Building Community During and Between Virtual Programs

What do we mean by online community? I’m referring to the group of people — oftentimes local, regional, and global — who have shared interests that motivate them to engage with your museum online, through programs and other content.

Building Community During and Between Virtual Programs

This article is adapted and condensed from the presentation “Fostering Your Museum’s Online Community” for MuseumNext’s Digital Summit in June 2022. Drawing on research Gather has done over the past 2 years and our experience working with museums and lifelong learning institutions, we shared 8 tactics you can use to begin building community online now, both during your live programs and between them. Some of these are strategies you may already be using, but knitting them together into an intentional sequence will help you build more lasting and deeper relationships with your online community.

What do we mean by online community? I’m referring to the group of people — oftentimes local, regional, and global — who have shared interests that motivate them to engage with your museum online, through programs and other content. They have a desire to learn and connect with others, including peers, artists, scientists, and staff, and find joy and inspiration, or respite and solace. The last few years have increasingly provided opportunities for them — wherever they may be located — to spend time together, in a virtual space convened by your museum. If you’ve been hosting or participating in online programs, you’ve experienced how vibrant an hour can be when there’s an active chat, responses from the speakers and hosts, and a feeling that something different or new was created in that hour than what existed before. How is your museum enabling that community to be sustained when the program is over?

Let’s begin with what happens during the program, which is where online community building often starts.

Welcoming, valuing, and centering participants’ input is one of the first and most important ways you can begin building community in your online programs. One simple tactic can be hosting your program in the meeting format and allowing your audiences to unmute so they can ask and answer each others’ questions, creating a peer-to-peer dialogue as opposed to a Q&A with the speaker alone. Laura Flusche, Executive Director of the Museum of Design Atlanta, shared an anecdote from a program MODA hosted with a typographic designer:

“There were a lot of students on the call — graphic design students — and they jumped in and started asking for advice. And then the professional designers on the call started giving advice and providing resources and helping the students figure out where they could go to find out what they needed to know…An important piece of that is allowing the audience to unmute and speak, which we try to do as often as we can so it feels less like we’re broadcasting and more like we’re having a conversation.”

Of course, before enabling audiences to unmute you should ensure you have a plan for safety and harm reduction in place and are able to respond quickly and appropriately if necessary.

Another barrier to inviting active participation during programs is the sense of responsibility or authority the organizer has over the program direction and outcomes, and vulnerability in letting go of some of that control.

Rebecca Harmsen, Volunteer Services Specialist at the Museum of Flight, told me about how she kept the museum’s community of 500 volunteers engaged throughout the museum’s closure and since. In 2020, she began hosting regular virtual volunteer gatherings that followed the traditional formats she was accustomed to, but she found herself loosening control over the program structure in order to make space for participants’ contributions and interests.

“There is that fear of flexibility and not having a script in front of you…I like my script, [and] I had to learn that’s not what [the community] needs. …They don’t want to sit back and listen, because honestly they could just watch TV, and it’s kind of the same experience. They want to be able to engage, and so Q&A became a very important part of every single one of our programs, that connection beforehand, giving people time to share their thoughts and talk with the speaker one-on-one as more people are coming in, and ask questions during the presentation as well….As we went along, the structure decreased every time we offered a program.”

In response to what the volunteers tended to engage with the most, she expanded the programming beyond the traditional constraints of in-gallery programs to include book clubs, movie discussions, and trivia, and invited volunteers — or even their family members — to share their own personal, powerful stories. In doing so, she allowed programming to spring from participants’ interests and talents, making it more sustainable for her and enabling her community to get to know each other in new ways.

When you’re making space for and actively listening to what your audience has to say and what they can contribute, you can expand from asking “how can we make meaningful connections with our collection?” to “how can we make meaningful connections between people?”

This is what Jennifer Yee, Associate Director of Public Programs at the Guggenheim, and Laili Amighi, Associate Manager of Public Programs, asked themselves when they launched the museum’s first online courses in 2020. They designed courses as multisession experiences to allow learners to build comfort and familiarity, and found that more people participated more frequently. Their success in building community online is now influencing how they invite re-engagement and participation in their in-person programs. They explained:

“We transitioned the course model to a multisession experience just seeing that within the online space there is already a distance between people and the educators and the community environment because everything is mediated through the screen and it’s easy to get distracted and be a little more distant from the content.” —Laili Amighi

“A lot of participants are joining the courses for the experience…That lens makes me question how we’re building relationships with our audiences [onsite]….In thinking about our more traditional public programs work, how are we creating programmatic experiences that have some consistency and recognizability to them?” —Jennifer Yee

Offering meaningful opportunities for participants to connect before, after, and in-between programs is also key to building community. Some of the most straightforward tactics are asking your audiences to submit advance questions in a communal conversation space, or sharing a question that primes participants to think about and respond to the program topic ahead of time.

Many museums send post-program emails to thank participants for joining and ask for their feedback in a survey. Additional simple tactics you can use are: sending post-program reflection questions, or sharing one or two key related resources from your museum’s content archive that make it easy for participants to continue exploring their interests with you. If your program lent itself to hands-on making, invite them to share an image of what they made. If you plan to share a recording, consider breaking it up into shorter video or audio content or quotes to create lightweight entry points for those who missed the program live. There’s an excellent MuseumNext presentation by MyseumToronto on this topic called “Getting more out of your livestream content.”

In Gather, we’ve prioritized this kind of community sharing by helping our partners bring together their live programs with their on-demand content, such as videos, readings, and activities, as well as create asynchronous community conversation spaces. Together, these extend the experience of connecting and learning in live programs. In the same space in which participants register for a program, they discover content that primes them for the event and enables them to stay connected afterwards in the community, where they can share reflections, questions, and images with each other.

My MODA, from the Museum of Design Atlanta and Gather

A great example of this strategy in action is in the Gather-hosted online community space of Academic Innovation for the Public Good, organized by Stanford Digital Education and Trinity College with cosponsors from 17 other universities and colleges. A series of monthly book talks act as tentpole events that draw new participants with shared interests in higher education equity and innovation into their online community space. Before and after the live events, they invite participants to engage through, for example, an asynchronous Q&A or by making and sharing a drawing from Sarah Stein Greenberg’s book Creative Acts for Curious People before the author’s recent book talk.

Critically, it’s in exactly these peer-to-peer relationships that online communities have the potential to make online engagement — and managing online engagement — become more sustainable. By providing lighter weight but nonetheless meaningful opportunities for community members to connect outside of live programs, you create more digital touch points and conversations that can organically grow. That lessens the burden on the institution to act as the sole source and prompt for new activity, while still being able to serve as the convener of that community. Though there’s a consensus in many institutions that virtual programming should continue in some form, after 2 years of incredible experimentation with virtual programming, staff are exhausted and stretched thin. The urgent question then is not whether to continue virtual programming but how to balance virtual and in-person programs, in ways that are sustainable for staff and budgets, and right sized to current audience interest levels. Balancing asynchronous and live engagement in an online community space may point toward a solution.

At this point, the Gather team is often asked about the time and resources that are required to moderate a community conversation. It’s helpful to frame what kind of ongoing engagement and conversations a museum can expect to manage in a community space. Fostering an online community is inherently different from developing an audience on social media and the always-on engagement and response that can demand. Rather than bringing people back in multiple times per day, or daily, or even weekly, our design intent is to support quality opportunities for meaningful engagement. We aim to enable community members to stay connected when they are most motivated or have the greatest interest, which is often in the days after a program but can also be at more periodic times in their lives. With the goal being learning over time together, moderating looks very different in this context.

Strategically, providing more quality digital touch points can help you ladder participants up to membership or retain existing members, and building community loyalty can have downstream positive impacts on other revenue sources such as ticket purchases and store sales. At their best, however, online communities aren’t just transactional but experiential places, where the most meaningful value comes from the interactions and learning that are fostered through the community.

Thanks to Jim, Libby, and the MuseumNext team for the opportunity to present at the Digital Summit, and to each of the museum peers who generously shared their time and insights in the interviews excerpted above.

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Cover image credit: Friendship Quilt, Courtesy Anacostia Community Museum

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