Planting the seeds for a great online community

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The web site's done. The launch date is set.

Now - before you open the site's doors to the world - you have the chance to take a few key steps that will play a bigger role in shaping the community you’re creating than any other measure you’re likely to take.

So take a deep breath, and think about the kind of community you’re about to host. Think about the tone you’re trying to foster, the culture you’d like to see take root. Think about what success looks like.

And then take a few critical steps to starting your community off on the right foot:

Know what you want, and don’t be shy about it: You should have a clear answer to the question "What does success look like?" That includes everything from the kind of content you want to the way you're hoping people will treat each other.

It also includes how open and participatory you really want your community to be. Be honest, and a little conservative: it's easier (and a much happier experience!) to open up once you've built up some confidence and trust than to claw back privileges from your users.

Knowing those things yourself is only part of the battle; you need to convey them to your users. You'll do that in the initial content you create (see below), but you also want to spell it out for them.

Write a set of user guidelines – not the legal bafflegab of most terms of use agreements, but a conversationally-worded guide to making the most of the site.

And instead of the typical shopping list of "don'ts", phrase it wherever possible in positive terms. (We're pretty happy with the version we wrote for ChangeEverything – find it here.)

Seed your community with content: You know how nobody wants to be the first one on the dance floor? People are a lot more willing to participate if they see others doing the same. And they're more likely to see your community as a worthwhile place to invest their time if there's plenty going on.

A tip: try to have something in every category of content, so nobody feels like they have to be the ones to break the ice.

Chances are you'll be one of the people creating the first burst of content and activity... which means it's one last chance to kick the tires on your new ride. Is the workflow as smooth as it can be? Are there any confusing steps crying out for documentation?

The content at this stage is going to be the model for a lot of what will follow. So make sure it reflects what you're hoping to see - from the voice (serious and substantive? irreverent and provocative?) to the length (a few lines of text? a 20-minute video?) to the quality and production values (Hollywood? your parents' basement?).

Introduce the human element: Start poring over your address  book, your lists of social network friends and your galaxy of online contacts. You’re looking for the community's first members: people you trust to generate the kind of content and participation you want to model for the cavalcade of strangers who will soon be coming through the door.

Who are they? They're articulate: not necessarily the greatest writers in the world, but straightforward, engaging and readable. They're positive: willing to give you criticism, but always on the lookout for solutions. And they're "people" people: they get along with others, and they share the values of the community you're trying to create.

Invite them to a private preview - in person, if they live near you, or via a web conference if they don’t. Walk them through the site and solicit their feedback.  And ask them to become the first members of this community - the model citizens.

Watch what happens: As your community garden starts to sprout, keep an eye out for the patches that need special care. Are users having trouble using a particular feature? Do you need to encourage a particular kind of content? Maybe that means tweaking your documentation, your design or (perhaps in a later round of development) your site's features.

If someone seems reluctant to make that first post, talk it over with them – and there's no reason it can’t be by phone or in person.  Help them sharpen an idea for their first contribution, and fit it to the structure of the site. If you need to, walk through the process right up to clicking the "submit" button and watching for comments.

Does it all sound like a lot of work? It probably is. Our rough guideline is that you need to spend at least as much time and money on animating a community than you do on building the technology in the first place.

But that work will pay for itself quickly. The effort you put in today will make your community healthier and more vibrant - less prone to conflict and inappropriate behaviour - and a lot more likely to succeed.

Comments

Gerry Kirk says

May 21, 2008 - 6:05am

Great advice, Rob. I'll definitely keep your notes of wisdom in mind as I work on www.greenmeans.ca. My biggest challenge is finding that first group of people to work on something. So often it seems I end up doing nearly everything that a larger group ought to be doing.

So for now, I'm the techie / writer / promoter of greenmeans, but I'm hoping once it starts to have more content and more shape that I can reach out to people I know locally to climb on board. 

Tawnya Lancaster says

May 30, 2008 - 10:38am
Good advice. I'd also add one thing. The most successful community sites that I've seen are the ones that give value to their users, i.e. the user is getting something from the site—whether being able to somehow promote their own blog/site, publicize their event or news, or simple just getting really useful information. The more you can make it a "win-win," where everyone benefits from contributing, the more robust the site will be. A good example of this is Global Grind (http://globalgrind.com/spotlight), a site launched for the Hip Hop community. The biggest content contributors to Global Grind are people who are trying to promote their own music, blog, art, etc.

Chantal Foster says

June 21, 2008 - 11:33am
Our rough guideline is that you need to spend at least as much time and money on animating a community than you do on building the technology in the first place.

Right on the money!

I've created a large online community in Albuquerque, NM and frequently receive requests from orgs who'd like a similar site. They're all ready to go with a $5,000 budget and I painstakingly try to explain that technology (which is already more expensive than $5k) is only one tiny part of the equation.

Just this morning, I decided to make public my real costs for an online community like Duke City Fix in an attempt to make people aware of the nurturing or "animating" required to be successful.

How much would it cost to build Albuquerque's DukeCityFix.com?

I'm not sure how folks will react to this information, but the process I used to build our hyper-local online community is nearly identical to the process you describe above. As long as we keep preachin' it, folks are bound to eventually get it.

Thanks for the ever-illuminating information.

Rob Cottingham says

June 21, 2008 - 4:23pm

Great post, Chantal - one of the best I've read on the subject. And congratulations on the success of DCF; it's great to see such a thriving local community.

Hope you'll feel free to share some of your experience - what's worked, what hasn't, what really gets your users jazzed. We'd love to hear more from you!

Chantal Foster says

June 21, 2008 - 8:59pm
Hey thanks! Running an online community is an ever-evolving combination of art and science, isn't it? As an urban beekeeper, I like to think of my beehive and my online community as similar exercises in delicate, intuitive, and studious management. Now that's a bottomless mine for stories... Love what you all do. Keep the faith.

Jon says

November 6, 2008 - 12:45pm
I'm just going through this stage now with LondonFlatmate.net It is difficult though because I don't want to create any adverts on there my self, I'm not looking for a flat and I don't want any bogus adverts! I'm just trying to get the word out to all the right people and constantly advertise locally.

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