that again your moderators, your team that you’re including to create these digital communities, you can provide and educate yourself as well as others to make sure what you’re putting out in these digital spaces is aligned.
Lastly, we’ve got to recognize that our students for example, our parents or whoever these digital communities are for, they’re coming in various stages of vulnerability, and this might affect how they show up in digital spaces. And I know right now especially those that are tasked full time with managing social for big institutional accounts they are the front lines of the internet, they are getting it from all sides. And my heart and hugs go out to you because their frustrations with registration to you just canceled us moving back onto campus or I already know my courses aren’t going to be great online that then is going to impact how they interact with your digital content potentially. And so, keeping that empathetic lens and encouraging dialogue to see what’s actually going on with them beyond just the comments they may have left for you in a post.
We can debate then as you are a moderator well what is civil? What’s civility? What’s incivility? What’s a professional? What’s unprofessional. We have to release those terms a little bit. Now, of course there are terms and guidelines in digital spaces like if something is straight-up harassment, other types of behaviors that no you should absolutely not stand for. But I think right now we should all approach each other with a bit of patience with potential imperfections including for yourself. We’re really role modeling along the way every minute of the way and we might need to educate our communities just as much as we are trying to be in dialogue with them. They might just need a space to unpack. And so their communication might come in a Twitter thread that’s directed at you but maybe in a DM they just actually need a phone call and offering that or an access point to unpack would be very, very helpful.
Which that leads me into the last part of this framework for building digital communities and that is the intent to create a space that is going to make a difference, that it is going to make an impact, that we have the belief that this is possible. By creating these spaces we are creating learning outcomes and strategies and means to reach goals that we already had this whole time. Impactful communities are what you get when you are intentional, when you’ve built in opportunities for interaction and you prioritize being inclusive.
I believe in this stuff and I believe that obviously this is so tough. I am not overlooking and also that the internet is not perfect but what we do in these digital spaces have an impact both on how our perspective students and families look at our institutions but also our current students or anyone we’re serving. There are moments and things we can do in digital spaces that will make a positive impact on them for years to come.
So how do you measure it though? How do you know? Well, you might just get anecdotal feedback quickly from a comment on a post to a thread that you see in a Facebook prompt that you list in your Facebook group. But I do encourage you to already have some set scheduled times when you know you’re going to be capturing metrics and data.
Quantitatively as we think about these digital spaces we have some tools already built in or at your disposal. Yay. We can track things like followers, subscribers, connections, average likes, shares, comments, those kinds of data points are helpful. But also think beyond that as we look at qualitative ways, comments, polls, Q and A’s DMs that you get, those are all things you potentially could both capture as quotes but also code that collectively to see what themes you can find.
Now, Brigham Young University, BYU, their Instagram stories, well their entire Instagram account I would highly recommend you follow. But I would ask you to pay attention what they’re doing in stories and it’s not just recently, it’s been years now. John McBride over there who’s their director. They are doing community takeovers whether it’s students or faculty and they are hitting all four of this framework. And especially with this impactful piece they obviously get a lot of data on the backend to report out on but they are also looking at the replies, the shares and the messages they get back as sources of data. We want to be able to document the impact from your weekly report, to your end of the year summary, to a proposal maybe to document why you might need more support and funding to continue a digital community, to make it even bigger and better, we’re going to need this type of arsenal in our toolkit.
I hope those four I’s will be helpful for you, the framework of building digital communities, especially for our campuses and especially for college students. I would love to hear of digital communities that you’re part of that you think are hitting on these or the ones that you think have so much potential or ideas that you have for digital communities. Again, it doesn’t have to be in one container of a Facebook group or a Slack channel, it can live at anywhere as long as you have the intention behind it.
Thanks so much for checking out this episode. I sure hope you enjoyed it. I sure enjoyed logging back in and talking to myself today with the knowledge that you also are hopefully listening out there. If you did enjoy it, I would be so appreciative if you gave me a little review on iTunes, just a simple stars or give me a couple of quotes. That is super, super helpful to get the podcast out to more people. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss any future episodes and they are coming at you almost every single week for the next few months.
Make sure you’re subscribed to the podcast so you don’t miss any future episodes and make sure you share it with your colleagues, friends, family, and followers. Join the conversation online by tweeting at me at Josie Ahlquist and the podcast has a Twitter account too at Josie AT podcasts. Remember everything I talked about today with those show notes can be found at my website Josieahlquist.com/thepodcast. If you’re interested in learning more about my speaking and consulting work on digital engagement and leadership check me out at Josie ahlquist.com. Thank you again to my Campus Sonar family who is the sponsor of this podcast. You can find those amazing humans and their much-needed services at campussonar.com. Sending digital hugs, loves, and waves to whatever corner of the world you’re listening in from this has been Josie and the podcast.