Building an Online Community, Part Two – The Problems

Ok, so you’ve managed to do what I mentioned in an earlier post, and establish a community around your website/blog. It’s not all plain sailing, however. Shara Karasic has gone into much more detail than I have.

Charlene Li has noted that, of all of the users of a particular website, (i.e. the community):

·     A huge 52% are INACTIVE.

·     33% are ‘Spectators’ – They read blogs, and consume UGC.

·     19% are ‘Joiners’ – Meaning that they use social networking sites like Facebook, etc.

·     15% are ‘Collectors’ – They understand RSS, and tag websites.

·     19% are ‘Critics’ – These users comment on blogs, and post ratings and reviews.

·     13% are ‘Creators’ – They publish webpages, maintain blogs, and create UGC

You can see the full, graphic version here.

Whilst it may be (relatively) simple to attract users to interact with a website – it is not as easy to keep them stimulated and make them keep coming back.

Here are a few useful pointers, in keeping your online community happy:

Be online for a reason

Ok, you’ve bought a domain – but for what purpose? You should know exactly why your site exists. Otherwise, you can’t judge the effectiveness of any policy. Even worse, how will the visitors to your website know if they want to sign up, and join the community that you are promoting?

Users attract more users

As the owner/webmaster/digital content manager, it’s YOUR job to attract users. You can do this quite simply by the traditional methods (i.e. SEO, word of mouth, viral marketing, selectively linking, etc) – all of those are simple enough to do. Making sure that your users stay with you, however, is the difficult part.

In a vibrant online community, that ISN’T your job.

As a group of users, the most active users of a website will draw far more users than you ever could. This is because a highly visible, and active user group promotes a greater sense of community, which in turn will attract people who enjoy the company of individuals with similar interests. People like to fit in.

Users can, and will surprise you.

The issues and themes you find important may never really have the same effect with your users. That’s natural, remember ‘if everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other’.

Being proud of ‘your home’ - That sense of ownership

Regular users of your website will develop a sense of community ownership. As a whole, the content that they contribute will probably outweigh what you, as the owner, contributes. This belief can manifest itself in several ways. It can produce a high regard for those ‘at the top’ of the community, 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 website or broadening the community’s focus.

Sharing Histories and Cultures

You will know when you have a healthy online community when users comment publicly that ‘this is the best site I’ve ever used,’ ‘I came here because of the content (i.e. the news), but stay around because of the people I’ve met, (through comments and links)’.

This isn’t true of strongly technical communities, like software development mailing lists. They tend not to exhibit this behavior.

People WILL hate you

You will never be able to please some users. Ever. A few will stick around only to see your next mistake, and worse still they tend to be vocal about it. Their pessimism doesn’t make them wrong, however, but it can be grating.

Accept that they are a minority, expect them to make blunt suggestions and honest criticisms occasionally, and try not to be surprised that they don’t leave. (Most people who leave do so quietly.)

People WILL like you

Some users will almost always be happy – no matter what you do. However, they tend not to be as vocal as the pessimists. This is possibly due to the fact that some of these users have just discovered online communities or your specific community, and want to be noticed immediately. They propose grand ideas and volunteer for great schemes. Harness this energy and exuberance into realistic channels.

Always remember..

Most people interact ‘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.

Learn to find value in steady growth, and consistent users.

Obstacles can be a mixed blessing

The number of active community members varies drastically with the amount of ‘effort’ – shall we say, necessary for an initial participation. Having to requiring e-mail confirmation before registering a username prevents users from creating blank account after blank account.

The easier it is to join a conversation, the more visitors will become contributors. Communities that allow anonymous participation more often than not, tend to see greater numbers of initial contributions.

Have a usable interface

A strong community can overcome technical limitations. Believe it or not, it is possible to write a Wiki or a weblog in under a hundred lines of code. However, 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 this.

It’s worth making things simpler and more consistent. While social benefits may persuade people to put up with and learn about an awkward posting system, too much complexity halts the rate of new members. Bad news for anyone who wants to attempt to drastically change any user interface, however. (See the notion of ‘ownership’ above).

Mischief

Like any community, your group will have tensions, 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 happen.

Set simple rules.

Make them explicit.

Apply them consistently.

Start with a list of unacceptable behavior. This will probably include harassing or attacking other users, posting copyrighted or plagiarised material, straying from the topic, and abusing the system with multiple accounts or robots.

Create a list of consequences, which may range from warnings to suspensions to being banned. Communities with a ranking or levels system might use demotions and the loss of privileges. You can ignore, obscure, or delete potentially illegal material.

Choose your response before it’s needed.

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 judgement. If there’s an audience for your conversation, you’ll find a community.

Some information courtesy of the O’Reilly network.

 

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One response to “Building an Online Community, Part Two – The Problems

  1. Pingback: Some questions about blogging, from a student « Online Journalism Blog

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