I agree with everything that Hawk and Rich said and have a few things to add. First, I will clarify that I am referring specifically to a community of circumstance as our health-related communities are (people diagnosed with a condition, facing end of life, caring for someone at end of life, coping with loss and grief).
In my opinion you have 3 distinct groups. The names you apply to them can be modified to suit your community, but I would describe them, and your relationship with them, as such:
1. Volunteers/seed members/mentors - As Rich states in point #3 of his post, you should establish a strong relationship with people you want to participate in the community. At the end of life stage this is challenging. I was able to recruit mentors from hospice/palliative care volunteers. At Virtual Hospice, we have strong relationships with several organizations whose existence depends on volunteers. I held workshops with self-selected volunteers who were interested in taking their volunteerism online. I introduced them to the platform (before it was launched), they signed up and made their first posts in the workshop, and gave us feedback for improvement. We talked about the difference and similarities between their in person work and how that may translate online. As you know much of hospice work is non-verbal. Some people questioned how they could just “be present” and journey with someone who is dying and/or grieving online as they did in person. After a workshop, usually about 50% of the participants felt they were not suited to participate (but remained advocates and told their clients about the community). Of the 50% who said they would participate, only 20% actually became dedicated mentor members. I worked very closely with this group to build activity before expanding my outreach to new members.
Next, I had to ensure that new members - people who were in need of support and information - joined the community so that the mentor group would be fulfilled in their need to help for that is what motivated them to participate.
2. Core Members These are the members that evolve from within the community. While you can’t predict who will become a core member, they are easily identified as they participate in the community. They feel committed to the community and their online behaviour often describes the role they wish to assume. This is not unique to communities of circumstance and there is plenty of advice to be found about motivation and developing core groups on FeverBee.
3 Clinical Experts This is a unique group. You should consider what may motivate them to participate and determine how you wish to engage them. In an earlier model of Virtual Hospice clinical nurses were the moderators. But this resulted in a Ask the Expert model and not a community. A online public query would be made, the nurse would give a fulsome answer, and the person would leave satisfied - no conversation, no community. Now we have Discussion Forums for peer-to-peer support and Ask a Professional for private queries to a professional palliative team. This is the model the team decided upon, however I see many other possibilities where you could integrate peer-to-peer and professional-lay interaction. Find out what motivates your clinical members. Ask them to participate in a way that suits them, for example time limited online Q&A on a particular topic, a webinar, live chat, a blog. Find a champion who models the behaviour you’d like other professionals to take.
I would recommend that you establish an environment where the experiential (peer-to-peer, patient to patient, caregiver to caregiver) is valued as much as the clinical. The clinical expertise tends to shut down conversations. Give workshops to your clinical staff on how online support may differ from their clinical situations (more social worker-esque, less physician-like).
The most important element for success for Virtual Hospice has been speed of response. We have a lousy (pathetic) notification system for new posts, so they often go un-noticed. This is why I rely heavily on my relationship with mentors and core members to welcome new members. No first post goes unanswered. Ever.
I look forward to continuing this conversation.