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.


Tips for success in an online discussion board

January 3, 2012

Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, presenter, keynote, technology, social media, Calgary, Canada, educator, education, professional developmentHere are some tips for success in online, asynchronous discussion boards in any learning program or course:

Post regularly

Make time every week for your discussion board postings. You will need time when you can read through other posts without interruption, as well as write your own posts and replies.

I teach Master’s of Education students at the University of Calgary. In my courses, I encourage my students to check into the discussion board every day at a time of day when they can be alone, without children, co-workers or telephones interrupting them.

Be aware of deadlines for posting

A discussion board is an asynchronous learning tool. That means that you have some flexibility around when you post. However, in a learning situation where your discussion board contribution counts for part of your grade, there may be deadlines for contributing.

The reason for this is that your instructor has designed your course with a certain flow in mind. That means that the course is built so that one topic leads into another. Each topic builds on the one before it.

Your instructor may close a discussion board for active posting after a certain period of time, in order to keep everyone focused on current topics, rather than ones that have already been addressed.

Keep an eye on any deadlines and factor in your local time zone to ensure that you are contributing on time.

Don’t write a post – craft it.

Your contributions to your discussion board are your way to show your instructor and your peers that you have thoroughly understood and digested the weekly reading and you are prepared to add your contribution to the scholarly discussion.

Adding citations and references to your posts demonstrates you are concerned with giving credit where it is due.

Pose open-ended questions to draw others into your posts and engage them as readers.

A substantive discussion board post is probably at least 2 to 3 paragraphs long, but really, the quality of your post is equally (if not more) important than how long it is.

Understand the importance of the conversation

Posting your own answers or responses to discussion questions is important, but it is only part of the picture. Building a sense of “virtual community” is another important element.

You are expected not only to read, but also to comment on your peers’ posts by offering supportive feedback, reflective replies and additional resources that help everyone in the class to build their knowledge base.

Do not assume that reading your classmates’ posts is enough. It is up to you to demonstrate that you have read them. The main way you do that is by posting a thoughtful reply that shows you thought about the other person’s post.

References and resources

Jorgensen, E. (2012). 5 Tips for online discussion board success. All Allied Health Schools. Retrieved December 7, 2012, from http://www.allalliedhealthschools.com/blog/2012/online-discussion-blackboard-help/

Speidel, B. J. (n.d.). Tips for Succeeding in an Online Class.   Retrieved December 7, 2012, from http://www.swccd.edu/~asc/lrnglinks/olsuccess.html

TeacherStream LLC. (2009). Mastering online discussion board facilitation: Resource guide. Retrieved December 7, 2012, from http://www.edutopia.org/pdfs/stw/edutopia-onlinelearning-mastering-online-discussion-board-facilitation.pdf

Teaching with Technology (Wiki). Tips for Discussion Boards. Retrieved December 7, 2012: http://twt.wikispaces.com/Tips+for+Discussion+Boards

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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.


10 Tips for Success as an Online Learner

April 15, 2011

Some of the same principles that apply to face-to-face learning also apply online, but the activities are different:

1. Arrive early

In the same way that you would budget time to find a parking space, walk to your classroom and get settled for a face-to-face training session, you need to arrive early for an online learning session. Your “arrive early” activities include:

  • Logging on
  • Testing your audio and mic
  • Saying hello to fellow participants and the facilitator

Plan to arrive 10 to 15 minutes ahead of your scheduled start time. That way, when the session starts, you’re ready to go.

2. Just say “No” to distractions

In a face-to-face learning environment, you can’t do laundry, answer the door, cook lunch, deal with staff questions, answer inquiries, staff the front desk or do any number of other activities that would detract from your learning. Create a “learning sanctum” that is free of distractions and allows you to be fully present during your e-learning session.

  • Turn off your telephone(s).
  • Put a sign on your door that says “Do Not Disturb”.
  • Go to the bathroom before the session starts.

3. Be An Active Learner

What are the qualities of an active learner in a bricks-and-mortar classroom? Someone who pays attention, doesn’t distract other learners, doesn’t allow themselves to be distracted and seems genuinely interested. The same thing applies on line:

  • Listen actively
  • Ask questions
  • Take notes (See the next point…)

4. Take notes – in a way that makes sense for you

Whether you use  a traditional notebook and a pen or a word processing program, taking notes is an important part of learning. It helps you capture the main ideas and embed them in your brain. Notes also give you something to refer back to later on.

Not everyone is comfortable taking notes on a mobile device or hearing a keyboard click as they’re listening. Other people may get hand cramps if they hold a pen too long. Don’t get too caught up in the idea of using technology for everything. How you choose to take notes is incidental. The important thing is to do it. Write down key points to help you remember them later.

5. Engage with other participants

You wouldn’t sit in a classroom and not speak to anyone else would you? Make a point of engaging with other participants. Ask questions, make comments, give kudos where they’re due. Remember that, just like you, those are human beings who are sitting in front of their respective screens. More than anything, humans crave connection. Try to connect personally with at least one other person in your session, if you can.

6. Go Green

E-learning provides a tremendous opportunity to be environmentally responsible. Experiment with reading on line. Test different font sizes and document sizes to find what works for you. Try not to print out every single handout, or .pdf file.

Digital materials are often meant to be interactive. If you print them, you lose the interactivity and web links may not show up in your print out.

7. Organize Your Stuff

In the same way that it’s frustrating to have a messy bookbag or a binder with papers falling out, it can be just as frustrating to have your digital materials scattered all over the place.

Set up folders and sub-folders on your computer to organize and store your files, course materials and handouts. Not only will this help you find it more easily later, it will also help to “make it yours”. Synch between devices to keep everything current.

8. Share and be social

Share online links to other resources. Explore online bookmarking sites (e.g. Diigo or StumbleUpon) to store and share interesting resources you find. If you’d like more resources or information, ask others to share with you. Be sure to thanks others who share interesting and helpful resources with you.

9. Be patient and kind

As in a traditional classroom, there are likely to be learners who are less capable than you… and others who are more capable. In an online environment, this applies as much ability with technology, as it does to the content. Think of comfort and ability with technology as a continuum. People will be scattered all along the continuum. Be patient with those who aren’t as far along as you.

10. Find reasons to celebrate and have fun!

Remember when you were a kid in school and you got a gold star from the teacher? Humans respond well to positive reinforcement, regardless if it is face-to-face or online. Successful online learners look for opportunities to compliment and notice others’ progress. They are also self-aware and self-realized learners who acknowledge their own progress. Cheer on others when you see them making leaps and bounds and give yourself a pat on the back when you do a good job. Remember, learning is supposed to be fun!

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


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