Rules and warnings for building successful online communities

Most online communities are simply online ghost towns. People register, get their login details, visit once, decide its not for them and never return. This pattern is repeated over and over. Maybe online communities are not for you? Here is how to decide, and if you still want one - here is how to avoid the most obvious mistakes.

Silver City Ghost Town
Image: Silver City Ghost Town

Before you start two warnings:

First Warning: What do you want this community to do?

Please carefully read these 3 apparently similar statements :

Statement 1:
"The purpose of our community is to keep customers, partners and prospective customers engaged around the latest developments in our products and services".

Statement 2:
"The purpose of our community is to initiate dialogue about our products and services with customers, partners and prospective customers".

Statement 3:
"The purpose of the community is for us, our customers, partners and prospective customers to share the kind of useful knowledge which indirectly underpins our products and services".

Now please read all 3 statements again to make sure you understand the difference between them . Heres the bottom line:

  1. If you want to do Statement 1 this is what your company website is for - now might be a good time to ask yourself is it achieving it?
  2. If you want to do Statement 2 then set up an online user support forum for your customers.
  3. If you want to built a authentic following who return time and time again and have a positive view of the value of your company then Statement 3 is the right answer. If you want to create 2-way dialogue seeded by yourselves around the broad non-proprietary knowledge which underpins your products and services but not straying into promotion, product news or product specifics - then read on!

Second Warning: Most online communities are just ghost towns

Ben Worthen, writing for the Wall Street Journal (July 16, 2008), reported on a Deloitte survey of over 100 businesses who set up online communities and found that most of them (>75%) failed and were more like ghost towns than thriving communities. They found 3 main reasons these online communities failed: 1) focussing/spending too much on technology. 2) putting someone with no experience of online communities in charge and 3) selecting the wrong set of targets and metrics

You just have to scan through the groups in LinkedIN or Facebook and you will be amazed at the low volume of comments. You will also be amazed at the poorly disguised sales pitches thrown in under the guise of starting a discussion - which at least partly explains the low level of (human-generated) comments!

7 Golden Rules for online community Building

If you still want to proceed then you should take very seriously these 7 rules for online community Building:

  1. There is no big bang way to create an instant community
  2. Community Building takes time - don't start unless you are prepared to commit to it for at least 12 months
  3. The community must have an engaging purpose - if it is too narrow or boring then you are doomed before you start
  4. Opportunism kills communities - you need authentic engagement
  5. Protect your community - don't let spammers destroy your hard work
  6. Don't neglect place, face and voice
  7. Remember to build in some fun

Lets look at each of these in turn :

1. There is no "big bang" way to create an instant community

Real communities always start very small. "Big bang" communities are just crowds of the uncommitted - they might look like a group but they don't have what it takes. It is much better to have 5 or 6 really committed members than 50-60 members who are just there to as spectators. If you have a solid group of 5 or 6 "founder members" you can grow your community to 10-12 if each member brings on board just one more and takes responsibility for inducting them and so on carefully adding members one at a time in waves.

2. Community Building takes time - don't start unless you are prepared to commit to it for at least 12 months

Don't start a community and abandon it after a month - you will do your reputation no good whatsoever. Community building is like planting a garden - for a long time nothing seems to be happening then you get growth. Initially you must be prepared to plant the seeds (regular valuable posts) until you get engagement and find some other community leaders to share the burden with.

3. The community must have an engaging purpose - if its too narrow or boring then you are doomed before you start

Think long and hard about this. For example if you sell video conferencing services then the community focus might be everything to do with virtual engagement including good meeting practices. If you mention specific technology then you should include a range of products not just one.

4. Opportunism kills communities - you need authentic engagement

At some point you will have a valuable community developing and the thought will enter your head "What harm would a little product update or promotional message do?" This is the devil talking - banish all such thoughts from your head. It takes a long time to build your community reputation (for authentic valuable knowledge) and just seconds to lose it!

5. Protect your community - don't let spammers destroy your hard work

Once you get your community going the spammers will find you. There are two types to watch out for - external and internal. The external ones are easy to spot - typically they will post spam comments on public pages - you will filter a lot of these out simply by requiring login (as they are often spambots) but some will go to the trouble of logging in. When somebody does this once get rid of them and their contributions - they are not real members.

The second kind are those who join your community, lurk for a bit then start trying to take it over. You need to talk to them to see if they can become a leader in your community by working with you or whether you need to kick them out too. Be very vigilant here as competitors may join your community in disguise. HINT: A very important spam protection step is to carefully control a) who you allow to post messages and b) contact other members on a on-one basis (private message)

6. Don't neglect place, face and voice

Research shows that the strongest communities are those which have some element of connection around place. In many cases with geographically dispersed communities it is simply not possible but if you can see if there are ways that parts of your community can meet in person (best) or if not in person then virtually using video conferencing and audio conferencing. You really have no excuse for neglecting this aspect with great free tools like skype and google talk now so well established.
It is also a point proven by research that until somebody meets you or sees you on video then they are not totally convinced you are a real person and are likely to let you down. This is known as free-riding in communities.

For more on this read Free riding in teams, communities and networks: 5 tips for fighting it

7. Remember to build in some fun

Try and do somethings which are fun with your community - a community which has not laughed together is liable to fragment when the going gets tough.

For more on this read Making virtual communities and social networks sustainable


If you really want an online community and you are doing it for the right reasons and you follow these seven rules then you have no excuse for creating an online ghost town!

About Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson delivers keynote conference speeches, workshop facilitation and in-house consultancy in four key business areas:

  1. Creating High Performing Teams in enterprises including Virtual and Mobile Teams (based on the Bioteams Book)
  2. Establishing effective Collaborative Business Networks enabling companies to co-operate effectively in areas such as sales and product development (based on the book - The Networked Enterprise)
  3. How to use the latest social media technologies including blogging and online communities to promote enterprises, brand, organisation or event
  4. Development of graphical on-line interactive Business Dashboards and What-if Simulators for organisations to support Performance Improvement, Strategy Development and Executive Team Development.

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Very useful tips thanks. I have experienced this with forums, it takes way more effort and time than you realise - and that's just keeping the spammers out let a lone building a committed lively community.



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