Sunday, March 20

How Does Your Community Grow?

When I hear the phrases “engaging community members” and “building community” used, I can’t help it: my ears perk up a little. Having spent over a decade immersed in online communities – both business and non-business related – I feel I’ve got a pretty decent handle on what works and what doesn’t.

My concern these days? I feel like we’re forgetting the basics. I’m all for engaging the members in your community, I’m all for interacting, and I’m all for encouraging conversation. However, I think we’re being a little full of ourselves to think that simply doing these things make a community thrive. The fact of the matter is, communities are more than just words on a website. They require real connections to be made – simply being there isn’t enough. Without relationships and interaction beyond “Tell us what you think of us!” you have little more than an online suggestion box.

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough see a number of “sides” of online communities. I’ve been a new member, I’ve been a volunteer community leader, I’ve been a community moderator…I’ve done it all. One thing I’ve watched happen time and time again is a community dying due to lack of relationships forming. On the other hand, I’ve also watched relationships form and bloom countless times. The difference in the atmosphere of the communities is astonishing; one is cold and stark, the other jubilant and engaging all of its’ own accord. To further illustrate my point, take this into consideration: in 2002 I was pregnant with my youngest son and joined an “Expecting Club” community. I’m proud to tell you that I am still in contact with a large number of these women on a daily basis and consider them some of my best friends. Without the formation of relationships, of solid connections, these communities wouldn’t be a part of my life I look upon fondly.

Obviously online communities in the business world have differences from personal on non-business communities, but I think that the basics of what make them work stand true. Unless you’re willing (and able) to provide a massive amount of incentives for post counts or answering surveys, ensuring that your community has something to keep people coming back is essential. Without members, you have no community, plain and simple. Sure you can continually invite and market yourself, but my question is this: Would you rather have the opinions of 1500 people who all visited your community once for the free t-shirt, or the opinions of 150 people who have put some serious time, thought and effort into relaying to you what they really think? The better the relationships you develop the more honest and open your members are willing to become. A major pitfall of those 1500 one-time visitors is that the opinions you’re going to hear are going to be mostly positive – they want to ensure they get the incentive. While the number may look better, the data you’re collecting isn’t going to be nearly as beneficial to your business or organization.

My advice to anyone, whether on a personal or professional level, interested in starting an online community? Make sure you’re willing to put the time into handling it properly. Hire the right people to moderate it, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that great community management/moderation comes easily or cheaply. Don’t expect that the same person who manages communities aimed at men will be as successful at managing those aimed at children. If you’re lucky this is the case, but remember that it’s not going to be the general rule.

Communities thrive when they’re allowed and encouraged to do so. This is a fundamental truth we should all keep in mind. Now go out and foster those connections!

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