I’m no stranger to online communities. I’ve belonged to them since yahoo groups were about the coolest thing since sliced bread (no offense to Yahoo or the groups, it’s an example) but let’s face it; online communities and social networking have come a long way. It seems like eons since I made my first post on a message board or forum.
All those years of participating paid off for me when I became part of Clubmom (now Cafemom). I got the chance to learn social networking inside and out. I discovered how to write a good post (before blogs were mainstream), get people talking, and work as a team to make the community a success. The other moderators became family to me and I’ve never forgotten the lessons we learned and taught each other about growing a community, friendship, and social networking.
In the last couple of years, I’ve started putting that knowledge to good use. I’ve spoken with other community leaders and websites about how to build a strong community. I’ve worked as the Chief Mom Officer with Babyspot.com, helping them to get their community off the ground and I’ll soon be working with another as well (more about that later!) Through all of that time though, there seems to be one major rule that everyone seems to be missing about social networking and communities and that’s if you aren’t spending time to build the community, no one else will either. Your members will disappear faster than fresh baked chocolate chip cookies in a room full of Kindergartners.
Companies today think that they can cash in on the online community trend and social networks by putting together a site with some amazing features and custom tools.
Well, you can. And you can’t.
I know a lot of companies and start ups that spend most of their investment money on development and IT. That’s great because you need a platform that works but you have to set aside some money for promotion and community building because let’s face it, if you don’t have the members to back up your community, all you’re left with are some really cool tools and features that have no one to use them.
I’ve stuck with communities that had kinks to work out in their development because they had a community of members to see it through. Even if we were posting and commiserating about the bugs and kinks, we were actively sharing. You can’t simply put a platform together and expect people to arrive. You have to go out there and get them. That’s where promotion comes in.
The problem or advantage of promotion, is that it’s an ongoing thing. It doesn’t just happen one time and then stop. A whole team should be forging new ideas to attract users. I recommend putting together a marketing team made up of members as well as PR people. Your members are the people who are going to respond to the campaign that the PR people put together. They are also going to be the ones who will keep the promoting going by telling their friends about your community and participating in the discussions that develop.
One without the other leaves the door open for not reaching the right people or not reaching them effectively.
See online communities aren’t just about the features and the tools. It’s about the connecting. Look at Twitter (stay with me here people); forget all of the cool apps for your phone, computer, blog and such and just focus on the platform itself. It has no fancy bells and whistles (the apps other people have developed are the bells and whistles), you can tweak your page just enough so people know who you are and what you’re about but in the end, it’s about what YOU are saying and who you’re saying it too.
For example, despite all of the new online communities popping up and the ones that are still in development, iVillage has a strong community based on the conversations people are having. Yes, they have branched out and changed tremendously in the past five years but all of that came later, AFTER they had their hold on the people who were chatting and sharing information inside their message boards.
I know there are a lot of very successful online communities out there, they have some great featurs, tools and widgets to make your head spin. However, I see a successful community as one that has members first and then builds their site around them; not around the features they can offer.
What do you think? What are the important components to making an online community successful?