Take thousands of people all over the world devoted to peacebuilding and international collaboration, put them together in a community and what do you get? The Peace and Collborative Development Network (PCDN). Founded by Dr. Craig Zelizer in 2007, PCDN has been uniting both job seekers and esteemed professionals in social development fields to help make the world a better place. With a robust selection of resources and a self-maintained advertising program, PCDN is leading the way in its field. Dr. Zelizer took some time to speak with us about where the network has been and where it's going.
The Peace and Collaborative Development Network (PCDN) is the leading online global community of individuals and organizations working in peacebuilding, international development, and related fields. PCDN has over 30,000 registered members, over 300,000 hits per month, and 100,000 unique visitors. The PCDN membership is composed of individuals and organizations from around the world dedicated to a wide range of social change fields including peacebuiding, international development, humanitarian relief, and social entrepreneurship. Further, respected leaders in the peacebuilding field, who have more than two decades of applied experience in the nonprofit, consulting, and academic sectors, founded PCDN.
What was your biggest challenge in starting your community?
I have been doing online networking sites and similar listservs for over 15 years. I had always been seeking a platform such as Ning, as I tried many other companies and services (including hiring IT companies to do customized sites) and none were able to deliver a truly interactive, peer-networking platform. When I found Ning in 2007, I was delighted as it was the first time I saw a software platform that had the key features I wanted, was easy to use, affordable, was constantly adding new tools and innovations, and that truly cared about the community of network creators.
The biggest challenge I find is taking the time to create the solid content that will attract current and new members to constantly visit the PCDN platform. I made a central decision to create high quality content that would serve as a central resource for anyone in the field and to have content be the way to attract members and advertisers. It took a long time to reach a critical mass where PCDN achieved enough visibility and traffic that others started contributing their own meaningful content. In particular, we have created over 50 resources guides about different aspects of our field that have attracted thousands upon thousands of visitors. These guides include the best Meta job list and guide to careers, one on scholarships, and others on research and sectoral practice areas. We are continually adding new guides and this has become a key way to attract members. In addition, we also have thousands of blogs, forums, videos, photos, etc.
The other main challenge is finding the time to invest in building the network. As PCDN's revenue has slowly grown we have been able to hire our first employee (currently part/time but hopefully soon to be full time) and maybe another part-time person. This is providing the team that we need to truly scale up PCDN. Eventually we hope to reach 3-5 staff people.
What are some of your favorite stories or testimonials from community members?
We have countless testimonials and regularly solicit the community for feedback about what they like, what has been the impact of the network on their lives/organizations, and suggestions for what to improve.
In terms of concrete feedback, we have created several sections on the site with feedback. One is directed more at advertisers and has metrics from organizations that have advertised on PCDN. It is critical for us to have concrete metrics about the impact of advertising on PCDN and we are able to demonstrate that advertisers experience an increase in traffic that has ranged between 10 and 200% (the average is close to 25%).
In terms of members, I still do a lot of training and traveling around the world. One of my favorite experiences is that almost anywhere I go in the world to do work in peacebuilding (for example in Jordan or Italy where I have been the past year) I run into people who say PCDN has had the most incredible impact on their lives. It has helped countless individuals obtain scholarships, jobs, stay networked, stay informed about events and trends in the field, and much more.
Your network serves as a resource for academics, NGO organizers, job seekers, students, researchers, and more. How do you cater to the needs of these different audiences?
This is a challenge, but we do try to provide content relevant to all groups and I think have succeeded fairly well. We have developed resource guides for both individuals and organizations. We have conducted almost 30 interviews for the network with leading practitioners and scholars from around the world and try to vary who we seek to be of interest to as a diverse audience as possible.
You’ve successfully leveraged advertising on your network, pulling in some big advertisers. How did you develop your advertising program and specifications?
This has been a long, long process. For many years I ran PCDN as a volunteer effort. As it grew, I started using Google ads, which provided some revenue to help cover costs. Starting about a year and half ago, we decided to run our own advertising options and invested countless hours in researching the competition, developing a professionally designed media kit, developing a customer relationship management database, and determining realistic rates that could provide sufficient revenue to help us grow.
Most importantly, everyone on the PCDN team is involved in peacebuilding and development. For example, I have more than two decades of experience that has helped in several ways. We have an incredible commitment to the field and for us this is a passion. We already have strong networks and contacts. We are committed to helping our clients succeed. For us it is not about a transaction but working with clients to understand their goals, what has been working for them, and how PCDN can help them increase their reach.
This often means countless hours communicating with clients, giving them feedback on draft ideas, tweaking ads as they run to improve the metrics, and providing constant support throughout the advertising lifecycle. It's a sign we are performing well (of course there is always room to improve) when we have had many clients test us out for a month or two and then become longer-term clients.
I really do enjoy reaching out to potential clients, but it key that we see this as something we enjoy and not as a job. Of course we have a long way to go to increase our revenue stream from advertising to the level we would like to achieve with PCDN.
We also have been very fortunate to have some partners in this effort, such as working with Global Tolerance, a leading communications firm that is committed to communications with a conscience and an amazing graphic designer.
You're a Retweeting machine on Twitter… how do you find such great content to share and have any interesting partnerships come of it?
I think the most important result from being active on Twitter is that people have come to see PCDN as the go to resource. I have made some great professional connections on PCDN that has benefited our community.
What aspect of your Ning Network has proved most valuable to your community?
I think three things.
First, the resource guides.
Second, the members, as they are a global community from nearly every country in the world who are all committed to affecting positive social change in the world, often amidst the most challenging circumstances.
Third is finding ways to promote direct member interaction. This is an area we are trying to improve by starting webinars and other live online (and we hope soon in person events).
On the design side, do you give much thought to the user experience or have any design-minded people to help with it?
We have done some tweaking to the site and also had our graphic designer do our logo (which people love). I do get complaints sometimes from members that our site may be too busy and this is something we are starting to explore as we upgrade to Ning 3.0 about how to possibly simplify our home page and improve our visuals. We also need to put more thought into being mobile responsive.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned from your community?
That is a great question and a hard one to answer. I think the main thing is how committed people have become to PCDN over the past six years (and we hope for many more years into the future). We probably need to think about creating some PCDN branded items such as shirts or hats.
What’s the best piece of advice you have for someone looking to start an online community?
The number one piece of advice is pick an area that you have a strong passion for as building an online community can be tremendous fun, but also at times a long slog dealing with the minute details. Also be sure that you're not reinventing what is already being done and try to find a strong niche area for your network. And of course considering using Ning as we have found it to be a wonderful platform for our community and looking forward to using Ning 3.0.
Thanks so much, Craig, and we can't wait to see how the Peace and Collaborative Development Network looks when you switch over to Ning 3.0!