Hence, it is becoming an increasing norm for organisations to achieve this objective of understanding customers and their needs by forming or building a community of its customers or potential customers online.
An online community is defined as set of interwoven relationships built upon the foundation of shared interests. These shared interests can refer to a diversity of topics, activities, or commonalities which bring people together online.
These communities have proved to have contributed to success of online firms Facebook.com, and Amazon.com. While some organisations have extended their online and offline presence through online communities, other organisations have originated as online community focused on a shared interest like eBay, thus without the Internet or an equivalent communication medium these organisations may not exist. In both instances, there is objective need for the underpinning organisation or administrator of the community to understand its members or potential members in order to create value for the community.
Specifically communities may be categorised to be oriented around three main interests; Information-driven, activity-driven, and commonality-driven. Within information-driven community, the primary interest on members is the sharing of information – actionlink.org.uk; for Activity-driven community the primary interest is the shared activities – eBay; and for the Commonality-driven the primary interest is the common attribute or characteristic – community of practitioners, dta.org.uk. The value created within these communities is defined by the benefits to its members to a larger extent, and to the founding organisation or administrator of the communities. The community creates this value by satisfying needs of members which are is not be available individually and hence tends to be unique. The value is thus generated from the interrelationships between users and the administrator or founding organisation.
The interrelationships can be characterised as three identifiable patterns from which value can be created and transferred within the community;
User-to-user: User generated content such as member-written articles, opinions, advice, and sharing resources.
Administrator-to-user: Administrator created content such as news, issues, exclusive research and reports and featured articles and interviews with practitioners or special guests.
User-to-administrator: User generated such as revenue from product sales or trading, content fees, commissions, advertising sales.
Though these benefits or value proposition may seem easily identifiable and achievable, creating a successful community which leverages these benefits is not an easy task in reality. This would require the dedication of founding participants of the community to create and sustain interest.
Building a website into a vibrant community filled with many contributors is very difficult and it nay be impossible to break down the exact steps. Below, we’ll try to put together some of the basic ones:
1. Make sure you really want to do this!
You know how interviewers ask someone who has lived a full life and they’re near death, if they could re-live their life again, what they would do different? You have to ask yourself that before you lift a finger building a community. Are you ready to be a leader? Are you ready to do all the work necessary to create not just a normal, engaging website, but one that many others can use? Are you ready to spend every waking moment watching it? Are you ready to stay up all night re-coding main areas of the site after someone hacks the files? Are you ready to keep it up, day in and day out for as long as you can stand it?
I can’t underestimate how much time you will spend on a community website. It will take longer to create, often months to get rolling, with constant tweaking and twiddling of the code to keep everything running smoothly
This is the most challenging point in the list, but it’s good to get this one figured out before you plunge full speed into new development.
2. Have both a compelling idea and compelling content
There are lots of possible reasons to start a community, but generally it’s good to focus on a specific topic. Having a specific topic means you’ll have an easier time explaining your site’s purpose, and quickly find like-minded people to contribute their thoughts and content to your community.
The PC Tech online community was easier in this sense because we already had our theme: Technology. Some Facebook users referred to our Facebook page as their “local geek community”. At that time, we had just under 1000fans, mostly from Uganda. But still, we felt we needed to have a community on the website: first because we wanted to offer some premium services (SMS, restrictions in some content items, e.t.c), and also because we could do it!
I guess having comments and allowing others to post was a compelling enough idea that lead to a busy site.
Compelling content is more important than you probably think. The most well-defined group purpose, with lots of motivated members, will go nowhere unless there is something to draw everyone together and get people contributing. This rule could go for any site really, but it’s important to have the best possible writing, design, photography, etc. that you can, and update as often as possible.
This is where community sites can excel over single person operations. With a diverse enough membership, you can have an expert artist, fantastic writers, great photographers, and senior programmers to build the best community site imaginable, and everyone pitching in can update the content on a frequent basis. It’s not exactly easy to get big membership numbers on which to draw for ongoing content, first you have to convince people to join your site, and contribute or comment on other work, and for that you need to start with good content. It’s sort of a Catch-22, but once you get a group of members creating good content, it creates a strong positive feedback loop that leads to growth, popularity and quality.
3. Seed content sets the stage
In the early months of a community site, it’s important that there is good content there, and that the comments or audience interaction are as close to optimal as possible, so that others reading the site can get a feel for how they are expected to act. If you’re building a site that covers politics and you’re dreaming of lively debate with a specific slant, make sure your first few articles, essays, or threads cover a good topic, and that some discussion follows where users (more than one) are debating things in an intelligent way. New members will see what is currently on the site, and react accordingly. If there is considerate and helpful criticism, others will usually follow. If there are “first posts!” and posts making threats on other members, other such garbage will follow that as well.
If it’s a company discussion forum, set up some threads and have some friends start discussions. If it’s a community of airplane enthusiasts, try and find 2 or 3 people to help start the site off the same way, by finding content and discussing it in a proper manner. You’re not shooting for having hundreds of fake discussion posts with no one, you’re just trying to convey a code of conduct by starting with things you can use as examples, and new members can follow.
4. Create some basic guidelines and be as fair as possible
When you’re the administrator on a community site, it’s important that you set the examples to follow. Post regularly and intelligently, and keep a high profile on the site so others know of your presence (this keeps some troublemakers away, since they know that the site owner will quickly catch wind of their mischief). Follow the Golden Rule, treat others as you would like to be treated, and watch for unsavory patterns that form.
If you catch something that’s happening with some regularity, and you’d like to see it stop, make it part of the rules of the site, and explain somewhere why people shouldn’t do it (start by putting a pointer somewhere near the posting forms, so curious contributors can read them if they like). Keep track of these rules, and put them somewhere people can easily find them on the site. When you have to enforce them, be nice about it, and show people the rules and how they broke them. The world isn’t a black-and-white place, so a lot of things will be up to your judgement, but explain as fully as you can why you chose to enforce a certain thing, and point out what the person can do to prevent it from happening again.
What users of a community don’t want to see is a headstrong leader who rules with an iron fist, and seems to take pleasure in enforcement. Users also don’t want to see a leader that changes his or her mind from day to day, enforcing rules with some users, while letting friends or long time members get away with murder. Users don’t want to be yelled at publicly when they make their first mistake, and they want to be given second chances. Fairness and consistency are key practices when you’re running an online community.
5. Have a place to talk about the site, somewhere on the site
It can be a brilliant idea to have a special section designed to talk about issues around the site: bugs and features users wish for, or any etiquette that may have been breached.
6. Spread the work out as much as possible
If it’s possible, have a few trusted friends act as moderators and administrators and allow people to contribute and streamline the code that runs the site. When the day-to-day maintenance can be spread out among several people, it’s okay if someone goes on vacation, gets busy with work or gets ill, or takes some time off from the site. If lots of new features are being requested, several people can work on them, and debug them faster. This situation isn’t always possible, and there are only a few projects that come to mind, such as evolt.org where a sizeable, diverse group keeps a site running.
7. Deal with troublemakers as quickly and nicely as possible
If you’re running a community site of some sort, there’s a good chance that people are going to try and mess with it, push the envelope, and hack at it for no good reason. The important thing for you to do as the administrator is deal with problem members as soon as possible and as carefully as possible. If you act rashly, or too strongly, you may incite a casual hacker into a full-blown making-your-life-a-living-hell type of hacker. You want to defuse any situation before it gets out of hand.
Start by emailing the person as soon as you can (but give yourself a little time to think, don’t send anything too rashly or in the heat of the moment), and asking them gently if perhaps they didn’t catch the guidelines pages, or that you’d prefer if they did their thing in a different way. Be careful of your wording in these emails – you don’t want to sound threatening or patronizing in any way. You might want to have a friend review the message before sending it to make sure it’s neither of those things. A short email reminding a trouble-making member of the error of their ways can usually take care of 90% of problems. Even if a member is doing something obviously malicious, they’ll usually stop when called on it.
If that doesn’t stop the problem member, the next thing to do is enforce some sort of penalty. This would usually be something like taking away posting rights or moderation rights, posing some new limit on their participation in the site. You will probably want to email them, letting them know what you’ve done, why you’ve done it, and most importantly what they can do to get the ban lifted.
Hopefully, you’ll never need to proceed after these first two measures, because a situation can quickly escalate into a war of willpower. If you have to start banning members, doing so will prove quite difficult. You may take all rights away from their account, block their IP address or range of IP addresses, and/or remove their contributions from the site. There are trickier means of hiding a problem user’s activity from the rest, but I won’t go into that here. It’s not a path you’ll ever want to take, and no one “wins” in the end; it’s just a big waste of energy for all involved.
The bottom line is to stop unsavory behavior by defusing nasty situations as early as possible, in as nice of a way as possible.
8. Highlight the good, recognize the work of others
I’m still searching for the perfect way to do this, but you’ll encourage good contributions by recognizing and highlighting the best your community has to offer. This is especially true when your community is larger, and you need something to point to as a casual “Hall of Fame” that new users can take their cue from. This can take many forms, you can use voting/moderation to let the community pick its favorites, you can utilize some sort of Brownie Point system where members earn credits for good contributions which are displayed somewhere (an ego stroking stop, basically), or if you’re lacking the extra technology just keep track of them by hand in a “Best of” setting.
Building an inviting place that attracts users and maintaining high quality content on a bustling community site is far from easy, but these key points should help get you going in the right direction.