Building community online is an art form that requires dedication, passion and hard work. It's a highly challenging undertaking and often the first year will be an uphill climb, no matter the amount of people or money behind your effort.
That said, successfully building an active, engaged community can be a tremendously rewarding experience; and a vibrant, active community online may become a valuable digital asset.
Here are eight critical best practices to remember when building community online:
1) Connect People with People: Connecting people with people is the most critical and important element of building community. Identify the critical social objects around which people interact within the framework of your community. Whether through teams, classes, lessons, meetings, events or any other medium, there are typically social events upon which people congregate. Structure the design of your community around these social objects to facilitate and encourage user interaction. Such an effort isn’t a simple design or development consideration; it requires critical thought and intelligent execution. But effectively architected social objects often represent the difference between success and failure for most online communities. It’s worth noting that many websites make the mistake of connecting users with content. Content is indeed important for any SEO campaign. But for an online community to grow in membership virally it must connect people with other people. This element represents the special sauce of what makes a community unique.
2) Simulate Real-World Actions: The far majority of users go online to conduct actions that they already complete in the real world. They go online because such actions can be completed easier, quicker and with less hassle. Examples of offline actions that can be more efficiently completed online include booking flights, organizing group events, sending out mass communications and buying stocks. To the extent that your community enables users to perform real world actions more effectively online, you will have achieved a major accomplishment.
3) Solve a Problem: The other main reason users go online is to solve problems. Products live and die to the extent that they are able to solve problems. Solving problems is less about growing community and more about building value but the two often go hand-in-hand and it’s worth highlighting. If your community-site can solve a problem effectively, users will flock. Focus is important. The more features you have, the less likely a user is to complete any one individual action. Prioritize features that solve the most critical problems and focus on solving these problems exceedingly well. There’s nothing wrong with solving one problem in a groundbreaking way. Google did it with search.
4) Member Profiles: Member profile pages are a must. They provide users with a social identity and a sense of loyalty to your community. Enable users to build out an evolving social identity that can be rewarded over time. Your ultimate goal is to encourage your users to connect emotionally with their profile pages.
5) Game-Like Rewards: Enable users to earn rewards through performing strategic actions. Examples include blogging, joining a group, creating an event, or other actions relevant to your community. Reward these actions with charms or another sort of visual emblem; and showcase these charms on profile pages as badges of accomplishment. Users genuinely care about their reputation online and will spend time to distinguish themselves from their peers. This game-like mechanics rewards user-generated activity, entices repeat visits and builds community.
6) Keep it Positive: Users are motivated more by positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement. The prospect of a negative reputation will stifle action. Build a reputation system that revolves around positive reinforcement. As an example, do not allow users to vote-down posts. Voting should run the spectrum from zero to positive numbers only. Such a scheme will encourage valuable, thoughtful contributions.
7) Community Development: Someone on your staff should patrol the community and proactively interact with members. Before choosing to comment, users will view the level of interaction on the site; if they consistently see posts without comments, they will be discouraged from posting. After all, who wants to share their valuable time when it won’t be recognized? Make the effort to ensure all user-generated-posts receive a positive, friendly and constructive response.
8) Handle Negative Posts: Removing overly negative and hateful comments is justified and encouraged. Such negativity can spread virally and your community shouldn’t tolerate it. That said, exercise judgment and a level of restraint with any deletions as to not alienate contributions.
To provide a real-world example, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign website was an excellent case study of executing on many of the aforementioned best practices. It was extremely successful at creating a viral network of activists across the country online. The community enabled users to perform actions quickly and easily online like raise funds, organize events and distribute campaign collateral. If not for the unifying portal, these actions all would have been completed offline, simply in less-organized and more fragmented fashion. It was also well designed, user-friendly and had critical social-media-marketing features. Surely it didn’t hurt that the co-Founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes, directed the site.
Keep the above eight points in mind when building and marketing your online community and you will significantly increase your chance of success.