Rich Gordon on Online Community Building

This one is right on the money – a must read for online community site owners (thanks to Steve Yelvington for the pointer).

Read the full article here

  • Know your users. What are they interested in? In what ways does the Internet help them accomplish things they want to do? How can interaction with other users help them with their jobs, their hobbies, their lives?
  • Understand your purpose. Building traffic or increasing user loyalty aren’t good reasons to try to build an online community — nor reasons to join one. A mission statement may be helpful. Amy Jo Kim, in her book, “Community Building on the Web,” includes a list of mission statements that have been used by successful online communities. Her examples include eBay (“Your Personal Trading Community”), iVillage (“Real Solutions for Women”), and Slashdot (“News for Nerds: Stuff that Matters”).
  • Choose the right host(s). The best online communities rely on individuals or groups to establish and enforce community norms, welcome newcomers, and deal with problematic members. These hosts can be employees, or they can be members of the community itself. But if they don’t have experience nurturing communities — the way the host of a cocktail party connects guests to one another, keeps the conversation going, and deals with people who’ve had too much to drink — they will need to learn new skills.
  • Reach out strategically to potential community members. Among potential members of your community, there are already some “low-hanging fruit” — people who have been active members of other online communities, have valuable information, and communicate well. Reach out to them to launch your community, but don’t stop with them. Without an infusion of less-experienced community members, your community may never get off the ground.
  • Remember the lurkers. For every person who makes public comments, there might be 10 or 100 who participate mostly by reading what other people have to say. Don’t turn them off by letting the quality of conversation deteriorate.
  • Beware of anonymity. The strongest online communities require participants to register and identify themselves — if not with real names, at least with real identities known to the community’s managers and/or leaders. “When people don’t have to take responsibility for what they say, then some of them will say a lot of irresponsible things,” writes John Coate, a pioneer in building online communities.
  • It’s the people, not the technology. Among people involved in online community building, you can get a vigorous debate going about topics such as threaded vs. non-threaded discussions, moderated vs. open forums, and the relative merits of blog comments, discussion boards, and social networking sites. But it seems clear that online communities can and do thrive using a variety of technological tools. For instance, the Fredericksburg (Va.) Free Lance-Star’s Fredtalk site runs on old-fashioned discussion board software, while the Bakersfield Californian’s Bakotopia uses social networking tools like profiles and tags.
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