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Online Community Lessons from SXSW and Community 2.0

I have been impressed and inspired lately by the degree to which community has become a focus for nearly every part of the web. Community 2.0 and SXSW Interactive offered a look at a number of different sides of managing and building communities. Here are some of the best points we heard from both conferences.

Know your pain threshold: Organizations are often not used to seeing negative comments from customers on their web site. In online communities this is inevitable. Your organization will have to learn your level of tolerance for negativity and criticism (each one will be different). In many cases, it is a bad idea to remove critical or negative comments (unless they violate the terms). Often, negative comments will be balanced by the community itself who can become stronger through building consensus and debate.

Critical members need to be heard: If people are critical, demanding change and rallying one another, you are doing something right: they care. As Elie Weisel said: The opposite of love is not hate - it is indifference. Working with these members is an important part of community success and listening is an important skill. Recognize their need to be heard and do not ignore them. Have "rules of the road" that you can use to enforce behavior that is unacceptable.

Community planning is a farce: You can plan the direction of an online community, but you'll find that the members will take it new directions that you never expected. You must be ready to work with members and the organization to balance the community's needs with the organization's expectations. This can be an enlightening exercise.

Don't start with technology: This is true with almost any web site. Keep the technology options open while you define what you're trying to accomplish with the community. Talk to future members, understand their goals, figure out what goals your site will accomplish and then how you can use technology and features to facilitate the accomplishment of those goals. Nate Ritter has a good post on this too.

Your community already exists: Know that your customers are already a community. You have an opportunity to offer something to customers that other web sites can't: access to the people and news that have the power to change the products and services they care about. Serve the community that exists and offer them access to things they cannot get elsewhere. This was partly a point from John Hagel's keynote, well documented by Patty Seybold.

Make your community shareable: You may want to create a "home" for your members. The fact is that future Internet users may have their own home in the form of a blog or personal web site. Instead of trying to keep them on your site, let them take a part of your site with them to their home. Give them a badge or "widget" that lets them display their membership and/or participation in your community in their home. You may find that the community markets itself in this way. The Flickr badge is a perfect example.

Be early, be personal: The first members to visit your community are the most important. Welcome them, make them feel at home and offer to help. Go out of your way to spend time being a community member yourself. Respond to questions and be yourself. Turn off the corporate speak and be human. The small, initial community will govern your success - recognize their participation invite them to help you tend the garden.