Building an Online Community

By Business.com Editorial Staff
Business.com / Technology / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Craigslist.org started as a small San Francisco email list in the mid-1990's, created because Craig Newmark wanted to make it easy ...

Craigslist.org started as a small San Francisco email list in the mid-1990's, created because Craig Newmark wanted to make it easy for his friends to know what was going on around town, whether it was the latest Anon Salon or a web conference at Moscone Center. How did Craig develop his email list into one of the world's most popular community websites? He focused on usefulness, purpose, and trust.

While companies considering creation of an online community must be clear about what they hope to achieve in terms of the bottom line, it is crucial that actual users have a strong, engaging community purpose if you want to develop a successful community that will grow organically.

To build a thriving online community, there must be:

1. A strong, compelling user purpose
2. Communication tools that make it easy to connect and a user interface that supports connection
3. Content/Events to draw users back and give them opportunities to mingle
4. History, or backstory, that creates an affective bond
5. Identity/Status/Reputation - facilitate creating and displaying who a member is
6. Boundaries/Groups - special groups or levels for members of different status
7. Trust - needs to be embedded within the structure of the site and interactions with and between members.


Get your finger on the community pulse

Before starting your own community, spend some time in thriving online communities and social media sites, especially those in the niche you are interested in. Hell, get off your computer and spend time with the people for whom you want to form a community, getting to know how they interact and what motivates them. If it's schoolteachers, sit in a classroom. If it's lumberjacks, pick up a chainsaw, put on your boots, and follow them out to the forest. Then, before logging on again, get a basic grounding in culture by reading some Levi-Strauss, Mead, Geertz, Benedict, Boas, and Weber. Okay, then know your virtual community history because while the graphics may be better now, the principles are mostly the same: know about IRC, MMORPGs, MUDs, MOOs, Compuserve, Usenet, and the Well.

Here are some of my favorite community people: danah boyd, Howard Rheingold, Cliff Figallo, Joi Ito, Craig Newmark, Mimi Ito, Amy Jo Kim, Cynthia Typaldos, Derek Powazek, Jim Cashel, Guy Kawasaki, Anastasia Goodstein, and Clay Shirky.

Keep up-to-date with the Online Community Report and join the online facilitation Yahoo group, where people exchange best practices about how to moderate an online community.

Set up your tools, content, & interface for community contributions

So, your business reasons for community make sense (you have given some thought to this, right?), or you have an endless flow of non-profit funds so you don't have to worry about business reasons (lucky you), and there is a strong purpose, both selfish and communal, for users to participate in your community. You know the ins and outs of your target audience (you did select a target audience, didn't you?) because you are a member of that audience, or you are tightly connected with that audience, or you are prepared to write the next essential ethnography of that audience. You have typical personas of this group in your head (the 7th grade social studies teacher who favors critical thinking over teaching to the test, the lumberjack into sustainable harvesting). You are determined to offer a simple, clean, elegant, integrated set of features, editorial, and functionality that will maximize the collective wisdom of your community. Great start.

If you are building your own user-generated content (UGC) solution, make sure to test and refine the interface, be careful of having too high a barrier to entry which would act as a bar to achieving critical mass quickly, and consider incorporating ways that users can shape the site's taxonomy.

Make sure the site addresses your audiences, reflects the community purpose, and has built-in ways to highlight members' identity, status, reputation, and groups, so that members can be part of the governance of the site.

Your servers are prepared to accommodate high traffic, and you have considered how you will moderate, the privacy policy, the terms of use, and copyright issues. Remember that enforcing the legal requirements of your site requires programming, content, and interface design.

Seed your community site

The best way to seed your community is to find your ideal type of users to be the first participants. They will set a precedent for future use of your site.

Nurture and grow community participation

Okay, you've launched your site and the first real users are coming...guess what? Your users will help your site evolve in directions you may have never anticipated. Highlighting this evolution will keep your site interesting. Typically, an online community has a 1-10% participation rate, with the rest being lurkers. Don't forget to integrate email into your community site to keep participation high. Don't be surprised if it takes a lot of time to nurture and grow your community.

Measure and analyze community metrics

It's important to measure your community stats from the beginning, to get a benchmark in terms of what to expect later. Changes to your interface, tools, and traffic will affect the community dynamics. Stats should factor into your feedback loop and affect future site development. Return-on-investment (ROI) may be measured directly in terms of sales conversions from community members or advertising on community pages, or more indirectly in terms of PR value, customer loyalty, or a replacement for customer support.

  • They won't come just because you've built it - driving quality traffic takes work in building relationships.
  • A common mistake in launching a new discussion forum is to set up too many initial categories. This splits conversation, especially when traffic is still low. It's better to start a discussion with a few categories and then expand later as your usage dictates.
  • Read the YPulse.com newsletter which focuses on youth virtual community and social media - what the kids are doing today is what the adults will be doing tomorrow.
  • When a corporation sponsors an online community, it gives up some control. Don't be scared of users saying anything negative about your product, however. Better they do that on your own forum where others are saying positive things about your product, and you can easily respond. In today's media world, it makes a business look self-confident and full of integrity if they allow honest, public feedback.
  • One of the best ways to learn about what works and doesn't in terms of online community is to talk to online community professionals who've developed successful communities from scratch.
  • Good stories are the glue of the strongest online and offline communities. Every group, from hunter-gather tribes to modern physicists, has a story that binds them together with history, mission, and purpose. Weave in your "story" to your interface and interactions, and let your users become main characters in that story.

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