Tenets for Successful Online Communities

logo-vc-l.jpgBuilding a successful online community is no easy proposition. However, there are some proven strategies that can be employed to help ensure your online community gains enough traction and solidifies its position over the long-term.

Before Arthur Andersen was caught diddling around with Enron’s general ledger, they published a 1999 report on “online communities.” They studied 15 different online communities, ranging from intranet-based corporate communities and B2B communities to Internet hobbyist groups. They found that the successful online communities were almost always the result of grassroots efforts, and all filled some sort of social or professional need among their members. The study offered the following principles for a successful online community:

1) Invest in the means, not the end. To get an online community (OLC) off the ground, companies need to put a great deal of energy into activities designed to increase participation and traffic to the community. Throwing something up on the web with the expectation that a community will automatically result is a recipe for failure.

2) Focus relentlessly on the needs of the members. In successful OLCs, the coordinators are completely focused on the needs of the members, figuring out what kind of work they do, what tools and information they need and what kind of relationships they want to form with other community members. One way to do this is to appoint former members of the community to facilitate portions of the site.

3) Resist the temptation to control. Any attempts to restrict or control communication in OLCs can discourage participants from freely sharing the very information that makes the site worthwhile. Many companies circumvent this issue by creating implicit guidelines that encourage sharing tempered with common sense. An example of such a warning would be, “Don’t say anything online you wouldn’t say in the office or with clients and customers.”

4) Don’t assume the community will become self-sustaining. OLCs are seldom self-sustaining. In most cases they require significant investments of time and effort to continue to grow and often need a dedicated facilitator to champion the site.

5) Consider environmental factors. A company also needs to consider the cultural environment of its organization when deciding how and whether to try an OLC. A company in which information is hoarded and sharing is discouraged is unlikely to act much different online, and that will surely thwart community building.

6) Extend community-building beyond the discussion space. Rather than being frustrated by low traffic in discussion areas, companies need to realize upfront that successful communities extend beyond discussion forums into other areas like e-mail and applications such as Lotus Notes. Any growth in community interaction, regardless of the medium, is a credit to the site.

7) Seek out and support members who take on informal roles. When users are willing to take on positions of responsibility within the community, it indicates that they appreciate the value it provides. Possible roles for users are community advocates who encourage others to participate, leaders who guide the discussion and are knowledgeable, and instigators who provoke controversy and raise sticky issues.

Some Additional Tenets for Success

Building on the solid list of recommendations from Arthur Andersen, I’d like to offer a few additional, real-world principles for successful community building. These tenets come as a result of many personal lessons learned over a five year period while running a large, highly active P2P community with over 65,000 subscribers, as well as two different niche B2B communities.

1) Follow the 7 principles laid out above – even though the results of the Andersen study were published in 1999, they ring true even today.

2) Give your members a way to communicate openly – plain and simple. Without this, you don’t have an online community – you have nothing. Freedom to communicate is indeed one of the driving principles behind the success of the Internet (as well as the blogging phenomenon).

3) Strive for “mass stickyness” in the form of the targeted “killer app”. If at all possible, there should be many such “killer apps” within your community. More is better. What can you offer the community that will differentiate you from others? Transactions and content are sometimes not enough. What tools can you give them that will make their job (in the case of B2B communities) or experience (P2P, B2C) easier, and provide mass stickyness?

4) “Collaboration” should be an over-arching theme. This is the glue that holds your community together, and simultaneously grows it exponentially. Encourage and empower them to contribute to the community. Create a SWAT team to rapidly incorporate community suggestions into the system. This sends a powerful message that will spread virally. Communities that are mandated from the top, and driven without customer feedback, are doomed to fail – period.

5) Establish a captivating backstory. This is one of the patterns from physical communities. If you look at communities in the physical world that have sustained themselves for a long time, they always have an interesting “backstory” or history which is communicated to new members. How was the community formed? How has it evolved? What great success stories can you share with your members that will get them excited about participating? The act of communicating it to new members becomes part of the ritual of membership, a community building act in and of itself. In general, people like to associate themselves with something greater than themselves. There are a number of practical things you can do online to make this happen. One is to express the backstory through words and images right on the website, in the community and make it accessible to visitors. You can call it “our story,” “how we got here,” or it could be a subsection of “about us.” Also, consider not sharing the entire backstory on your website. You want your evangelists out there sharing the good word as well. You can encourage these more experienced members to tell the backstory, and you can make it part of the training program if you employ greeter, content/channel “guides”, or moderators.

6) Foster a sense of trust. This is critical to the success of any community. In other words, “if you build it, they might come – if they do come, and the site exhibits tangible value, and they trust you, then they will stay”. This is especially true in B2B scenarios where transactions are at stake.

7) Mitigate security and privacy concerns. Privacy policies are a must – be sure to remind the community members from time-to-time that their privacy is just that. Also, invest in the appropriate level of information security. A few months after we sold one of our community sites, the new owners fell prey to international hackers who attempted to extort “protection money” from them. After not hearing back, the hackers broken in and maliciously destroyed the data on their servers. Luckily, there were reliable backups from which they recovered, but the lesson is still there!

8) Facilitate “relationship conversions” whenever possible (online-to-offline, offline-to-online). When your online members take their relationships offline, and vice versa, this provides a tremendous increase in the stickyness of the community. In my opinion, relationship conversions are a veritable “nitrous-oxide boost” for a thriving community. Converting online relationships into offline business and/or personal relationships will add fuel to the growing fire in the community.

9) Be persistent, but don’t force things. Plod along, and keep your eyes on the prize, and listen to your members.

10) Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself from time to time. Change is good, and while it won’t always be initially welcomed by everyone, it is a necessary evil. Change tells people that the community is growing … evolving.

11) Don’t toss out those ideas that don’t initially work! Often times, good ideas are simply a little premature. Bring them back at a later date (when the community has evolved and scaled a bit more) and see what happens. You may just be surprised! Sometimes, the community just isn’t ready for all of the goodness you are trying to bestow upon them.