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  • Dan Hinmon

Start Your Online Support Group on the Right Foot

There’s little incentive for your patients to join an online community with little activity. That’s why it’s critical to develop a vibrant community before you promote it.


Your first goal at the launch of a Facebook support group is to achieve a critical mass of activity. You’ll know you’ve reached critical mass when the community becomes self-sustaining.



We define self-sustaining as the point at which more than 50% of activity within the community is generated by the community, as opposed to being generated by the community manager. This high level of activity is reached by attracting members who become very active within the group.


But how do you develop this initial group of very active members?


A challenge with new communities is that there is less incentive to participate. There are few conversations, no archived information, and usually a limited amount of educational material. The benefits a community provides are much smaller when the community is in its early stages.


That’s why it’s so important to develop a strong group who are interested in being founders to start the community.


Depending on the type of community you are starting, a list of potential members could come from different sources. For instance, if you are starting a bariatric community, you could find enough patients preparing for or recovering from surgery to interview. The same could apply for a cancer patient community.


How to create your list of potential founding members


If you’re organizing a community for parents of children with serious illnesses, look for those who are already attending support groups, or who are involved in special events or projects.


If you’re organizing a community for caregivers for family members with dementia, put invitations to participate in internal medicine clinics, or ask doctors to refer, or put the word out on an open Facebook group.


Once you’ve identified 10-20 potential community members, take the time to interview them. This blogpost gives you a list of questions to start with. You’ll want to develop more of your own.


Give your founding members something to do


Your goal is to identify a core group to start the community, but for this approach to work, you can’t just provide lip service. The founders must have genuine opportunities to shape and influence the community. They need to participate in activities that benefit both the community and themselves and allow them to feel a sense of influence and ownership.


Some of the things your community founders can do include:

  • Promoting the site with peers.

  • Developing content for the community.

  • Helping to develop community rules and guidelines.

  • Participating in special events such as live chats, interviews, and offline events.

  • Starting and contributing to conversations on the platform.

  • Welcoming newcomers.

When you invite potential members to be founders in the community, tell them the specific ways you expect them to contribute. Emphasize how critical their role will be to the success of the community. Thank them for their contributions.


Here are some tactical steps to start your community.

  • A nurse, social worker or program manager invites potential members to be interviewed.

  • The interviewer asks enough questions to identify if the patient is willing to be a founding member of the community.

  • When contacts agree to be founders, the community manager provides a specific list of responsibilities for the founder to perform in the community.

  • Community manager initiates conversations and encourages founders to participate.

  • Community manager works with founders to develop a content calendar for the community.

  • Community manager encourages founders to develop content.

It is essential that all of this happen BEFORE you announce the community to the public or do any kind of promotion for the community. The worst possible scenario is for people to visit a community where there is little or no activity. They’ll likely never come back.


What is the benchmark for moving forward?


When you have 25 or more members who are participating in community conversations 1-5 days a week, it’s time to move to the next step — promoting your community.