Community Bonsai (a Metaphor) – Part Two: The Trunk Line

Part two of a three-part series where we are using “A Beginner’s First Bonsai” by Brent Walston as a muse for thinking about managing an online community. See parts one and three.

In this continuing reading of that post, let’s talk about VIP programs as viewed through the lens of bonsai:

“One of the first things you will notice is that all of them have a definite trunk line. It usually will be a single trunk, but sometimes there will be a dominant trunk and a secondary trunk. Rarely will there be more than two trunks except for group or forest styles. … One of your first tasks will be to find a trunk line. … It most likely will not be straight but rather curved with flowing movement.”

A community’s core members are like that trunk, the binding structure of the community that holds it together. It is your job, as a community professional, to find the trunk line and nourish and strengthen it. Look for people who are supporting the community, answering questions and welcoming new members. These supporters will help bind the entire community together.

There are ways to nourish the core member trunk line. Often it’s as simple as acknowledging their presence and recognizing their value to you and the community. Depending on the situation, you may want to provide other incentives, such as schwag or access to product. Be creative, but do be careful about demotivating your users with too many extrinsic rewards. Alfie Kohn has effected fascinating research on the topic in “Punished by Rewards” (1993), as have Randy Farmer and Bryce Glass in “Building Web Reputation Systems” (2010).

As with bonsai, keep in mind that you may be required to trim trunk lines on occasion. Someone who, at one point, may have been the pillar of the community could change. It’s been said that the only constant in life is change, which translates to the need for careful vigilance by community managers. Addressing a former trunk line supporter who has become a poisoning influence is a hard action to take, but it is a vital one. If the trunk line becomes poisoned, this can spread to the branches and kill the community.

Next up: Death