10 Tips for Creating Successful and Sustainable Online Communities

August 7, 2013

NingI have set up a number of online communities throughout my career. Here are my top 10 lessons learned over the years:

  1. An initial time investment of 25 hours to get your online community set up is not unreasonable. It’s easy and fast to sign up, but there’s more to it than setting up an account and a profile. In the beginning, you need to build a foundation for ongoing and sustainable social interaction between your members. You need to create a community that provides value, resources and a sense that time there will be well spent.
  2. You also need to collect and add some quality content to populate the site from the very beginning. Do not wait until you have a critical mass of members, assuming that high quality content will simply appear. Set the example for what type of content you expect by populating the site with some initial contributions yourself.
  3. Most popular content includes “how to” information, tips, lesson plans and very practical hands-on type information. Avoid lengthy diatribes, theory or “heavy” philosophical material. Multi-media content is also popular.
  4. It’ll work best if you “seed” the community with at least half a dozen (or more, if you can get them) key individuals who are well-known in the social group. These “founding members” should be hand-picked by the administrator. They are folks who will be seen as trusted authorities or influencers. Get at least half a dozen founding members fully signed up (including their profiles and photos) before sending out a mass public invite. You may have to follow up with them once or twice to nudge them, but it’s worth it. Seeding your site with a few key influencers can help build the online community quickly and effectively.
  5. People will have a look to see who else is part of the online community before they sign up themselves. If they see people they know, trust and like on the list of virtual community members, they are more likely to sign up themselves.
  6. Ask each of your “founding members” to contribute one piece of content — an article, a blog post or something that will bring value to the community. Part of the success of your Ning will depend on having quality contributions from a variety of members.
  7. Plan on updating your online community at least once a week. One of the biggest downfalls of online communities is that they stagnate because no one contributes.
  8. Approve new members. Human spammers or spam bots may try to sign up for your online community. Some services that offer online communities give you the option to require that new members be approved. If your service offers that option, I recommend accepting it. It’s a little more work upfront, but it keeps the quality of your online community high… which will keep your members happy.
  9. If you do get spammers in the community, eject them immediately. No apologies and no questions asked. If necessary, you may need to apologize to community members for spammer activity and let them know that you have taken steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
  10. Invite contributions from members on an ongoing basis. Send out periodic and personalized e-mails to members letting them know that you have showcased their work or you’d like to invite them to contribute. Avoid sending form letters or messages that are not personalized. Sending occasional personal e-mail communications will be more effective than mass mailouts or “blasts”. By the way, this goes beyond a form letter that simply has the person’s first name in the salutation. That no longer counts as genuinely personalized communication. Add a comment about the person as human being. Ask about their spouse, kids, pets or latest project or vacation, using specific details that lets the sender know it is not really just another form letter.

Over the past few years, I have noticed a curious trend. Five years ago, fewer people knew what online communities were all about. Those who knew signed up without much resistance and contributed generously. Now, more people know what online communities are and understand how to participate in one, but at the same time, people are getting pickier about what they sign up for. Even though more people have higher technology literacy levels when it comes to understanding both the concept and the “nuts and bolts” of online communities, that does not necessarily correlate to a willingness to sign up for one.

The trick to creating a sustainable and successful online community is continually providing value to members, without overwhelming them. You must respect their time, their privacy and their willingness to engage. Time and energy are valuable personal resources. If you want someone to spend time and energy in your online community, make it worthwhile for them.

An online community is not a sales platform and nor is it a space for one person to broadcast their ideas or opinions. A community — whether it is online or in real life — must be interactive, engaging and supportive for everyone.

Ning is my favorite online platform for online communities, especially for education and non-profit. There is a cost, but it is minimal. The Ning name is also trusted and well-known. I don’t think you need to budget tens of thousands of dollars to have a custom-built platform.

(Note: I have no affiliation to Ning and receives no financial or other benefits from promoting them. I just think they are a good service that’s worth recommending.)

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Share or Tweet this: 10 Tips for Creating Successful and Sustainable Online Communities http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Do

If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


How Community Conversations Create Powerful Possibilities

February 23, 2013

The other night we held a “community conversation” as part of our “Creating Space for Strength” project. Together with my two colleagues, Lee Tunstall and Vilma Dawson, the three of us were thrilled to facilitate the evening for this amazing group of Calgarians.

Representatives from Calgary’s North Central Communities

Over 40 people attended the event, including local elected representatives, Hon. Teresa Woo-Paw, MLA for Calgary Northern Hills and Calgary Alderman, Jim Stevenson.

Creating Space for Strength - Panorama shot

Citizens from a number of Calgary communities attended:

  • Harvest Hills
  • Panorama Hills
  • Coventry Hills
  • Country Hills
  • Hidden Valley
  • MacEwan Glen
  • Sandstone Valley

World Café format

We used a “world café” style of conversation. We started off by explaining that the purpose of the meeting was to find out what mattered to community residents. Then, to take the first steps towards envisioning what the community could look like in the not-too-distant future.

People worked in groups of 5 or 6 at small tables, using key questions to guide their conversations. We asked them to jot down their key ideas and points on sticky notes. Later, volunteers collected the sticky notes from all the tables and grouped them into common themes.

We asked four key questions, framed in asset-based community development (ABCD) way:

  • What is good and strong about our community?
  • What could be better?
  • What would you like to see the community achieve in the next 5 years?
  • How do we get there?

Creating space for Strength - community conversation 1

Community-driven

Even though a team of 3 of us consultants facilitated the evening, the whole event was planned, organized and promoted mostly by Northern Hills Community Association.

This picture shows two volunteers from the community association grouping the sticky notes from each question into themes.Creating Space for Strength (Moraig and Paul)

The community association booked the space for the event (a meeting room in a local grocery store) and arranged for food and beverages. They ordered wraps, veggie and fruit trays, cheese and crackers and sweets.

They kept in mind that the population living in their communities is culturally diverse, so they were careful to pay attention to dietary restrictions such as having beef and pork products separated from other foods, and offering completely vegetarian options. The provided a variety of water, juice and soft drinks, too. There is something that brings people together over food and so this was an important element of our evening.

The community association also took the responsibility of buying all the supplies for the evening, including hundreds of sticky notes and enough markers so that everyone could have one to use.

Results

We have yet to formally analyze the data from the event, but informally I can say that by the end of the meeting, the room was buzzing with energy. Residents stayed for a long while after the event wrapped up. They wanted to talk more about their community and how to improve it.

A number of attendees took the initiative to exchange contact information and ask how they could get involved.

Overall, it was a great night that ended on an energetic and inspired note.

As always, we want to acknowledge the organizations that are making this work possible:

Project Origins – Northern Hills Constituency

Project Funders – Government of Alberta (CFEP Grant); United Way of Calgary and Area; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association

Project Supporters – Northern Hills Constituency; City of Calgary; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association; United Way of Calgary and Area

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If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or leave a comment. Thanks!

Share or Tweet this: How Community Conversations Create Powerful Possibilities http://wp.me/pNAh3-1z7

If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


Community Conversation – Creating Space for Strength in Calgary’s North Central Communities

February 21, 2013

Creating space for strength in Calgary - Eaton International Consulting Inc.Tonight we are gearing up for a big event for our community development project. Here are the details:

Community Consultation – Creating Space for Strength: An Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) and Research Project for Calgary’s North Central Communities

The purpose of this community assessment is to find out what our communities’ strengths and assets are, what can be improved, and how. Identifying current resources, as well as needs, is a key step toward maximizing the potential for building an effective, locally relevant, and evidence-based community action plan.

We are interested in hearing your voice. We want to know what you think is working well in your community, what can be strengthened and how we can achieve the goals we set as a community.

This is an open, public consultation. Everyone is welcome. We’ll e using a “world cafe” format for the conversations.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the organizations who made this project possible:

Project Origins – Northern Hills Constituency

Project Funders – Government of Alberta (CFEP Grant); United Way of Calgary and Area; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association

Project Supporters – Northern Hills Constituency; City of Calgary; Aspen Family and Community Network Society; Northern Hills Community Association; United Way of Calgary and Area

Here’s a link to our Eventbrite site: http://creatingspacecommunityconsultation.eventbrite.com

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If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or leave a comment. Thanks!

Share or Tweet this: Community Conversation – Creating Space for Strength in Calgary’s North Central Communities http://wp.me/pNAh3-1yX

If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


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