I've seen a number of folks lately seeking information for getting started with online communities. This entry provides five basic, high level things that I believe are important to remember in getting an online community off the ground.
The focus here is not social or hobbyist online communities, but communities that are created by organizations to support their users or members.
1. Active Management: There needs to be someone that is accountable and working to accomplish the goals of the community. In studying a couple of failed communities in my previous position, I found that responsibility was spread across the organization- no one was accountable. In my opinion, like a real community, an online community must have defined leadership to be productive.
I also believe that members need to build trust in the community and having a manager that is accountable speeds up this process. A great way for the manager to build and establish trust is by creating an email newsletter sent to all members that is written in their voice- not the Marketing Departmentâ€™s.
2. Email Integration: You should be able to â€œpushâ€?? the community discussions to the members who want them. Particularly for support and customer communities, email needs to be well integrated into the experience. In many instances, you might make email subscriptions an *implied* part of membership- like a listserv. Hereâ€™s why: Generally, you cannot depend on members to proactively seek out the site on a regular basis. Using email, members exert the least amount of effort to become aware and involved. Of course- always provide the ability to unsubscribe and be aware of that email can also turn members away.
3. Usability: You should focus intently on the user experience. Try to gain a keen understanding of what the average user will be doing most on the web site and make those processes simple simple simple. Forget all the bells and whistles in the beginning. Make their experience as efficient and clean as possible. A new user should be able to stumble through the process of posting a message and get it right every time. Also, look for ways to eliminate extra links, buttons and functions that may only work to obfuscate the basic functions. Focus on the new user.
4. Needs Analysis: Communities exist for a reason. Work to understand the niche that the community serves and be very clear about what the needs of the niche are and how the community will serve those needs. Members should be able to quickly see how the community may be applicable to them. Everything should be centered on serving the need.
5. Member Profiles: Members should have the ability to create and manage a page that contains information about them- their interests, contact information, recent posts, a picture, etc. In professional communities, look for ways to make their title and location a part of each post. This helps other members see more context in discussions. The profiles also help members to build trust in one another more quickly. Each time a user name is displayed, it should be a link to their profile.
Of course, it is impossible to prescribe a set of strategies or elements that will work for every community. These are based on over three years of experience as an online community manager. There are certainly more ways to be successful and this list isnâ€™t exhaustive. I hope that this provides some starting points for making some of the initial decisions in building an online community.
Full Circle- Online Community Toolkit
Sift: Practice Guides