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Online Communities

Build Carefully

May 20, 2008
In much the same way that buying a phone won’t make you popular, community tools like forums, blogs, and chat simply exist to facilitate a conversation, not start one or give it meaning.
When it comes to web development, there is certainly no shortage of technologies and services that many people feel their website needs, even if (or possibly because) they don't truly understand what they are. One of the biggest ”needs” in recent years is that of community. After all, who wouldn't want a captive audience that validates the site's purpose and serves its creators while building free buzz about a the site and its features?

Unfortunately, that is not what community is. Not by a long shot, and not in any way. Community is to a website what a Q&A phase is to a speech. It is a conversation.

Community is actually an excellent name for the phenomenon that occurs on websites with a person–to–person tool... when it works. But to be sure you're creating an effective online community, it is important to think about what drives a group of people with shared goals or experiences to work or play together in your everyday life. Explore what it takes to create vibrant and healthy communities in your day–to–day world and you'll begin to understand what community means to the web, and what it takes to make a successful one.

Wouldn't It be Cool?
Probably the biggest, and certainly the most unfortunate, drives of internet technology is the ”wow” factor. All too often websites have been built with plenty of flare but not much substance. Community is frequently considered just another toolset that a site should have in order to be ”cutting edge”, without truly considering the requirements and ramifications of making those tools into a success. Or worse, some may look at community as an opportunity to gather ”free content”, absolving site managers from the duty of creating their own.

In truth, good communities ARE cool, but what would a poorly executed and unmanaged community say about you and your organization? Do you have the time and resources to be sure you acquire and maintain the former to prevent the later?

There are plenty of ways to engage web consumers with interactive opportunities. Community features are often the most rewarding, but they carry a good deal of responsibility for site managers such as, making sure user additions are appropriate, avoiding spam, and keeping people engaged by making sure your own content is guiding the conversations and sparking them. These tasks require a serious commitment from site managers and should not be taken lightly.

If You Build It, They Will Come
One of the worst mistakes you can make when it comes to deciding upon community features for your site is assuming that buying a toolset will make community building an automatic and self–sustaining process. In much the same way that buying a phone won't make you popular, community tools like forums, blogs, and chat simply exist to facilitate a conversation, not start one or give it meaning. To do that, you'll need something to talk to your users about, something that they can also speak to each other about. Typically this takes the form of frequently updated content and an engaged staff.

When users use community tools on your site, they view it as an opportunity to speak with the site's creators and other users. They use it to interact with them on a one–on–one level. If you're not available to speak back, users will feel jilted. Without attention, communities can backfire in extraordinary ways, driving users away from your site and into the arms of ”more caring” competitors.

That isn't to say that you'll always need to maintain a staff 24/7 for an extended period of time to police your community. Many communities do eventually become somewhat self–sustaining entities, driven and kept on–track by the members itself. However, none start out that way. You'll need to take the time to frame the conversations, set some ground rules, identify what works and what does not, and possibly pursue members of the growing community to identify as leaders or administrators.

Making a Successful Community
Now that you know the wrong reasons and assumptions when looking at the prospect of community for your site, let's look at what actually constitutes a successful web community.

First, the obvious. A good set of tools to enable communication between your users and other users or yourself is a must. These tools take a variety of forms: chat, forums, comments, user blogs, reviews, page ratings, the list goes on. Determining which tools are right for your site requires getting to know your users and their hopes and needs, as well as being clear about what both parties hope to get out of the arrangement.

Of course, whichever tools are selected, they need to be able to support community development in a way that appeals to the members of the community itself, not just the site's creators. This demands that tools and site managers allow community members to speak their minds, to use their own voice, share their experiences and opinions, whether you necessarily agree with them or not. This does not mean you need to condone or tolerate anti–social behavior, but you must be prepared to deal with such occurrences in a constructive and respectful manner, just as you would in real life.

Users will also want to see immediate and public results of their actions. This is, after all, a conversation that people are having with each other, not just you. Over time, community members will build relationships with each other, not just you. If you do not enable them to converse with each other, they can easily move those new found relationships to another outlet. This does not mean that some filters cannot be put in place, nor does it mean that results must be seen instantaneously, but fairly standard rules of human interaction do apply. If everything a user says is to be filtered by site managers prior to posting, you're not creating a community.

Communities also need an opportunity to evolve. Like everything online, what community is and what people expect from online interaction changes constantly. As relationships form and the community grows, needs and desires will change. A site unable, or unwilling, to adapt to the changing needs of its members may risk losing them to other sites that allow them the tools and the self–expression they require. Some communities simply outgrow themselves entirely and move on, just like any relationship. You should be prepared for the possibility, even if you do everything right, that the need for people to maintain their interaction simply wanes.

Finally, it's going to take some time. No community appears overnight. Like any organism, they need time to grow, mature, find their place in the world and hopefully flourish. Communities are a long term strategy, never an overnight success.

To Pursue a Community or Not?
In the event that the prospect of managing and allowing this kind of interaction on your site frightens you, then perhaps community tools aren't your best fit. But take heart, there are still intriguing ways to engage user interest. Dedicate your time and energy to creating experiences that highlight the strengths of what you can do, while avoiding projects like chat, forums and the like.

If, however, community still sounds like a venture you're interested in supporting and participating in, it may be just what you're looking for. Of course there are many other factors to address, like ”what kind” of community tools are right for you, but you'll have taken the first step with full knowledge of what online community really is.
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