Planting the seeds for a great online community
- 20 May, 2008
- 6 comments
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.
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.