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Building a successful online community

January 14, 2009

Originally written for Business Zone: Original Link

This may not make me popular, but to me there are two constant truths regarding any online community. They seem to apply regardless of numbers of visitors, volume of postings, or even hours put into moderation and nurture.

The first is simple, online communities are fundamentally flawed because they are driven by emotional humans like you and me! It’s ironic, but people tend to show their feelings more readily in the online space than face-to-face. Managing the fallout while maintaining freedom of speech is a delicate balancing act.

Moving on to my second point, we probably all remember the limelight-hogging natural performers from school days. Well they are still alive and well, and now living online. The power of any online forum comes from participation, which will come disproportionately from these guys. The challenge is both to encourage and protect the community.

Within the eco system of an online community, members tend to fall into three distinct groups. These are newbies, casual users and hard-core fanatics. Each group tends to play a standard role. The newbies ask the questions, the fanatics answer them and the casuals move slowly up the scale or get bored and go elsewhere.

This slow burn approach works, but it has a problem. It predominantly focuses on two groups; the “noobs” and the “ninjas”, while ignoring the casuals. While there is no secret sauce to community building, there are a few tricks that can be applied to help to plug the gap.

1. Understand the potential

When you have a large group, there is always an immense amount of knowledge. You need to make your community members productive from the beginning. To do this, you need an environment where people feel comfortable and able to contribute.

2. There is no such thing as a stupid question

Nothing puts new visitors off quicker than a slap down after asking a basic question. This should be outlawed from the beginning. Adopting a zero tolerance policy and insisting that everyone is “friendly” may seem draconian, but you want to encourage everyone to stick around and participate further.

3. There is no such thing as a stupid answer

If your “friendly” policy is working it also has a secondary benefit of allowing the newbies a chance to answer the easy questions. Extending the ethos to include “no stupid answers” is a natural second step.

Your community should encourage everyone to have a go at answering questions. The key here is to carefully manage the fanatics. Ridiculing another’s answer is simply against the rules.

4. Motivate and inform

A great technique for encouraging participation is to feedback related user info and stats, then reward individuals and identify the top performers. The business networking site LinkedIn encourages healthy competition by allowing people to rate answers, and members can proudly display their ranking.

Let’s face facts, building a successful online community is hard work. Getting a bunch of emotional showoffs to work together for the greater good is never going to be easy. However, if you can pull it off the rewards are immense, and in the world of Web 2.0, your customers probably expect nothing less.

From → PR Activity, Web Tech

  1. bindun:


    Nice breakdown, but i think the demographic is a little more diverse.

    The real issue with forums, is how ‘street’ the residents are. For example, how serious is the tone? If we have super serious, then we aren’t having super fun, now are we? I’m a resident of a few forums, and they all have VERY different groups of people. A certain *ahem* ecommerce forum, is actually quite sedate.

    If you break down the function of a forum, we find its either a place to socialise, or a place to get help.

    What type of forum, is any forum?

  2. also, there are stupid questions:

    slap those noobs down.


  3. Darren Beaumont permalink

    I have dabbled in forums and one i did was for kiting, plenty around but i wanted it to be different.

    What happened

    Well i simply added it as a link from my website and let people make suggestions on what they wanted from a forum and developed it as we went, now i obviously set up a structure before all this but let the user decide what was to be included.

    After a few months members were over 100 and i started to get a few members who thought they knew best. It got to the point that hardly any comments were constructive about products and questions from this core group of users, i spent more time editing posts and banning these users than anything else.

    Why did this happen, well a core group of users from a competing forum decided they would trash my forum, for what reason i have no idea.

    The members that did were that dense that they used the same user names and a browse of this forum showed that it was there mission to diss members that were not part of their group.

    So following on from Gabriels comments, there is perfect way to set up and run a forum, the nature of the products or subject will dictate the types of members, this will intern dictate the type of information you get.

    N00bs will always be present, so you need to accept you will see the same questions will come up, is it wrong to slap them down in a frinedly way, i dont think so.

    this is all MHO

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