So You’re Thinking About Starting an Online Community?

Think Settling the Wild West – Not Filling a Stadium

by Jeff Ross |

I’m hearing more frequently these days about companies entertaining the thought of starting online communities, both internal and external facing. The reasons are varied, from wanting to connect employees in the case of an internal community, to wanting to connect with specific external target audiences in the case of external communities. As companies acknowledge the need to shift from transaction-based exchanges to relationship-based interactions, the interest in developing online communities as part of the shift will continue.

However, starting an online community is no easy, quick task – a reality that far too many fail to understand in their mesmerized state of wishful thinking. “What is there to do?” they may ask. “Just hire a vendor or developer to whip up an online site, invite the masses, and – BOOM! – instant community. They’ll flock to us!”

StadiumSuch thinking mistakes the initiative as one similar to prepping a stadium for a big event and then inviting (or selling tickets to) a huge audience at once to show up and enjoy the party.

Wrong! That’s not how you build a community.

When it comes to building communities, businesses must recognize that doing so takes time – a lot of time, in fact. Thought must go into a number of factors before the first member of the community ever arrives, decisions such as:

  • Do you have the concept of the community correct? Get this wrong and you’re doomed.
  • Have you done your homework to determine if your idea meets a real need? Are others already doing this? If so, then be prepared to do it better or you’ll fail. If nobody is doing it, then it may be (a) because nobody has your vision, insight and forethought, or (b) because your idea sucks and nobody should do what you have in mind. You’d better know which is the case and you’d better involve others outside your org in providing feedback so you don’t get blinded by falling in love with your own bad idea.
  • Should you build or buy the platform? In terms of choosing an online platform, too many companies spend vast amounts of time and money building their ideal online community site before they even know the likelihood of success. You’re better off being willing to fail fast and move on to something else than feeling like you’re so invested financially that you have no choice but to continue. Platforms don’t make or break a community – relationships do. This means working with a vendor who can quickly stand up a platform without lots of development or customization costs. You may not get every feature you envision, but then users don’t end up using every feature you think they will, anyway.
  • Have you hired the right full-time community manager to lead the community before inviting the first members? Standing up a platform doesn’t guarantee success. You must have someone (or multiple someones) responsible for what goes on daily to have the best chance for success.

Assuming you get past the above decisions are all systems are “go,” you then have to know how to go about actually bringing new members into the community effectively. This is where I love the advice of online community guru Rich Millington of feverbee.com who cautions in his book Buzzing Communities against “Big Launch Syndrome” – the practice of investing in a massive, short-term rollout to a large audience rather than a slow and steady approach to growing membership in smaller quantities. Companies waste tons of money and effort when their eyes glaze over with irrational hopes of what a Big Launch will do overnight for their community. But big launches rarely work.

Instead, think of growing the community as more akin to how the west was settled in the United States. Put yourself back in time in America a couple of centuries ago (or at least think back to the westerns your parents or grandparents watched on TV). When it came to creating real communities in previously unsettled territories, nobody built an entire infrastructure of houses, businesses, farms, churches, schools, clinics, saloons, jails, wells and more, and then wired back to their eastern friends and family one day with the message “OK, we’re ready. Everybody move in now!” Of course not. How chaotic (and risky) would that be?

Calico SaloonThe people who got the ball rolling out west were the few early pioneers with a passion and interest in the possibilities of what might lie ahead. They did what others were afraid to do or what others failed to see a reason for doing. They staked a claim and settled in one person, family or small group at a time. Once there, they began to slowly create the kind of community they envisioned and wanted, based on the needs and passions of those taking part. It may or may not have turned out much like the original visionaries had in mind, but it was still a viable community.

Over time, what started slowly and with a lot of effort from the early settlers would become a thriving community that others found inviting, thereby enticing more to come and dwell there now that its state was more to their liking.

That’s what needs to happen when companies build online communities – either internal ones for their employees or external ones for other audiences. Discover the eager early adopters who understand the potential and are willing to help settle the open territory of a fresh, new online community. Give them time to build the groups, discussions, features, benefits and content that will be of value to and attract others who will come later. Let them be your greatest advocates in inviting others to come join them in this exciting new place that has much to offer.

Whatever you do, don’t take the approach of investing mass quantities of time and budget into completing the ideal infrastructure, followed by a Big Launch Syndrome attempt to tell the world “Today is move-in day!” Real geographical communities in which we live are built slowly over time. Learn a lesson from how your city was built and from the early settlers centuries ago, and grow your online community the same way – slow and steady. It may not be sexy and it may not produce the quick numbers some company leaders want to see, but it is your best chance at actually growing a sustainable online community for the long haul.


About the Author

Jeff Ross

Jeff is a Community Manager for Humana’s Enterprise Social Media team where he leads their 30,000-user enterprise social network, Buzz. He is the founder and host of the weekly Twitter chat #ESNchat for those interested in enterprise social networks (esnchat.com). He actively blogs on personal and professional topics at JeffRossBlog.com.