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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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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