Your Community is a Party Waiting to Happen

You can find the slides for this talk here.

 What makes a party feel like a party? Is it the music? the people? the food? alcohol? It's hard to say really, but when the right ingredients are mixed with the right atmosphere, it comes alive and becomes an unforgettable experience. All a host can do is make sure the right atmosphere and ingredients are in place and hope for the best.

As it turns out, the same is true for online communities. The job of the community host is to set the stage for community to develop - to combine the right ingredients with right atmosphere. If the conditions are right - an engaged and successful community may develop over time.

Curiously, hosting parties and online communities share a lot of consistencies. In both cases, there are timeless ingredients that work together to create an environment that leads to success. Here are 12 ingredients that go into having a great party or hosting a successful online community:

1. Your party needs a reason to celebrate. The best parties are for a special occasion, a birthday, a holiday, an announcement. Members want to come together for a purpose, a shared interest or common experience. Otherwise, why have a party

  • Online communities need a focus or purpose. If your community doesn't serve a need or have a purpose, why would people show up? If your purpose is defined, make it obvious to new members. Think about setting goals and tracking progress towards a shared goal. But, don't be one-dimensional consider related subjects and resources.

2. Your party needs good planning. Nothing kills a party like running out of food or alcohol. A party with too little food is a tragedy that could have been averted with good planning. Too much is better than not enough. Plan well.

  • Online communities have the potential to grow exponentially.Make sure the technology and the people involved are prepared to handle growth. Be flexible and prepare for the community to have an influence on future plans. Target specific kinds of people you'd like as members. Define and redefine success as needed.

3. Your party needs a place. If people are going to interact, they need a home of some sort. Members need to know where the party is happening and what they can bring. It helps if the place is well kept, easy to use and looks familiar.

  • Online communities need a web site that serves as the community's home. Start small and build the site's structure based on the member's needs. Plan for skyscrapers, but start with apartments. The community should feel like home for your target members.

4. Your party needs a host. The party's host is the glue that holds everything together. They don’t have to be the center of attention, but they do have to be there to tell people where to find the restroom and when the food is ready. They orchestrate and organize.

  • Online communities needs a community manager or host to serve as the touchstone of the community. Good hosts are active members of the community and constantly engaged. They work with the site's designers and developers. They protect the community and advocate for it's members. They are accountable to members and the site's owners. They provide balance.

5. Your party needs basic rules. Most rules are common sense and barely need repeating (don't feed beer to the dog!), but some provide members with a way to know what sort of party it is. Are kids allowed? Can we bring something? Should we dress in costume?

  • Online communities need guidelines. Guidelines enable the community to have set expectations about their participation. These are not the Terms of Service, but rules of the road - dos and don'ts. The best guidelines are written in plain language and in a personal tone. Fun helps too!

6. Your party needs a bouncer. Parties are famous for bringing out the best and worst in people. A few unruly folks can ruin everyone’s fun. Sometimes the host has to enforce the rules and kick a few people out to improve everyone's experience.

  • Online communities need someone who is empowered to remove or deal with members who threaten the community's culture or standards. Trolls, spammers and other miscreants can be toxic to a community and the role of the bouncer is to deal with them in a responsible manner,. Guidelines and Terms of Service often help with enforcement. Enable your members to identify the problem members.

7. Your party needs an invitation. How else is anyone going to know about it?

  • Online communities need ways to create awareness. Give members badges that they can put on their blogs. Give them ways to invite their friends. If the community is connected to a business, work with marketing to ensure that customers are aware it exists. Prompt members to blog about it, consider word-of-mouth.

8. Your party needs a few introductions. “Hello My Name Is�? tags are not a bad idea. Give people a way to find people like them and interact around something in common. Games can be a great ice breaker.

  • Online communities depend on member profiles that reflect interest, activity and needs. Make sure the profile fits with the community. Consider the highly developed profiles on social networking sites. Also, provide a safe place for new members to introduce themselves to the community.

9. Your party needs an event. Maybe it’s a toast, or a movie or a limbo contest, but it helps to bring people together around a mid-party event. Get people out of their seats and inspire them to get involved.

  • Online communities thrive on connection. Connections are made stronger through face-to-face meetings and specific events that offer members a chance to come together around something specific and timely.Have a contest or a special event online.Invite a special guest, mix it up, make it new.

10. Your party needs a way for the attendees to pitch-in. People love to party, but partying can be messy and they want to do their part to help clean up. They won’t mind, ask them to help do the dishes or take out the trash.

  • Online communities can be mobilized.Let them pitch in and help solve a problem. Be prepared to share your needs and ask for help. The members can help you organize the site through tags or ratings. They can help you manage content through reporting inappropriate behavior. They can lobby their congressman on your behalf. They want to help – give them a chance.

Your party needs multiple ways to participate. The best parties appeal to different types of people. If tequila shots are the only way to party, people will not feel comfortable. You might find that people want to play Jenga or run the video camera. Make these options available and let them find their thing.

  • Online community participation options have grown.Community doesn’t have to be about discussion. Let members start a blog, add tags to content, edit a wiki page or vote on a photo. Consider options to “add as friendâ€?? or “join this groupâ€?? like social networking sites. Consider how small modes of participation can be a gateway to deeper contributions.

Your party needs variety. A party of complete strangers can have difficulty getting rolling. The best parties are a mix of old friends and new friends. Often, the old friends have social status in the group and serve to bring the new folks into the fray. The old friends set the tone and serve as an example for others.

  • Online communities need a means of expressing and perceiving social status.Enable members to display a measure of their experience or reputation based on participation, length of membership, ratings by fellow members or a combination of factors. This gives new members context and helps build trust. Members need veteran members to use as positive examples.

Conclusion: In the end, if you're truly interested in online communities, the most important ingredient is you. Without people who care about the community and are willing and excited about making it work, it will not succeed.
My hope is that these points have given you some things to consider in turning your passion into a reality. If you're having a party or building an online community, please let me know - I'll come!