There’s a lot of theoretical chatter online these days about building online communities. The people that are actually doing it are few and far between it seems. This week, I kick off the strategic and technical planning for an online community, so I’m moving from philosopher to doer in this space. It certainly feels good to have the opportunity to put the practice behind the preaching, but it is also an intimidating task.

From a tactical standpoint, I wanted to get some third party input on what the most important user features of an online community should be. What better third party to ask than my social media friends. On Wednesday, I Twittered:

My twitter about online communities

And got a ton of great responses.

The Twitterati ReactThe consensus seems to be what you would guess: connectivity. It’s pretty simple. Without connections, there is no community.

But more specifically, what types? Is it just allowing them to post wall messages or does there need to be an element of internal private messaging/email? Is a forum/message board the right approach or a community chat/microblogging approach?

The analyst approach would be to refer back to the business goals of the community-building effort in the first place to discover the answer. Jeremiah Owyang‘s recent Forrester report on Online Community Best Practices begins with determining your objectives and even says you should decide which interactions your customers are ready for. My question in response is, “How do I know?” Sure, research and focus groups can give me the answer, but what if I don’t have the time or the budget for such insight?

My thought is to start the community building on the absolute right foot: by asking for input from the community you already have. Never mind how small it might be in comparison to your vision, ask them, “Would you like an online community to connect to us and each other and if so, what functionality would be most important or attractive to you there?” You’re certain to get answers and, yes, they may vary as much or more than those of my Twitter friends. But you will at least have a sampling of input from your intended audience as to what is most important to them.

The only question left then is whether or not your anecdotal evidence is enough?

This is why Owyang also advises companies to prepare to be flexible. You can build a place for the community, but you can’t build walls around it. Your brand enthusiasts will surely give you a list of likes and dislikes from day one. So you plan for adjustments, for tweaks and for changes. Your responsiveness will be rewarded with increased loyalty and community satisfaction.

So as we put pen to paper this week and plot our course, I am going to recommend that we take pause and ask our brand enthusiasts the question I posed to my Twitter friends. What functionality is most important to you in an online community?

Their opinion counts the most for the project in question. Yours counts the most in helping shape my approach. Please, tell me: In joining an online community of brand enthusiasts or a loyalty or affinity group, what would be your most important need.

Other Posts You’ll Find Interesting:

  1. Feedback On The Online Community Best Practices Report
  2. Do Social Networks Follow The Traditional Business Cycle?
  3. Forrester: Online Community Best Practices
  4. A Community Of What?
  5. How To Build A Community Of Brand Enthusiasts

[tags]online communities, building online communities, social networks, niche social networks, brand enthusiasts[/tags]

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog and signature Explore events. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.leapfroginteractive.com KatFrench

    Online community building is probably the element of social media to which I’m most personally drawn.

    I can say this–you will lose more members by intimidating them with too many features and too much clutter than you will by not having every bell and whistle that the programmers are capable of throwing in there.

    Also, membership numbers aren’t the only consideration. A community site I moderate on a personal basis moved from a traditional forum to Ning this year.

    We kept almost almost all the original members, but unquestionably, people are posting less often and their posts are shorter. Originally, everyone liked the additional functionality of videos and a Myspace-like profile page, but there is now too much to do.

    Instead of just doing a quick scan of the forum to see if there are new topics or new posts to existing topics, people feel like they have to check everyone’s profile/blog, etc. It’s overkill, and because of it, people are participating less.

    Just my $.02.

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    Kat – Excellent perspective and point. Going from one type of community to another certainly poses unique challenges and I can see how a forum/message board user can suddenly be overwhelmed by hyper-connectivity. Perfect food for thought for those out there looking to grow or transition their communities. Thanks a ton!

  • http://www.cc-chapman.com C.C. Chapman

    Great post Jason. Very much looking forward to seeing how people react to it.

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    Thanks C.C. I am too. So, what are you readers waiting for? C.C. wants to know …

  • http://www.realself.com Tom

    this post made my day. i’ve long rejected the idea that building a community means throwing all sorts of features, buddy lists, et al at the user. I guess we’re fortunate that our users have repeatedly vocalized their feature requirements: that they want connectivity, in privacy, through familiar tools (i.e. mail). But, as cautioned by Francine Hardaway, we shouldn’t get the notion that members like mail, it’s that it works for them.

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    Tom — Glad to be of service. It just seemed to be the right questions to ask as I head into a community building process. Thanks for the input and the visit.

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  • http://fvrit.com/ Allen Harkleroad

    Hi Jason, it’s all about two way communication, connectivity and discussion. after all we are social “animals”, why should it be any different online?

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    Allen, thanks for the thoughts. I agree with you that there needs to be that connectivity and communication. That’s a popular opinion because it’s spot on. Thanks again.

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