Month: September 2012
You have a choice with your community; you
can narrow the focus or you can broaden it.
If you narrow the focus, it means you’re
using the information gathered through the community (what’s popular) to
identify specifically what members are interested in.
It means that you’re refining the community
concept. You highlight the discussions that are within the focus and let the
rest fade away. You change the copy of the community to reflect its more narrow
By narrowing the focus, you reach less
people but get those more interested in participating in a community about the
topic. By narrowing the focus you increase the level of activity per member.
By broadening the focus, you’re recognizing
there is something within the community that can be applied to a broader
sector. This is usually the personality of the community, but it might be an
Broadening can succeed. I’ve lost track of
the number of small communities that became huge successes within a broader
field (Facebook). But this is risky and rarely succeeds.
Given the choice,
I'd suggest you narrow and refine the focus.
Do user moderated communities work?
Sometimes, but not often.
Members might flag an item of spam. They're far more likely to complain to you about it. Worse still, that might just flag stuff they don't like (rather than what's bad for the community).
This isn't to say that user moderated communities don't work, It's to say that it's not just a technology problem. It's a social problem. It takes time to build the structures through which a community can moderate itself.
I'd begin by restricting which members that can self-moderate the community. Only allow those with 100 posts or a great reputation score to be able to flag bad stuff. Make it a privilege that members have to earn. Remove it for members that don't use it.
You need to put the structures in place for a user-moderated community to succeed. Knowing who, what, and how to flag is just one side of the problem. Motivating them to do it is another.
Once again the main challenge isn't enabling the technology, but motivating the participants to use it.
Communities for start-ups tend to take one of two approaches.
The first approach is the most common. The community manager is hired to manage the growing community. They respond to questions. They distribute information. They bring feedback from the community to the organization. They create and manage Facebook/Twitter accounts.
This is a scalable form of customer service. It's useful, but limited in scope and benefits.
The second approach is less common, but far more beneficial. Here the community manager is hired to connect and grow an audience of passionate believers in the start-ups cause. The community manager works to build a strong sense of community amongst individuals.
This isn't an advocacy campaign designed to foster normative commitment, it's community building process to encourage advocacy through affective commitment. You want members to continue supporting the organization through their belief in the cause and their commitment to each other.
You need a cause before you begin the community. You need to know the meaning your start-up gives to the world. You need a hosted place for those who believe in that meaning to interact with each other. You need to find people whom share that passion. You initiate discussions, establish goals, set tasks, and provide plenty of opportunities for members to contribute to the cause. Giving members influence is important.
You also need regular events and activities to facilitate these activities. Hackathons are great, but so are fundraising nights and any event that encourages a large amount of progress in a short amount of time.
Gradually they'll attract new people, you establish future goals, you let members build their social identities around your organization's efforts.
At the moment we have a lot of start-ups doing customer service, but very few effectively building genuine communities around their efforts. Focus less on the technology and more on the meaning it gives to the world
Demographics get little attention from
The way you approach building a community
for those aged 65+ is very different from those aged 8 – 15.
If you’re building a community for those
ages 8 – 15, you’re building a community for an audience that may never use
traditional computer screens (or e-mail addresses!). How will you reach them?
How will you make your message stand out amongst the other noise? How will you tackle the issues with
targeting a youth audience? How will you identify their problems, hopes, and relevancies?
If you’re building a community for those 65
and up, you’re probably building a community for those that will never participate heavily from tiny-screen devices, or be interested in new music
(this isn’t stereotyping, people become fixed in their habits around their late
This is just the beginning. There is an absolute WEALTH of information on building communities for a variety of different demographics. You owe it to your members to read and learn it before you begin your community effort.
Any time you’re building a community for a
demographic that’s not your own, you have to study the demographics first.
This sounds obvious, but it's ignored often.
Make the community about your members.
Not the brand, but the members. Communities about brands usually struggle. The concept, content, activities, and discussions aren’t interesting enough to sustain a long-term discussion.
You see this when there is a community about a brand’s products, with content about the latest product news (upcoming releases), activities asking members to vote which particular features of the product they like best, and overly-optimistic discussions about when members first used the product. This betrays a startling lack of respect for your audience.
This is often, sadly, the norm for community building rather than the exception. It’s a community in name only. It’s a marketing push for the brand trying to co-opt the concept of the community. It should be a community push co-opting the brand.
Communities about things people have a strong interest in succeed. People are rarely as interested in the brand as we think. This affects the concept, content, discussions, and activities you initiate and facilitate in your community.
Communities about brands are boring. Few brands are interesting enough to build a community around. You might be able to build a customer-service channel, but not a genuine community. You might have many customers that like you, are loyal to you, but don’t want to spend their spare time talking about you.
Conceptualize around something within the broader topic. Kotex Girlspace isn’t a community about feminine hygiene products, it’s a support community for girls when they get their periods (or just want to chat about other issues). Before you launch your community, talk to your members. Identify their biggest problems, hopes, relevancies and other interests. Build a community around that.
Make your content the local newspaper for your community. Write about what’s happening in the community. Write about interesting discussions, upcoming events, preview events, new members, and issues that affect the group. Interview members. If two members get married, write about that too. Mention your members’ milestones.
The content should be the place where people go to find what's new in the community. It helps create the narrative for the community.
Initiate activities and events
Schedule regular events and activities in your community calendar. Identify the biggest problems members have and schedule a live-discussion/expert speaker to address the issue.
Organize or facilitate offline meet-ups. Set a challenge/quiz for members and keep a regular score table. Host a week-long debate. Keep it fresh and interesting (by interesting, we mean relevant to what member’s hope to do in the future or are struggling with right now).
Facilitate and initiate member-relevant discussions
Don’t ask members how awesome your products are (this happens curiously often), ask members interesting questions about their lives. What is your biggest achievement? What do you think about an industry issue? There are no shortage of conversation starters.
Highlight the off-topic and highly-active discussions. Promote them through other channels. Encourage high levels of self-disclosure between members. Use this as social proof to promote further activity.
If you have an existing online community, the single quickest way to make it better is to make it more about the members and less about the brand (customer service channels aside). You benefit from a branded community, not branded conversations.
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It's tempting to pre-determine desirable behaviours.
e.g. no off-topic discussions, no personal insults, no advertising/promotion.
This is known as top-down community planning.
The problem is top-down community planning is risky. How do you know what members want to do? How do you know which behaviours are acceptable for the group a opposed to you? In CancerConnection personal insults would be inappropriate, in 4chan they might be acceptable – even expected.
Aside from the basics (nothing illegal), I'd suggest waiting to see what behaviours the community thinks are approriate. Which behavioural norms emerge? It's these behaviours you want to encourage. It's these behaviours that will help develop a stronger sense of community.
If members don't like to talk about certain topics, put that in the guidelines. If it's not considered ok to ask someone about any personal details, put that in there too. If most people congratulate someone on a great comment, add that. Just don't pre-determine these behaviours.
Enforcing normative community behaviours upon new members is a far better option than enforcing top-down desired behaviours upon the community.
Online community building has more in common with offline community building than online marketing.
Communities aren't developed through expensive websites, press releases, big promotional pushes, mass e-mails, influencer-outreach, contests and competitions or any other symptom of Big Launch Syndrome.
You're not looking for a large amount of attention for a short amount of time. You're looking to start a movement that lasts for decades.
Communities are developed by identifying the strong common interest (hopes, aspirations, passions, problems) of your audience and connecting people around it. You need to reach out to people in genuine, honest, ways.
That means interacting with people before you launch the community. Identifying that strong common interest. Getting them to talk to each other around that interest. You gradually invite more people. You sustain the discussions and cultivate a sense of identify amongst this group.
This is an entirely different skill-set from online marketing. If we keep thinking of ourselves as doing online marketing; we'll continue to have a high-failure rate, short-term communities, and negative associations with online spam.
If we think of ourselves as the evolution of traditional community builders; we'll build meaningful communities that improve the lives of participants and last for decades.
This isn't a semantic issue. It's an issue about how you approach your community.
Do you start small, connect people and steadily grow? Or do you start with an expensive platform, mass promotional push, and die a quick death? It's a real, genuine, choice you need to make.