Internet Marketing & Public Relations for the Arts

lessons for promoting your arts organization on the web.

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Tips For Building an Online Community

 

Users Draw Other Users
As the owner, leader, and/or community evangelist, it's your job to attract users. The standard promotional approaches (search engines, word of mouth, submitting links to other sites) apply. This is the easy part. Making sure the right people stick around is harder. In a healthy community, that's not your job.

As a group, your most active users will draw more users than you will. An active user group exudes a sense of community. This attracts people who enjoy the company of like-minded individuals and seek the social rewards of participating in a healthy peer group. People like to fit in, and it takes making several new relationships to produce this impression.

The community itself is not the only draw, in most cases, but it is a primary attractor.

Users Will Surprise You
Community members will continually surprise you, especially if you've never really analyzed an online community before. The issues and themes you find important may never really resonate with your users. They'll latch onto and chase down ideas you've never found important or even knew existed. They'll also tend to develop some strange characteristics. Not everyone will exhibit every behavior, but these are general trends in every community I've observed.

A Sense of Ownership
Regular users will develop a sense of community ownership. As a whole, their content contributions probably outweigh yours. This belief manifests itself in several ways. It can produce a high regard for the status quo, with some users expressing an almost moral outrage when facing community changes. These changes may be as minor as adding a new feature to the Web site or broadening the community's focus.

Besides letting community leaders and members perform administrative work (content production, content moderation,  content rating), don't forget that the community has a stake in its own future. Even if you pay for everything out of your marketing budget, your work is wasted without users.

A Shared History and Culture
You'll know you have a healthy community when users comment publicly that "this is the best site I've ever used," "I came here because I wanted to find about your show, but stay around because of the people I've met," amd "No other place on the Internet is like this." Happy users tend to talk in terms reminiscent of Manifest Destiny and settlers in a little paradise. It occurs in almost every healthy, somewhat-social community.

The Bell Curves
You will never please some users. A few will stick around only to see your next mistake. They tend to be vocal. Their pessimism doesn't make them wrong, but it can be grating. Accept that they are a minority, expect them to make concrete suggestions and honest criticisms occasionally, and try not to be surprised that they don't leave. (Most people who leave do so quietly.)

Most people participate on the fringes. Most people read and never write. Most writers write only occasionally. Most community members have opinions about the various discussion topics but rarely speak.

Registering is a Mixed Blessing
The number of active community members varies inversely with the amount of work necessary for an initial participation. Requiring e-mail confirmation before registering a username prevents users from creating blank account after blank account.

The First Contribution
The easier it is to join a conversation, the more visitors will become contributors. Communities that allow anonymous participation tend to see greater numbers of initial contributions.

Adding features to encourage registration (or to discourage anonymous participation) acts as a filtering process. This is a mixed blessing. Should your arts group have annoynomous posting? This might reduce drive-by posters who ask questions, request followups via e-mail, and never return to the site. On the other hand, several regular contributors first tested the waters by posting anonymously.

Address the issue of anonymous participation early in your community's lifecycle. There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes it may be better to weed out casual or lazy users by requiring e-mail confirmations. This does not always apply. In particular, cypherpunks and anti-spam activists prefer their privacy. Other communities may find that registration adds another welcome level of accountability.

Requiring registration can cull potential mischief makers, too. Even pseudonymous users with a sense of responsibility may be deterred from causing trouble by losing face in the community.

The Interface
A strong community can overcome technical limitations. It's possible to write a Wiki or a weblog in under a hundred lines of code. Simplicity may appeal to some users. The lack of sophistication (reply notification, searching, revisions, and access controls) may put off some users, and an ugly or awkward user interface may get in the way sometimes, but a community can grow in spite of the mess.

It's worth making things simpler and more consistent, though, especially for Web-based message boards. While social benefits may persuade people to put up with and to learn to love the quirks of an awkward posting system, too much perceived complexity (or user hostility) caps the rate of new members.

Mischief
Like any community, your group will have spats and factions and frictions. These must be handled wisely for the community to survive. Plan for trouble, though you cannot tell when or where it will strike. Set simple rules. Make them explicit. Apply them consistently.

Whatever you decide, keep the rules simple. Make them readily available, so no one has an excuse not to read them. Enforce them consistently but not harshly.

Don't Stop There!
Even if you have graduate degrees in sociology and psychology, the dynamics of human communities will still surprise you. Be very clear about your goals and the rules. Manage your expectations about user participation and groups wisely. Allow a little chaos. Use your common sense and best judgment. If there's an audience for your conversation, you'll find a community.

References for this Article: http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/network/2002/10/21/community.html