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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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

5 free downloadable resources on effective E-learning principles

June 26, 2012

Here are some excellent downloadable resources that clearly outline basic e-learning principles in clear, easy-to-understand language:

Six principles of effective e-learning by Ruth Clark (Free 10-page .pdf from the eLearning Guild)

E-Learning: A Guidebook of Principles, Procedures and Practices by Som Naidu, Ph.D. (a free 100-page .pdf book published by the Commonwealth of Learning)

Efficiency in e-Learning: Proven Instructional Methods for Faster, Better, Online Learning by Frank Nguyen and Ruth Colvin Clark (Free 8-page downloadable .pdf from the e-Learning Guild)

E-learning Tools and Resources: Putting Principles into Practice by Wendy Chambers (A 41-page .pdf. I’ll put in plug for Wendy here. She’s a personal friend of mine and I can tell you, she really knows her stuff.)

Back to Basics: Using Adult Learning Principles to Create E-Learning Success by Steven R. Aragon (a 10-page .pdf. Note: This document opens in a separate window.)


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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.

Thrilled to be nominated for a TechRev Award

April 14, 2012

TechRev Award, nomination Exceptional Webinars, Sarah Eaton, Sarah Elaine Eaton, Calgary, webinar, webinarsOne of the projects I’m involved in is Exceptional Webinars, where we run train-the-trainer programs on how to develop and deliver great webinars. We started in 2011 and have run live courses and workshops, as well as e-learning training programs.

Since we started, we’ve had almost 200 people through the various programs, working with teachers, non-profit organizations, professional speakers, workshop facilitators, adult educators and corporate trainers.

Last week, we were honoured and thrilled to receive a notice saying that we have been nominated for a TechRev Award. Those who are selected as TechRev Innovators meet these criteria:

TechRev Innovators may be at any stage in their company’s life cycle. We are pleased to include those companies who are pre-commercial as well as those who are firmly established with a history of success.
Companies from across the broad spectrum of advanced technology innovation are eligible to be considered for TechRev Innovator recognition.
Global trend analysis may suggest greater potential in certain key sub-sectors such as geomatics, clean tech and wireless, while companies in ICT, life science technologies and advanced engineering among others are also considered important to regional innovation sustainability.
The winners are announced in September. For now, we are honoured to be nominated for the award.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Freelance teachers and tutors beware: New webinar scam targets professional educators

March 20, 2012

Are you a freelance or contact teacher? Are you interested in offering online courses or webinars?

If the answer to either of these questions is yes, you’ll want to beware of a new webinar scam that targets teachers, trainers, tutors, coaches and consultants. Do not be fooled…

The scam

The scam goes something like this:

You are contacted by a person or organization offering to pay you a handsome sum for a webinar or a one-hour e-learning or Skype tutoring session ($500 to $1000 USD — or more).

You are invited to communicate with the organizers via phone, e-mail or Skype. If you agree to a phone or Skype session, they will keep you on the line, telling how great their organization is and the great results they get for their clients. (In other words, “blah, blah, blah…”)

This introduction could go from anywhere between five and twenty minutes. If you only agree to e-mail, they will likely push for a phone or Skype meeting. They want your undivided attention to engage you in all the hype, get your heart rate up and sweep you up in all their excited sales fluff.

When they think you are suitably convinced, you are then invited to give a webinar (or Skype tutoring session) for them. If you agree, this is where the scam goes into full force…

You will then be told that you will be billed or sent an invoice for $10,000 (or some other outrageous amount) which you must first pay, in order to take part in their program.

So, first they will offer to pay you, then it will be flipped around so that you have to pay them, in order to “be registered”, “be affiliated” or some other such nonsense.

Do not be fooled. The entire purpose of this scam is to get you to give up your hard-earned dollars and give them to someone who does not care about you, your teaching or your programs.

But wait… It gets worse…

You may then be told that they DID told about the costs from the beginning. If you challenge them on this, they will swear up and down that you are wrong. They will claim that they have been perfectly transparent and either you weren’t listening or you were negligent in not paying attention. They may go so far as to indignantly proclaim that you are insulting their professionalism and ethics.

They play with your emotions in order to try to make you feel guilty… This is part of the scam. The idea, of course, is that you’ll feel bad and then cough up the money that you already (supposedly) promised to pay. Do not worry, you are not crazy. You did not promise anything. This is part of their hook.

Do not be taken in by this, or any other con artists.

 Here are tips to avoid being taken in by a webinar scam

  1. Check out every organization or individual who invites you to do a paid webinar or e-learning class for them. Legitimate organizations who are interested in 21st century technologies will almost certainly have a valid website. (Even humble non-profits have websites these days. The site may be badly outdated, but they likely have one.)
  2. Be wary of e-mails coming from a public, free service. Ask yourself, “Why is this person not writing to me from a professional e-mail address?” I say that with tongue in cheek though, because I also use a Gmail account for some of my work… But not all of it. I am also highly searchable on the web, with books published on Amazon with papers published in peer-reviewed journals  and so forth. My point is: Investigate these new “friends”. Make sure they are legitimate and well known in their field.
  3. If the client, school or organization is unknown for you, treat an e-learning program, an online tutoring session or a webinar as any other course you might teach. Get a signed contract. Even the most meagre non-profit organization will agree to a contract for your professional services. Even a simple, one-page agreement will do. I always get an agreement with any school or non-profit I am working with. It helps both sides understand what is expected.
  4.  Trust your instincts. If a deal feels “off”, then it probably is. At the very least, it is likely not a good fit for you. Decline invitations that do not align with your professional values, ethics or area of expertise. Don’t waste your time (or your money) on professional “offers” that feel “off”. There are other organizations out there waiting for you and who would love to work with you.

You are a professional educator, tutor, instructor or presenter and you deserve to be treated as a professional — and get paid for your knowledge and expertise… not be scammed out of your hard earned money.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Webinar: How to Develop a Social Media Policy

February 14, 2012

Sarah Eaton social media technology speaker presenter webinarThis week’s webinar with Chinook Learning is “How to Develop a Social Media Policy“. Its designed for organizational leaders and managers who have to cope with guiding employees’ use of social media in the workplace.

Social media has changed how people interact with each other on line. Marketers talk about social media strategies, but that is different from an organizational policy that is designed to guide and govern users’ behaviour in social media settings. This course is based on this article “Anatomy of a Social Media Policy” that I wrote last fall, published by Social Media Today.

Participant outcomes

By the end of this webinar you will:

  • Understand the differences between a social media strategy and a social media policy.
  • Understand the basics of social media governance.
  • Know the critical elements of a social media policy.
  • Understand the importance of dialogue when it comes to striking a balance between users’ rights and responsibilities.
  • Gain a deeper understanding of what a social media policy is and how to go about developing a relatively simple, straightforward policy for your organization.


  1. Social media policy – Definition and overview; Differences between a social media strategy and a policy.
  2. Social media governance – What social media governance means for organizations, employers and employees.
  3. Anatomy of a social media policy – Learn the critical elements of a well-constructed social media policy and how the various elements work together to create a fully functioning and effective policy. Learn what they key parts are so you can build your own simple, straightforward policy.
  4. Balancing users’ rights with their responsibility to their employer. Why it is important to dialogue with users in your organization and tips for doing this effectively.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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