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May 05, 2008

10 Tips for Starting and Building Online Communities

May 05, 2008
In building several online communities, both for personal and professional purposes, I have been ruminating about how to effectively build an online community.

Here are 10 tips that I have complied from my experiences that I think might be of value to anyone interested in starting an online community.

  1. Have a purpose- in order to attract and maintain a community you need a meaningful purpose. The problem with sites like MySpace.com is that they have no real purpose beyond the explicit one of networking. The next generation of online communities are going to be smaller and niche driven. Find a niche interest you personally feel passionate about and start a community around that passion. True passion is infectious and it will attract others to join the discussion.
  2. Start with people- all online communities need to be grounded in the real world. The era of having 10,000 friends you don't know is over. People want to have a meaningful conversation with people they know as well as be introduced to new people through existing relationships. Once you have a purpose you need to make sure there is an existing community already embracing that purpose. Attracting those people will be key to your community's success.
  3. Be authentic- everyone hates a fake. Don't even try to be someone you aren't. It's ok to hold your tongue (or keyboard) when needed but don't try to talk the talk if you don't walk the walk. It will almost certainly doom your fledgling community.
  4. Think small- don't try to shoot the moon, chances are you won't pull it off. Set reasonable goals for your community. If you have 50 members at the end of your first month, maybe you should only expect 100 by the end of the next month. Meaningful online communities thrive on quality over quantity. The last thing you want is 1000 inactive members. It is better to attract and retain a small loyal following who bring real content and community to the site.
  5. Be personal- try to greet every new member with a personal message. No-one wants to come to a party only to be ignored.
  6. Be an enabler- make sure your online community has plenty of ways to let its users take away content. Embeddable music players, photo galleries and badges enable your loyal users to spread the site's content across the web.
  7. Drip content- if you have a stockpile of great new stuff (photos, videos, music, etc) don't put it all up at once. Put out a little at a time. By spreading desirable content out you will encourage users to come back regularly for updates. Also, make sure you are using RSS feeds and other tools to let your users follow site updates via their home pages (i.e. iGoogle).
  8. Be protective- ban members that spam or start fights. They can quickly create ill will and alienate core members. Act swiftly and create clear precedents on what is and isn't acceptable. Your users will appreciate it.
  9. Nudge, don't push- when you sense the community is starting to ebb and needs some new energy jump in with a new discussion topic, or post an interesting blog, or add comments to formerly active members. These are all very small things but can quietly revive conversations and activity.
  10. Give up control- just like raising a child you have to learn to let go. As your community grows take note of the active participants and find ways to hand over more and more control to these users. In some instances you will want to promote them to admin status. In other instances you will want to feature their content on the home page or in email blasts. These users are truly the future of the site so give them the tools to help grow your fledgling online community.


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