Community Dialogue project: fly-bottle

What I learned about building a community

It all began with a pattern. Knowing my background in philosophy, several people approached me to learn more about the subject because they didn’t know where to start. To them, philosophy was daunting. Yet each conversation was rich and exciting, and they took to philosophical inquiry like fish to water. I found myself wondering,

“What would it be like if we were all able to have a conversation? What would such a community look like?”

The first community conversation I had took place on 31 July, with a small group comprising of some friends who had approached me previously. By 3 August, the first newsletter was released and our Facebook group was created. I’m happy to report that our first community meetup took place on 1 September and the next one is currently in the works!

I am unspeakably excited about project: fly-bottle and have learned so much in the 1+ month since its launch. In retrospect, much of the process has been influenced by aspects of the Lean Startup methodology and Design Thinking — two protocols that I learned while running entrepreneurship modules in my school.

Process: Building the fly-bottle community
Process: Building the fly-bottle community

Stage 1: Observe and Analyse

“Is there need or demand for a community?”

I mentioned earlier that it all began with a pattern: individuals asking about philosophy. Some of these individuals knew each other, but were not engaging in conversations about philosophy with each other because they didn’t know of mutual interest or they believed that they needed guidance from someone who knew the subject.

Over months of observation, mostly due to the ad-hoc nature of conversations with friends and acquaintances, a few questions kept recurring:

  • This is the field that I work in… are there any relevant philosophical insights/concepts that I can learn from?
  • What’s the relevance of philosophy in real life?
  • How do I use philosophy to help me think clearly?
  • Where do I begin?

Evidently, people weren’t interested in becoming experts or philosophy professors. They just wanted something that made philosophy more accessible.

But philosophy’s value doesn’t just lie in concepts you can learn. Dialogue is invaluable in philosophical investigation regardless of expertise as alternative perspectives can really be insightful. How could I share what I knew and scale up the 1:1 conversations I was having?

Moving from 1:1 to a community conversation

Stage 2: Ideation

“Who is my community?”

“What would such a community look like”

“How do I best engage my community?”

Sustainability was a big consideration for me in building the fly-bottle community because

(i) I have a full-time job, and

(ii) building communities is a commitment — you can’t just bow out when you feel like it.

Further, my personal philosophy about education is that it should be learner-centric and progressive.

This narrowed down the suitable platforms significantly. Running classes and workshops were not feasible because I needed to manage this alone (for now). Neither were webinars because the project needed to spark conversations within the community as well as with me. A combination of a blog or newsletter and a social platform seemed best. That way, community members could learn some philosophy and see how it related to real life, and have a platform to engage. I started a group chat and went to the ‘proto-community’ with some ideas:

Checking with the ‘proto-community’
Verifying feasibility! Yes!

The feedback was amazing and very encouraging. This was 31 July.

A bit more reflection lent some direction to this project:

  • The material needed to be accessible, so as little jargon as possible and large chunks of text were to be avoided.
  • Content needed to spark conversation or (at least) reflection, so the project needed to ask more questions than it answered.
  • The community did not need to be restricted to people who wanted to learn. What about the people who have done some philosophy and wanted to just talk about stuff?

Stage 3: Build & Ship

“What’s the best community engagement platform?”

I started with a newsletter because that’s the easiest way to get the information to the community. They didn’t need to change their behaviour. They’d just receive the newsletter when they checked their inbox, which they already do!

The first newsletter was a simple affair. It comprised 3 progressive sections, each increasing in difficulty, and ended with a question of the week. It didn’t need to be fancy or flashy. I just needed to ship it. It was sent out on 3 August.

Unsolicited positive feedback is great encouragement!
Unsolicited positive feedback is great encouragement!

Simultaneously, I approached some friends from my Masters course and they were really keen to revisit the good ol’ conversations. That same day, the Facebook group was set up.  

Stage 4: Engage and Iterate

“What does the community want?”

“How can I better serve them?”

Conversations happened rather organically in the Facebook group, but were dominated by those more familiar with philosophy at first. This is not to say that those who were unfamiliar weren’t engaged. Quick checks with them revealed that they were listening and learning, but uncomfortable with sharing their ideas at first. So, some conversations occurred simultaneously in smaller chats.

Along the way, I checked in with individuals for feedback and implemented suggestions by the next newsletter.

For example, one community member said she enjoyed the use of fun images, like comics, and suggested incorporating more questions instead of having just one big question. (See Issue #3 for reference)




By the next issue, more guiding questions were added and GIFs were incorporated too!

Also, while I didn’t think that the community was large enough for a meetup, some members were very keen on the idea. So, a small group of us met up on 1 September. In the spirit of a community-driven initiative, the discussion topic was also proposed by a member 🙂 We didn’t finish the conversations, by the way, and will be continuing in the next meetup.

Lessons Learned

1. Listen, listen, listen.

Find out what your community wants and needs. It’s about them, after all. Do so passively, by observing what’s happening. And do so actively, by asking for feedback and insights and listening to it.

Through this, I learned that some members were uncomfortable with the level of expertise of other members, and felt daunted. My bad! So I stepped in to form a middle ground. Listening also led to the discovery that some people weren’t receiving the newsletter. A quick check showed that the emails were being redirected to the spam folder. The matter has since been rectified, as far as I can tell, but I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t check.

2. Empathise.

Remember what it was like to be a community member. Who is your community member? What is it like to be in that position? The meetup was intentionally kept small as I wanted the opportunity to give members a chance to speak (in addition to the Facebook group). And boy, did they engage! Conversation flowed organically and one of them even messaged me after to thank me for the opportunity to share their views.

Post-meetup text from a community member
Post-meetup text from a community member. (P.S. It was related!!)

3. Iterate and do so quickly.

The product or content or strategy does not have to be perfect. I’ve learned that it’s good to have a plan and a direction, and changes to that plan are not necessarily bad. It’s not about you, so don’t feel insulted that your work has room for improvement. It is about the community, after all. And don’t you learn through the process? Do what’s best for them and do it quickly. Then try again the next time. Why spend a month thinking about a massive overhaul when you can start making changes tomorrow? The goal is still to benefit the community.

4. Work within your own means.

Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Community engagement is a marathon, not a sprint. If you burn out quickly, it’s the community that suffers, isn’t it?

5. Want to do a meetup? Do it!

If you have a passionate and engaged community, chances are, they’ll be really excited to find kindred spirits and like minded folk. Start small if you must, but do it. Conversation between community members has picked up after the meetup, and I think it’s because excitement is infectious!

Looking forward

Building the fly-bottle community has been such an enriching experience for me, that I’d love to share more lessons I’ve learned along the way. Some ideas for posts are: the twin roles of analysis and synthesis in community management, and how to select tools and platforms for community engagement and content management. All of these will be filed under ‘Community’ so do check back if you are interested!

Finally, if any of this has piqued your curiosity about the fly-bottle community and project: fly-bottle newsletter, you can check out past issues here or subscribe here 🙂

Hope you found this useful! I’d love to hear your thoughts/comments 🙂 Drop me a message at the project: fly-bottle blog or tweet at me (@stephe_lee)!

*Names of community members have been redacted in screenshots at their request 🙂

Community Dialogue

How to build meaningful relationships with your community

I participated in a #bufferchat earlier this week and thoroughly enjoyed discussing community with, well, the bufferchat community. Aside from being immersed in positivity, encouragement, and great insight throughout the 1-hour Twitter chat, the experience got me thinking about the concept of community in whole new ways. (See, that’s why dialogue and conversations are so important.)

One of the interesting chat questions was about determining goals for community efforts, and my first response was: listen, align, then respond.

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But the further question is:

How should we respond?


I think we know quite well that how you say things matters as much as what you say. Perhaps even more. In fact, what you say could be totally lost on someone if you don’t say it the right way. As I was toying with this question in my mind, Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages popped into my mind.


Wait! Don’t run away!


What I’m discussing has nothing to do with romance and everything to do with interpersonal connection.

You can communicate with your community, and you can communicate with individuals that make up your community.

Consider what it’d be like if we took the additional step to communicate with someone in a way that they’re naturally receptive to. I think we can agree that the same action may not be perceived in exactly the same light by 2 people. That’s where a taxonomy like Chapman’s could come in handy. (This is just a framework. Suggest other alternatives in the comments below or on twitter!)


(Love Languages + Community Efforts) = ?

Chapman’s 5 Love Languages are basically the 5 ways that people typically express love and understand expressions of love:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Receiving Gifts
  • Acts of Service
  • Quality Time
  • Physical Touch

He claims that we subconsciously prefer some Love Languages over others and those are the ones we understand best.

Let’s substitute “express love” with “communication” or “dialogue”, and look at these Love Languages as ways to communicate with someone in the language they are most familiar with.

While Physical Touch may be a little, ahem, controversial for community efforts, the other 4 may inform a community manager in interesting ways:


Words of Affirmation

Ever had that warm, fuzzy feeling when someone compliments you or just says that you’re a great human being? That’s what Words of Affirmation are about. Some people favor this language so much more than, say, Acts of Service, that a simple “Thank you” or “I’m glad to have you in my life!” goes a longer way than cleaning their room for them. In community, communicating through Words of Affirmation would manifest in telling your community how much you appreciate them. It’s that simple. Just reaching out with a quick Thank You note can make someone feel really special and puts the both of you in a positive space.

Receiving Gifts

This one’s pretty clear. People whose primary language is Receiving Gifts value the thought behind the gift they are receiving. To them, the physical gift is a symbol and testament that you care about them. Better yet if the gift reveals that you’ve paid attention to something they mentioned in passing, or that you understand what matters to them.

When it comes to your community, this could come in the form of personalized notes (a combo with Words of Affirmation — pow pow!) or sending people some swag. Buffer is really really good at this, and it’s even better since you know it’s not automated. The Community Champions behind these gifts really put heart into sending them out and the gifts aren’t necessarily the same! Authenticity counts.

Acts of Service

Do you know anyone whose favourite platitude is, “Actions speak louder than words”? Well, her preferred language is probably Acts of Service. When you do something for someone like that, she knows that she means something to you and that you appreciate her. Better yet if your act is something she hates doing or can’t do!

Community Managers, this could be as simple as recommending services or products to your community even if there’s nothing in it for you, like Buffer does. Or organising networking events for them. Perhaps it could be empowering individual employees to be a community champion in their own right.

I recently had a personal matter to attend to and had to cancel a trip. Now I did what all diligent travellers are told to do and I purchased travel insurance ahead of time. (This is only the second time I’ve had to use it, thankfully!) To claim the cost of my airfare, though, the insurance company insisted that I produce written confirmation from the airline that they will not refund my fare. Unfortunately, the official customer service channels were unresponsive. I tried to reach out to them multiple times online to no avail, so I paid a visit to the Sales Counter at the airport to seek help. Now, I was there really really early — before the counter even opened — and this could have turned out badly. But it didn’t.

Instead of turning me away, a really pleasant Guest Service Assistant listened to my sob story and offered to send an internal e-mail to the head office on my behalf. And she did. She also followed up and kept me updated with developments. While the matter hasn’t been resolved yet, I really appreciated that this lady went out of her way to help me even though this wasn’t in her job scope. That’s some good community relations right there.


Quality Time

‘Being there’ for someone is what quality time is about. It’s about being present with the person and spending the time meaningfully with him. By ‘meaningfully’, I mean that it is evident that you want to be there with him, not some place else. Trust me, people know when you’re not really there with them.

With community, efforts that appeal to Quality Time may not be as obvious. In my opinion, this manifests as any initiative that shows you are listening attentively to your community and that their voices are what matter. This could come in several forms:

  • Attentive communication on Support forums (instead of leaving them hanging for hours before you get back to them) (e.g. WordPress Support forums)
  • Twitter chats where you respond and affirm your community members individually — this shows that you hear and value their responses (e.g. #cochat, #bufferchat, #hootchat, #sproutchat, #TnTechChat)
  • Community Meetups
  • Responsiveness and engagement on your Facebook page
  • Speedy, patient, and pleasant customer service/support responses


Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 5.16.02 pm

Those are some examples off the top of my head, but I’m sure you can think of many more.


A great community strategy would benefit from a combination of the 4 languages to really connect with the different types that make up your community. This could complement the auditory-visual-kinesthetic preferences, which could also inform the kind of media employed. (Combination of podcasts, blog posts, webinars, and swag, anyone?)

It’s fascinating to think about this and doubly fascinating to pen this down in a post. Thank you to all the amazing community builders and managers, and customer service people that I’ve crossed paths with. I think people don’t thank and appreciate you guys nearly enough for the amount of effort that goes into your job.