Recently, my life has changed a bit.

After 7 years of staunch independence, or at least as much independence as my cats allowed me, I’ve moved in with my boyfriend. Prior to moving in together, the longest amount of time we had occupied the same physical space was a week.

My boyfriend is Australian and four months ago he moved his entire life 12,000 miles to Lisbon. Since moving he’s been trying to learn Portuguese and to immerse himself in local culture. But if you’ve ever been new to a place where you don’t know the language, you know how difficult that can prove to be.

Still, as far as moving across the world goes, my boyfriend is going through the best-case scenario. He has a support network, a job, a family back home and, as I’m not into false modesty, he has me. This is not only romantic but also practical — as a native Portuguese speaker, I’m the bridge between my boyfriend and landlords, internet providers, social security, and tax officers. And that’s a valuable thing. I’ve lost count of how many people I know who moved to a new country only to never really feel at home. Something was missing. Maybe the language barrier, or the cultural differences. Maybe they just lacked a sense of community.

Community, uh? What does it even mean?

Community. Companies talk about it all the time — every company seems to have a “community”, but what do they mean? Are they customers? Partners? Users? And what, or who, are all these communities for?

I’ll start at home. I’m a Community Marketing Manager at Unbabel, and our community is made of the editors working on our platform to make our machine translation sound, essentially, human. As with Airbnb or Uber, our community is mostly based on the work the editor does, the languages they speak, and how fast and accurate they are at editing.

But then you have support communities, which is what happens when companies have a customer base so passionate and dedicated that they’ll answer questions about their product for them. Apple is the most obvious example of this since they pivoted to this model from their earlier popular user forums back in 2011. Nowadays, companies like Spotify and Microsoft have support communities, and they introduced the gamification of questions and answers through a point system that helps you become a “rockstar” by answering other user’s questions. And although this is more common in business-to-consumer models, we’ve seen, for example, Salesforce adopting this trend with Salesforce Trailblazer Community a couple years ago, a community of customers and partners who interact, and most importantly, provide tech-support and a knowledge base to other users.

But I’ve never met anyone with a more literal definition than Mariana Brilhante, co-founder and Head of Marketing at SPEAK.

Let’s get together

SPEAK was started back in 2014 by a group of friends who realized that, if moving to a new city was proving to be complicated for them, it would certainly be worse for people that crossed borders in more difficult circumstances than the ones my boyfriend did, for example. Even though anyone can sign-up to SPEAK, either to become a buddy or to join a group and learn a language, they cater specifically to immigrants, migrants and refugees. The problem SPEAK founders were trying to solve was not so much a problem of language, but one of inclusion and belonging. The solution was surprisingly simple: get people together to learn the language from a native.

Six years later, that’s still how SPEAK works. Since getting started in Leiria, they’ve expanded to 24 cities all over the world, helping more than 26,000 people learn a new language. Last year alone, they’ve hosted 730 language groups and more than 300 culture sharing events organized by community members.

According to Mariana, community support is not just about answering questions in forums. “When you put together a group of people, for an hour and a half each week, you end up doing more than just learning a language. You’re building a network of support,” she told me. “We believe that learning a language in an informal way can be the first step to create meaningful connections among people, despite their cultural background.”

The SPEAK community may end up helping with doctor’s instructions, immigration services appointments, and dealing with the endless bureaucracy of finding housing. And for refugees or migrant workers, it’s just as important that SPEAK offers them an opportunity to be the ones to give back, because it helps them regain their dignity in a situation already out of their control.

“SPEAK’s theory of change is based on the field-tested hypothesis that the creation of opportunities for locals and migrants to meet with a common objective, and in an informal environment, in which cultures are shared and appreciated, is one of the most powerful tools to foster greater social inclusion,” Mariana said.

Online meets offline

At SPEAK, the community is hard-coded into all steps of the process, even their operating model. This community-first model is not frequently seen — in a lot of companies, community can feel like an afterthought. But at SPEAK they work in an online-to-offline model, meaning all the support the communities need to function is built into the product — online people sign-up for language groups, share their availability as buddies, and receive training and tools to teach others.

They also work hard at empowering buddies with practical information on how to control big groups and allow space for healthy learning dynamics that avoid conflict.

Conflict resolution is actually a big part of every community manager’s job at Unbabel. As with most support jobs, most times, editors will only contact us when something goes wrong, when they’re frustrated. Understanding the editor’s side, giving them the tools to perform better, and try to work with their frustrations is a big drive behind how we’re developing our product for the future.

For community managers at Unbabel, support is a tight-rope operation. Their job is to help editors, but also to push the communities to deliver within SLAs. And this can prove tricky when you add language and cultural differences into the equation. What reads as rude for someone from Portugal can read as fake and saccharine for someone from the Netherlands, especially when you have the added issue of all communication being done online. 

Calling community support

That’s a big challenge for companies to develop community experiences, because there’s nothing quite like really seeing a person’s face to develop a sense of belonging. There are a few ways to go around it, of course. A number of companies, like Outsystems, for example, organize offline community events all over the world, allowing their community of developers to actually get together to meet each other.

At Unbabel, we’re strictly online. This means that building an actual sense of community with our editors is an ongoing project, to avoid co-opting the word “struggle.” How do you build a community out of people who sign-up to use your product and get paid?

I’m honestly asking, because I don’t know the answer yet.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not working on it. In my experience, the community-based models that work best, and that feel like an actual community, are the ones that are built on support. We already have support — both support for editors and given by editors to our business — so it feels like we’re halfway through building an actual community. People enjoy getting together and helping each other. If you bring support to life like SPEAK or through online forums, that’s up to you.