I've enjoyed following Premier Farnell's Element14 community for a while. It's an example of how a great online community can be done.
I'm often surprised by how rarely organizations developing their own community fail to use successful examples. Here are some practical tips:
1) Make the community about your members
Many organizations make the community about their own products/services. That's a mistake. Your products and services usually aren't interesting enough to build a community around (even amongst your best customers). The community concept has to be based around things your target audience is interested in. That will be the major issues in the sector and (more commonly) themselves. Element14 does a terrific job in building a community around the key issues.
2) Invest in community management early
Element14 has several people involved in managing the community. They realized that you can't wait for the community to be a success before hiring a community manager, you need a full-time community manager to make it a success.
3) Content about members
You need to have plenty of content about members. Interview members, have member of the month (like Element14 does), feature/invite guest posts, write about the achievements of your members.
4) Collection the knowledge of your members
Etienne Wenger fans will be pleased, the community has done a brilliant job of documenting and curating the knowledge of members. They have a place where members can upload useful documents for each other. More onine communities (regardless of whether they're CoPs or not), need to do a better job of collecting and curating the knowledg of members. Your community should be the best source of knowledge for that topic.
So make sure you have beginner guides, product/equipment selection advice, recommended events/suppliers, advanced tips/focus sections. This can be used for every community.
5) Own the key issues
When the Raspberry Pi came out, the community had planned for it. They had several major discussions taking place, they documented knowledge about the topic, they hosted events/activities about it. Element14 owns the big issues in the sector. When something big arises, they go to Element14 to learn more about it.
6) Regular events & activities
Element14 works hard to schedule regular online events for members. The have weekly webinars they organize. They also feature other events that would be relevant in the industry. This allows members to attend local events, spread the word about the community, and build closer relationships with each other.
Featuring the events of others is smart. You could also review other events and host impromptu gatherings of community members. This creates great content and more opportunities for members to connect in person.
7) Latest activity on the front page.
The design of the site is pretty good (not perfect). It features the latest activity on the front page, and the latest documents. Personally, I'd ensure they were above the fold, but most online communities from brands are much, much, worse than this.
8) High levels of social density
The community features a consistently high level of social density throughout the site. They have a number of successful sub-groups. They would do better to remove/combine those which have lost a level of activity recently (and build new sub-groups from existing popular topics), but overall, the social density is consistently high.
If you're planning to launch a branded community, especially a community of practice, I suggest you begin by looking at Element14.
If you want to learn more about developing successful branded communities, sign up for The Pillar Summit's Professional Community Management course. You have 4 days remaining.