Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Five lessons for building a flourishing online community

By Kat Thackray, Consultant at UX and service design specialist, Mace & Menter

Building and growing an online community is hard. We’ve worked with lots of organisations on theirs, and we see the same problems come up again and again. Well, it’s usually the same one problem: there’s not enough activity.

That’s always been  eminently solvable,  though, as soon as we knew exactly why that activity wasn’t happening. Some communities suffer from a lack of direction. Some are what happens when you optimistically put a group of people in a virtual space and say “Go!”.

The figuring out isn’t that hard, too. Here are the five questions to ask yourself about your online community.

What’s your community for? Who are your users?

We’ve worked with communities where everybody knew sort of why they were there, but because the online space had no clear aim, its users struggled to take the right first step.  

If it’s this kind of community – the kind that’s bringing people together to solve a problem that’s too big for one organisation – there’s a pretty solid recipe for success. As well as having a clear, defined purpose, you’re going to want to put these things in place, too.

  • A common agenda – ideally, everyone in the community is on board with the problem, and the approach to solving it.
  • A way of measuring success – how will the people in the community know that they’re making a difference?
  • Mutually-reinforcing activities – you’ll want everyone in the community to do the thing that they’re good at, but you’ll want those actions to be coordinated with what everyone else is doing, too.
  • A way of – and schedule for – communicating – trust doesn’t just happen. The members of your community will need to develop relationships with each other before they feel comfortable working together. Talking is how those relationships get built.
  • Coordination – all this doesn’t just happen. I’ll talk about this in more detail later, but you’re going to need to put some solid effort into facilitating all of this. More than just building the platform and sending out some invites.

How does your community feel to newcomers?

If you were running an in-person networking event, there’d be a whole lot of things you’d be thinking about. Who’d host it, and how attendees would find the host once they arrived. How to make people feel welcome. Ways of getting them to have useful, interesting conversations.  

We feel disoriented by new spaces. We look for clues about how to act. We are, usually, more comfortable if there’s some kind of agenda, and if we’re not expected to strike up conversations with terrifying strangers.

What’s the agenda?

Online, someone can stand in the corner for as long as they like. It’s up to you to let them know: this is what we’re doing now, and this is who we’d like involved, and here’s why. 

Make specific requests, set up spaces for particular things, tag the people you know that have the things you need and invite them to tag each other, enable users to ask each other questions.  

Who’s facilitating?

Starting an online community is hard. It takes effort. Your effort, to be more specific. Or at least someone’s effort. If you’re struggling to find the time to be the host that you want to be, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you hire someone to do it. Ideally, even a relatively small community (<100 members) should have a full-time community manager.  

And as a general rule of thumb: that community manager will need to spend around six months plugging away, encouraging and modelling interaction, before there’s enough activity, content, and social structure for those interactions to start happening naturally. And that’s OK.

What are you measuring?

It’s common to imagine that everyone who’s coming to an online community – potentially even going to the trouble of logging in – will want to join in. Starting from that assumption, it’s pretty disheartening to see that less than half your users are joining conversations, and only a handful are actually starting them.  

Roughly 90% of users don’t tend to participate much, if at all. 9% will comment, and only 1% will post original content. So, if you’ve got a few hundred people in your community, the amount of users you can expect to be contributing new stuff is … a few. This is sometimes called the 90-9-1 rule, if you want to drop it into conversation casually.  

And remember that that’s an established community. So, if you’re only a few months in, or you haven’t hired yourself a community manager yet, and you still have a handful of people dropping new stuff into your community: well done. That’s a win. 

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