Community-building for the future: An interview with Ilker Akansel
Ilker Akansel is a community builder and strategist based in Istanbul, Turkey. Over the last several years, he has gained invaluable insight into community building and business strategy, having worked at large organizations to the likes of Google, Cisco, the London Olympics, and Bogazici University in Istanbul.
Today, he brings this wealth of knowledge to a large host of international clients, helping them excel in community management, building, and strategy. Panion had the opportunity to talk with him about his journey and what he has learned. He also shares with us his top tips, advice, and pointers for community builders to make the most of their communities in the future.
When did you first get involved in community building?
After a few years of managing technical projects and operations in logistics, and then an interesting time at Google managing Google Maps’ Street View operations in Europe, I found myself applying for a job at the 2012 London Olympic Games to manage a fleet of cars that would transport officials, athletes, and guests.
This fleet of cars was to be driven by Olympic volunteers. The job taught me how to train, enthuse and motivate the volunteers to deliver a stellar service in one of the biggest global events. All this, with literally no room for error, as the entire world would be watching – all while being compensated with nothing other than an experience of a lifetime!
Seeing people commit voluntarily to doing something so difficult and important while feeling such belonging was a very impressive thing to witness, and that’s where I felt the power of being a ‘community’ for the first time. Several jobs followed the Olympics, but that impact never left me, and I really believe that it was a factor when I accepted an offer back at Google to coordinate their developer communities in Turkey, Central Asia, and the Caucasus in 2018.
The job at Google was a wonderful opportunity in applying what I had learned at the Olympics and other jobs. It also helped me to hone the community building and management skills that I use today at my own community strategy consultancy practice that has been in operation since 2020. Mine is quite possibly the first such practice in Turkey, supported by another first that I had started in the region that is CMX Connect Istanbul, a chapter of the global CMX Connect network and the first community of community management professionals in the country.
One of your interests is entrepreneurship. How do you connect this concept with community building? How do innovation and entrepreneurship benefit from community building?
Such a great question! Just like marketing and entrepreneurship, the concept of community – and its relationship with entrepreneurship – existed long before all these words and concepts were conceived and developed.
A community exists wherever people are and when there is something in common that connects them. As far as companies are concerned, customers, employees, and suppliers thrive massively when they are treated as a community. To that end, it is no surprise to see that both established companies and startups have now realized the power of communities, and utilize brand and talent communities – two of the most talked-about community types these days – to get product or service feedback, extend company functions such as customer support, determine future product or service offerings, and finally to have access to a pool of talent with the right skills and motivation to bring the company forward.
Additionally, being an entrepreneur has a very important dimension that is very much magnified by being a community: sharing ideas and experiences. Trying new things, taking risks, learning from failures, and trying, again and again, are all part and parcel of entrepreneurship, and so is sharing these experiences with fellow entrepreneurs. A tight-knit community of entrepreneurs is a wonderful thing for any ecosystem to have towards the creation of this collective advantage.
Keeping that in mind, what is some advice you could give to aspiring community managers?
Community management (in the context of business) is suffering from the same issues that project management suffered just a few decades ago: many management layers or fellow business functions are seeing community management as a separate, ‘nice-to-have function that functions separately from other parts of the business. This misunderstanding was ditched only recently. A community that is connected in any way, shape, or form to a business cause or function, cannot be treated separately from the other parts of the business or its strategy.
A community cannot be managed as a silo or a hermetically sealed function inside a company; it needs to be fed by and connected to all parts of the business, as the community can otherwise not create value for both members and the sponsoring organization effectively. So, the challenge is on my fellow community professionals to instill awareness on the power and advantages of building a community before anything – if you can achieve this buy-in, strategizing, building, and maintaining the community will be much, much easier.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced managing a community and how did you overcome them?
Expect that any job or task that is built around interactions and engagements between human beings to be unique, complicated, and very difficult to put into rules, processes and systems. Community management teaches you how to be patient, how to ask the right questions, listen, and receive feedback, I was fortunate in that I really like spending time with people: hearing about their expectations from a community, and showing them how being in a community can help them achieve their personal goals. But the remaining requirements as above do need some mileage as a community professional to perform properly. However; there is very little that fairness, transparency, humility, and willingness to learn and improve cannot overcome, and these skills are quickly acquired when you have the community on your side!
What are your top three tips to increase involvement in a community?
The first tip is to study and understand the reason why members are present in the community. Some time ago, I came across an interesting study, conducted by Gil Clary and Mark Snyder in the late 90s, that focused on understanding the motivations of volunteerism. The authors of the study came up with a ‘Volunteer Functions Inventory’ where six motivations (including career, social and personal development, among others) are identified as the main factors behind a volunteer contribution. Translated into community management, your community’s members will have their own motivations to join and stay in the community, so make sure that you talk to them, in one-to-one or ‘unconference’ settings if possible and have an open-door policy, and you’ll be so surprised by the insights you’ll hear!
In cases where you are to lead big, large communities where it’s not feasible to talk to a large section of members, you can make assumptions on community personas. You may see this tip to be ‘common-sense’, but it is surprisingly often overlooked as both community teams and sponsoring organizations become engulfed in their own strategies and objectives, and forget that the members are in a community to get quite specific benefits out of it - let’s not forget that a well-functioning community delivers value for all parties involved, and once you understand what members really want, and organize engagements around these specific needs in mind, you’ll see that members will immediately spring into action!
The second tip is about trust and delegation of responsibility, and that is to be able to identify and empower the community members with the potential to carry responsibility, give them the motivation, trust, and resources that they would need to make an impact in the community.
Lastly, the third tip. It’s all very well to distribute swag, but a community is never about the ‘swag’, it is about ‘experience’ and ‘belonging’. In my opinion, prizes and other recognitions for good involvement and engagement are things that money can’t buy. For example, Google brings their most active developer members to their famous I/O event - a global tech conference that is already an expensive outing with tickets costing thousands of US dollars and so popular that it is sold out every year, and would-be attendees have to enter a ballot even if they have the funds to attend. On the other hand, Google extends the most active and impactful developer community members an invitation to attend the I/O and gives them the priceless opportunity to meet the Googlers who are behind the very tools and platforms that they use.
How do you see the future of community building in the context of changing technology and the ‘new normal’?
Everyone’s talking about community building these days. With building and maintaining the ‘invisible connections’ between people who were unable to get together in person became more important, the tools and platforms became much more capable and sophisticated almost overnight, with investment poured mainly out of necessity.
I recently read an article by Rory Cellan-Jones of BBC that examined what would have happened if the pandemic hit the World in 2005 instead of 2020. I vividly remember those times when I used to live in Manchester in the UK, spending ridiculous amounts on phone bills just to stay in contact with my family in Turkey and looking at options in keeping in touch with drivers of commercial fleets around Europe at work - it was a real challenge as options were very limited with no mobile 3G/4G networks or smart devices available.
When I sit down and compare how it was before and after the arrival of the ‘new normal’, I feel that the need for the developments in communication technologies that appear to be pushed by the ‘new normal’ was always there. I remember that, well before the pandemic, community organizers would attempt to stream their events through their social media platforms to broaden the reach, and communities would miss out on so many great speakers, as they were either not available or unable to travel to the event for a host of reasons. And, in terms of the community builders, we had only a few tools to measure attendance and engagement other than a crude count of attendees, and we now have some of the most capable tools and platforms ever built, providing the minutest detail on engagements, activities, and even cutting-edge sentiment analysis and predictions to tell us about the health of our communities.
The ‘new normal’ forced us to change how we lead our lives, and also the way we perceive many things such as ‘work’, ‘office’, and of course ‘communities’. Remote and asynchronous, delivery-based working and communications are now things many professionals and organizations are now very familiar with (I recommend reading Four Hour Working Week by Tim Ferriss to see how alien these concepts were back in the 2000s!), and these changes gave communities massive power to reach audiences and speakers from virtually all corners of the world in turn.
I agree that online events or platforms can never replace in-person events and engagement, but an interesting side effect of the difficult times that we’re all going through has been that communities, and their leaders, builders and managers, now have access to social media platforms and cloud-based event tools and capabilities that are still inexpensive but with great abilities to help them reach and the impact people. We just haven’t mastered how to use these tools to their full potential yet, but you really can’t beat communities and community managers in helping each other learn and adapt to anything!
At Panion, we’re inspired by the community managers, builders, and strategists that are shaping our industry today. If you’re also feeling inspired by Ilker, be sure to have a look at more conversations with industry leaders on our blog page, and stay tuned for future interviews! To discover more about Ilker and his journey in community building, be sure to follow him on Twitter.