One is the Loneliest Number…Community Building 101

Technically, building a community platform is easy: you just get a fist full of developers, hand them a spec, give them a blank server and turn them loose.  At some point in the not so distant future you have your new community site ready for testing.   Soon there after, you’re ready to welcome the real users.

The problem is, you quickly find, even if you’ve got a premium domain, that the world isn’t sitting around waiting for you to open your new site.  It’s time for the real building work to begin; and if you’re in the position most of us end up, there’s probably little or no budget for the community development.

It’s time to go guerrilla!

I’ve decided to take a site with great potential and adopt it as my own for the purposes of proving the guerrilla community building tactics I’m about to share with you – so this article will actually come in a series of installments; think of it as a lab experiment.

The site I’m using is Cycling.com which I’ve chosen as it’s a likely candidate for a bump from the Olymics.  You’d expect that you’d be able to discuss cycling events at a site like cycling.com, right?

First, an overview:

Cycling was relaunched on a new platform, vs. the old park page that had inhabited the site, sometime in late February, and since has had little or no attention from either the site editors, or anyone that could be considered a community builder.  It is built on a hybrid platform of WordPress and BBPress, with pretty much all of the community functions you’d expect to see:

  • Forum
  • Personal profile page
  • User generated content, including articles, videos, photos, blogs, etc.
  • Groups – which also leverage the ability to create private group articles, photos, videos, etc.
  • Friend capabilities – add a friend, see friends activities, personal messages, etc.

For the Olympics, we’ve added an RSS feed of the Lenovo Bloggers that gives us access to the cyclists who are blogging.  Very cool (big thanks to David Churbuck at Lenovo).  This gives us a steady flow of new content, which I don’t have to write.  I’ll also be putting up summary articles of the cycling action as the events unfold.  This evening, I’ll be writing up both the men’s and women’s road race events.

Where we are now:

We’ve got the classic problem: no one wants to be the first, and there hasn’t been enough forum traffic to get any gravitas going.  Yes, we get traffic, but it’s almost all unique, meaning that we’re not getting the return traffic. In short, it isn’t working.

Guerilla Community Building 101:

At random, here are some of the techniques I will be using to try to jump start the discussions:

  • I’ll be posting on the forum under a couple of different user names, so that it doesn’t seem that anyone is “the first” to join the community.
  • I’m looking to enlist some friends who are avid riders to get things going.  I may resort to bribery by making it a condition of my sponsoring them for the Pan Mass Challenge (benefit for cancer) although they all know I’ll contribute no matter what.
  • I’ve added a tag line to my email sig as well as the sig I use on my established, successful sites.”Join me on Cycling.com for 2008 Olympics Cycling News, Videos, Athlete Blogs, and Discussions”
  • I’ll keep the discussion going by adding new content daily.
  • I’ll have an email sent whenever anyone posts, and will make sure that any question is answered within a reasonable time period (to me, that means within 2 hours during the work week and 24 on weekends, but I will aim to be better.
  • Graft – I’ll have some gimmee stuff done up to hand out, and put a bounty on best post of the week (once I have some posts).
  • Stickers – I’m getting some bumper stickers to both hand out and put on my own vehicles.
  • If I were truly an expert, I’d be participating on other cycling sites, acting as the expert, answering questions, and I’d have my url in my sig.
  • I’ll be commenting on cycling blogs and you can bet I’ll be using my own url.
  • I’ll enlist help wherever I can get it –  Within the company I know there are some pretty serious riders.  I similarly have friends who are riders and I will ask all to give me a couple posts a week for while.
  • Early adopters will be cherished – I will find ways to make them feel special and to show them they are truly appreciated.

As such, I’m also asking for *YOUR* help!  If you’re a cyclist, join the site and let’s start talking.  Since you’re coming from this blog and this post, you then no doubt have some community building skills to add, and I’ll be happy to have you on board!

I’ll be reporting back on what’s working and what isn’t.  Of course, as with anything in community development, your mileage may vary.

Why Most Online Communities Fail…

David Churbuck linked to the Ben Worthen story in the WSJ yesterday entitled “Why Most Online Communities Fail“.  David points out that a simple typo from a Deloitte powerpoint managed the ruin the story and deflect the discussion from the matter at hand to a moot discussion on percentages.

1. Going out with the claim that 60% of businesses invest over $1 million in online communities thanks to a Deloitte typo that should have stated 6% is not a great way to get off on the right credibility foot. Worthen does the correction, but …

The point I’d like to make goes more to the point in Churbuck’s piece that will be overlooked – “This is bad research on a tired topic.”

You see, the thing that all of the social media gurus, wannabes, and willneverbes would have us believe is that community is easy. You build it and they will come.  The truth is so very far from there that if it was commonly known no marketer in his/her right mind would ever utter the words “let’s build a community, gang!” again.

Sounds harsh?  Well, it ought to.  There are way to many businesses committing to creating community development without the slightest thought of what the real ramifications of failure are.  And even worse, they judge the cost of creating their communities solely on the basis of what the servers, dev costs, etc. will be and routinely devote little or no resources to actually managing and developing that community.

I say it again, more clearly: a community will fail surely if you do not devote experienced people to building and moderating it.

Note that word, people.  I don’t say person.  And there’s a lot more that goes along with this.  There are ton of real, hard costs that you’re going to face in order to make a community successful.  Building in these terms isn’t development, it’s people attracting other people to your service, getting them committed, and giving them reasons to stay there.  This big myth is that communities build themselves.  When done right, it will look like they build themselves,  but there’s always someone helping the community get going.

This is where I see companies fall flat on their face time and time again (sorry, not gonna name names here, but I could).  They think that assigning a marketing intern to run the site they just poured a million in development and up front costs into, is going to be sufficient.  People come in once, if your lucky, look around, realize they’re essentially hanging out in an empty room and leave.  Eventually the company folds up shop, does a post mortem, fires the intern and promptly forgets every lesson they should have learned.  Then someone chimes in “hey gang, let’s build a user forum and share our brand.” Then the cycle starts all over again.

Most businesses have no business running communities.  They want to make “the brand more transparent” and in the end, they hurt the brand by creating a bad user experience that has nothing to do with their actual brand, but through association, it’s now taking the hit.

If you don’t have experts who can show you working communities they’ve built, and if you’re relying on consultants who aren’t cautioning you, you need to be very wary. Personally, I feel the best place to expose the brand to a community is through active sponsorship of existing communities.  You don’t need to own it, you get a ton of mileage for your buck, and the positive effects start right away, not a year from now when  your development cycle is done.

Think about it…why own a community when you can rent one…

More reading:

Helen Whitehead on Why Do Online Communities Fail? – a well thought out piece with some good advice.

R. Todd Stephens, Phd – making the point that communities struggle when there’s no good business reason to get involved.

C. David Gammel at High Context Consulting on the Three Reasons Branded Online Communities Fail

Update: Tom O’Brien at A Human Voice commented on the Churbuck post with probably the most important note of all “the community vendors were scrambling hard to pull the curtain back up..”  Darned straight, they have been scurrying to get the genie back in the bottle.  Tom’s own post – “Social Media Madness: Build it & they will come . . .” also puts the lie to to the maxim that brands need to develop communities.  As he puts it, the community often already exists, and “increasing brand value” isn’t their goal.