What It Takes to Have a Great Online Community
Mix and match some of the solutions below to energize your association's online community.
By Ryan Crowe
I'm not one for lengthy introductions, so let's dive in. Below are 10 problems and potential solutions related to online communities.
1. You don't have passionate core members. The initial inclination when building an online community is volume. Getting those Follower counts high across your social channels seems paramount. And then after you reach a beefy threshold, that's when you start to sculpt your community. Why is this? Isn't the quality over quantity concept well known by now? Why is this the place we compromise?
A solution: Take the time to identify potential members that already exhibit a passion for the topic around which your community is built. Reach out to them and tell them what you'd like to accomplish with your community efforts. They may be able to help with their own personal networks and later help organize the community. Putting a lot of effort into identifying these individuals up front will help when it comes to initiating community topics of conversation and having key agents for interaction outside of your organization.
2. Your community manager is an outsider. You have a community of extremely well-versed and passionate UX designers (for example), and your community manager is just now learning about the importance of website wireframes. This doesn't mean she/he is bad at the job — they just aren't going to be fully aware of the potential to start conversations that ignite the community or to see opportunities in community discourse.
A solution: Get your community manager a mentor. Or, if you are the community manager, find a mentor. The better you understand what your community is talking about, the better you'll be at doing your job. It's important to know enough to be helpful.
3. Is everybody welcome? This might not be a problem for some online communities, but if you have a niche community there is an expectation of common knowledge or being able to generate conversation at a certain level. Granting everyone access to a community may not be the best way to reinforce a community identity.
A solution: Condition different channels for different community purposes. Twitter is great for "anyone is invited,” while a forum might be better for community access control. Setting expectations on each channel is how you can avoid isolating potential members, but also lets your community know that you're working hard to assure quality communication.
4. You haven't provided your community with a focus. You've attracted people to your community, but now they don't know where to start. Each community member has something that's important to them, even within your association's
A solution: Provide a focus that is important to your organization and to the members of your community. Utilize a mentor and the
passionate-user core to find a hot topic, and then marry that topic to your organization's goals.
5. Your community members have weak relationships with each other. You've started addressing your online community as multiple two-entity relationships — the member and the organization. There's a need for the organization and a desire from the community members to interact.
A solution: Organize online and offline (if possible) events that require group interaction. Events with tasks/activities that
require teamwork are especially useful in fostering inter-community relationships. A well-organized event allows for schmoozing and includes a structured group experience.
6. You're not acknowledging all forms of participation. As you build your community, you start to, perhaps unconsciously, assign
interaction values to various forms of community participation. What this may lead to is discounting the potential of members contributing little, but still taking time to contribute. This dynamic is especially a problem if you're focusing too much on cultivating those who will make up the "powercore” mentioned previously.
A solution: Power cores tend to make up the majority of community participation, but power cores also tend to make up a very small percentage of the membership. Your community participation is probably divisible by three: the high, medium, and low. Remember that potential power members may not seem that way at the beginning because they don't have time to post, they're temporarily busy, or perhaps they grow into the role as they gain knowledge about your community.
7. You're too controlling. Your association has goals for its community (you did set up goals, right? See number 10 if this is not the case), and your job may rely on you completing those goals. While we all have jobs to do, part of the job is being aware that this may not(although, I'm sure in some communities, explicit boundaries to maintain focus are beneficial) be the best way to manage your community.
A solution: Allow the community to grow and evolve naturally. If you try and stop that, they'll leave. You'll need to align your association's goals with the goals of the community, and not the other way around. It is much easier for your association to adapt than to change the natural ebb and flow of a group of people. With that being said, there is a careful balance to maintain between facilitating and dominating community management styles. You can't walk all over them, but don't let them walk all over you.
8. You haven't challenged your community intellectually. Your community has stagnated in growth and activity because the conversations are too familiar. Perhaps the problem is that you've stopped your recruiting efforts to foster the current members. Whatever's happening, you can see onset of ennui.A solution: Find some outsiders! This is more than just a renewal of your recruiting efforts, although that couldn't hurt; this solution relies on you finding people who will challenge your community. Have a community of Hybrid car owners? Find someone who will come in and write a post about the negative effects of Hybrid manufacturing (I'm not sure if there are any, but bear with me). This injection of change and counterpoint will help liven up a community and also, perhaps, educate them.
9. You haven't made the value of the community apparent. People are busy. They have tons and tons of choices when it comes to joining online communities. Because of this smorgasbord of choices, if the value of your community isn't readily apparent — they're going to pass.
A solution: Do some competitive research. Map out the pros and cons of pre-existing communities, and try to mitigate the negatives and enhance the positives. The chances are that you aren't inventing the wheel, but you do have the opportunity to replicate or re-invent the wheel, right? The information is out there, so go get it. After you figure out where you can add value, you need to work on a short, concise value proposition. A pitch! Can you fit that pitch into a tweet?
10. You don't know why you have a community. You think you know why, and you think the answer is "because we need one.” While that may be true, this cannot be why you have a community. Why do you need one? What are you trying to do? What problems are you trying to solve? If you've managed to establish a community, and you still can't answer this question — well, better late than never. So…
A solution: Establish definite goals. At first blush, this may seem to contradict the "let your community evolve” bit mentioned earlier. You can always add or subtract goals, if need be, or you can simply allow the path to achieving a goal to be flexible.
Notice that I've written "a” solution and not "the”solution. It's important to remember that online communities are still new, and there are tons of ways to fix any one problem. You should mix and match until you find something that is useful for your community. And finally, do the rest of your compatriots in community management a solid and document your tactics and strategy.
Ryan Crowe is the social media strategist at Stealth Creative. This article appeared as a guest blog on Social Fish.