Three key elements to a successful online parent community


Schools benefit immensely when parents feel like they belong. This feeling of belonging can only come from a strong community, one which actively brings parents together under their shared commitment to their children and the school. Such a community can have an incredibly positive impact on its members as it unites parents and allows them to connect with and support one another.

A good community allows parents to really feel like part of the school. This is highly beneficial to the parents, but also to the school, since in taking on this group identity they become more invested in the school’s success and engaged with school activities.

The online community

An important - but often overlooked - component of a successful community is its online dimension. We have seen the prevalence of online communication skyrocket as the world becomes more and more interconnected and integrated with technology, and there is currently a significant global trend towards these smaller, more tightly-knit online communities and away from the traditional social media that focuses on influencers and individual promotion. Currently more than 75% of internet users participate in online communities, and two thirds of these users visit communities more often than they did a few years ago.

School parent communities are no exception to this trend, with the vast majority currently set up on some sort of platform for online communication - often a group on Facebook or WhatsApp. With so much information being transmitted online, and so much interaction now taking place virtually, it has become necessary for a community to have a strong and committed online presence in order to thrive.

So how do you create a successful online community?

The science of online communities is new and still developing. In this article, we will be exploring a model promoted by UK consulting firm FeverBee, who advise some of the biggest global brands and are leading practitioners in this field. We believe this model captures the essence of what makes an online community tick, allowing you to effectively foster your own online parent community and reap the full range of benefits on offer.

There are three main elements necessary for a successful online community:

  1. Audience 
  2. Community Manager
  3. Dedicated Platform


A community needs to have a particular, well-defined audience to make up its membership. After all, communities exist to unite those with common interests and goals and allow them to support one another in pursuit of these goals. Without this common goal, the community is aimless.

School parents have a very strong uniting goal: to promote the growth, education and well-being of their children. They all share a vested interest to support the school in its pivotal role in aiding their child’s personal development. 

Having well-defined boundaries is also important for a successful community. A strong sense of belonging and camaraderie can be fostered amongst group members when it is clear who is part of the ‘in’-group and who isn’t. Knowing that you are part of a particular group strengthens your awareness and sensitivity to the interests and attitudes you have in common with other members, drawing the whole group closer together.

School parent communities have very well-defined strict boundaries for membership: you are a member if and only if your child attends the school. The simplicity of this group boundary provides a strong and secure sense of group identity, promoting the unity and shared interests of its members.

Parental engagement

Audience engagement and community spirit can also be strongly fostered through the addition of subgroups within the community. Within the overarching parent community, smaller sub-communities based on common interests can be incredibly effective at allowing parents an entry point to get involved and bond over shared experiences. For example, a subgroup for new parents, parents who enjoy cycling or parents with children in the drama club can be a great way to allow them to make friends from across the school, feel recognised and validated by others in the group and become integrated and engaged with the community as a whole. The more subgroups and circles a parent is part of, the stronger their sense of belonging and group identity becomes, and the more loyal and involved they are as a consequence.

Having certain inner circles for parents who wish to take on more responsibility can also be a great way to promote engagement and strengthen that sense of group belonging. It is often the case that the more you put into a group activity the more you get out of it, and this is particularly true for parent volunteers and class reps. In taking on responsibility and providing genuine support to the school, parent volunteers begin to take on more and more of the school’s identity. They are proud to be part of the school, which enables and encourages other parents to further integrate themselves, producing a feedback loop of engagement, support and community spirit.

Increase commitment

This effect is succinctly described by the tried and tested Commitment Curve framework for community engagement. In this model, all parents lie somewhere on a curve based on their level of involvement and commitment to the community. The model suggests that the best way to increase overall engagement is by strategically asking parents to perform tasks that require commitment at a level only slightly higher than where they currently are on the curve. In this way, small incremental steps means parents are much more likely to agree to requests, allowing parents to very easily become more and more invested in the community over time without any major jumps in effort.

Your PTA is in the perfect position to reach out to all parents in the community and gently nudge them along the curve, building an active and unified community in the process. 

Community manager

The purpose of a community manager is to give the community focus: to ensure that every member is included and respected and to enable the community to remain unified and work up to its full potential. ‘Manager’ is actually a bit of a misnomer here, this is not about controlling the group; if the community is to thrive, the control and initiative must lie with its members. The real skill of the community manager is not in control, but in facilitation. This means looking out for members, reaching out and encouraging them to contribute and enabling them to build something wonderful themselves, rather than trying to dictate the group’s actions.

Emerging role

Managing online communities is an evolving skill set, but it is advancing at an incredible pace, with thousands of jobs bearing this title now being advertised on LinkedIn. Some schools are large enough to hire staff for this specific role, however this is often not needed. It turns out that the perfect candidate for community management is something most schools already have access to but often overlook: their Parent Teacher Association (or PTA).

When properly nurtured, the PTA can provide a wealth of professional talent on an entirely voluntary basis. Parent associations initially need careful school input and guidance in order to ensure they are properly aligned with school objectives, but once set on the correct track PTAs can provide some of the best community management you could ask for. The PTA is made up of parents who deeply understand and relate to the concerns of fellow community members and therefore make excellent community managers, as well as perfect mediators between the school and the parent body. This allows them to build very strong loyalty to the school. Having a parent association as manager instead of just one person also helps make management a lot easier, as responsibility can be shared and delegated down, a process that simultaneously builds community cohesion. 

Welcoming new parents

A key example of where PTAs shine as community managers is in welcoming new parents. These parents will join your school and be immediately welcomed and included by the existing parent community, coordinated by the PTA. This sort of welcome works wonders in letting new parents really feel like they belong, and in the long run builds a much stronger, friendlier parent community.

Allowing your PTA to take on this role not only saves your staff time and money, but it demonstrates trust to your parent community and helps build bridges between the parents and the school.

Dedicated Platform

The third key element for a successful online community is a dedicated platform. There are two main options for an online community platform: tailored or general purpose. 

General purpose platforms are large online spaces - often social media sites - that are available for general use with a wide variety of functions. These sites are not specifically designed for communities, but may provide certain tools and features which can be useful for your purposes. For example, a Facebook group is a general purpose platform that an online community could occupy.

By contrast, tailored platforms are custom spaces that are purpose-built with particular online communities in mind. Classlist is a perfect example of a tailored platform, as it is built specifically for school parent communities.

We have found that tailored platforms typically outperform general purpose platforms when it comes to growing active and responsive online communities. Even putting aside the numerous anecdotal accounts we’ve heard from both parents and teachers of Classlist schools about how active and engaging their community is, the averaged metrics for participation, email opens, post response rate and consumer/contributor ratio taken across all Classlist schools rank very highly compared to industry norms. We believe there are several key reasons why this is the case.

Purpose built

The simplest reason is that tailored platforms like Classlist are purpose-built for the community. This makes them much better equipped to deal with the specific requirements the community has, and often means they have certain tools and features that general purpose platforms lack.

Behavioural context

Another significant and often overlooked factor in why general platforms tend to be less effective is due to the ‘situational behaviour’ they promote. Different platforms generate different social environments depending on their context of use and what sort of content the community considers ‘normal’. For example, many parents would be very used to telling jokes and making digs at friends over WhatsApp groups, and this is therefore the sort of behaviour that they then associate with that platform. So if your parent community happens to be based on WhatsApp, the parents are likely to act in a similarly tone-deaf manner, which may not be appropriate for discussions about school matters. This pre-packaged tonal baggage that comes with all general purpose social media sites makes it very difficult to establish and maintain an effective brand on this kind of platform.

On the other hand, a tailored platform lets you set the tone and behavioural context yourself right out of the gate and ensure that the environment is appropriate. Small indicators of context on the platform can have a huge impact on user behaviour, and tailored platforms makes managing these indicators far easier. It is also a lot easier to moderate and remove content that breaks community guidelines, helping to maintain the appropriate tone.

Inclusivity and security

Another major reason that tailored platforms are much more beneficial for your parent community is that they allow you to ensure that everyone is included. General purpose platforms like WhatsApp (which is the UK’s dominant provider of online group chats) require users to display their personal phone number in order to join, which some parents will not want to or simply cannot do. This means some parents are unfairly excluded from the online community, damaging its unity and integrity.

General purpose platforms also provide very little in the way of user authentication, making it easy for non-members to join groups. This creates a significant security risk and makes the community as a whole feel unsafe and vulnerable, causing the previously well-defined group boundaries to become muddled and vague.

Legal concerns

From a legal perspective, online parent groups set up on WhatsApp and similar social media sites are often in breach of the site’s terms and conditions as well as in breach of GDPR. Recent advice from the Independent Schools Bursars Association (ISBA) with input from legal advisors Farrer & Co has determined that the admins of these groups legally become ‘data controllers’ and are therefore obliged to manage, secure and delete data shared in accordance with GDPR, a task they are unable to fulfil using WhatsApp. This means parent community WhatsApp groups are likely to be illegal, which is undesirable for obvious reasons.

Tailored platforms, on the other hand, are designed with data security and privacy in mind. They let the school take back responsibility for their community and enable you to build a trusted online brand, rather than having to rely on social media to do the job for you.

The right platform for you

At Classlist, we encourage schools to carefully examine the options to decide which platform is right for your parent community. That being said, we truly believe that the Classlist app provides the perfect tool for the job. Classlist is purpose-built for school parent communities, it is GDPR-compliant and offers a whole range of features to help you streamline parent engagement and give your community the boost it needs, including event organisation, dedicated subgroups, parent profiles, item listing, parent moderation and tons more. 


Your online parent community is a crucial part of the school ecosystem, and should be fostered and encouraged in order to create a more unified school. The three vital components of this online community are:

  1. Audience - Your parent community and its subgroups
  2. Community manager - Your parent association
  3. Dedicated Platform - A tailored online space such as Classlist

With these elements in place your parent community will be much better positioned to organise events, disseminate information, support one another and create the sort of school spirit that builds a better school for all involved.

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