Community 2.0: The Recipe for a Successful Online Community
 
Published: 22 Oct 2007
Abstract
This article examines large, successful web 2.0 sites, such as Wikipedia and Digg, that have built thriving communities and extracts three simple rules that contribute to their success: sense of community, strong recognition, and simple tools. Each rule is explored in depth and examples of each rule in the real world are used to highlight their application.
by Todd Anglin
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Introduction

Vibrant communities are critical to the success of software companies, especially when your customers are software developers. A quick scan of the biggest players in the software industry reveals some of the largest and most active online communities on the web: Microsoft’s active .NET community, Mozilla’s open-source initiatives, Sun’s fervent Java developers, and Google’s growing API developers. A strong community built around your products can often be the long term competitive advantage that separates you from your competition.

The same is true to an even greater extent for web sites that are built completely around the idea of "community." In the years that have passed since sites like Wikipedia, Digg, and Flickr have been introduced, many copy cat sites have tried to imitate their success with generally poor results. What did the "originals" do right that enabled them to attract and build their massive followings?

In this article we will take a close look at some of the most successful online communities on the web and dissect what makes each community successful. We will then take those lessons and apply them to practical steps you can use to build a community that matches the quality of the products or ideas it surrounds.

Keys to Success

After examining some of the most successful online communities, the common keys to their success clearly boil down to three simple items:

1.    Sense of Community

2.    Strong Recognition

3.    Simple Tools

When a site combines these three elements effectively, a strong community will follow. For you to build a community that supports your ideas or products, these three concepts must be carefully applied. You must build a community that enables your visitors to connect and befriend each other, that recognizes contributions and promotes active users, and that provides simple tools that do not make it difficult to contribute and connect.

Practical Look at Successful Communities

The best way to determine the ingredients of a successful community is to look at other communities that have proven success. When analyzing online communities, it is important to look at all of the factors that contribute to their success. No one feature in isolation can usually be credited as the feature that makes a community succeed. We will look at several of the largest and most successful online communities on the web today from a number of industries and analyze how each has managed to get thousands of people to actively contribute to the communities’ success.

Wikipedia

Arguably one of the most successful online communities ever created, Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia knows a thing or two about getting a community actively involved. In September 2006, over 75,000 people worldwide contributed at least 5 times to the online encyclopedia and just shy of 10,000 people contributed at least 100 times in that month!

 

From a recent Time Magazine interview, Jimmy Wales responded to the following reader submitted question:

What drives people to contribute to Wikipedia? Altruism?
“No. It's realizing that doing intellectual things socially is a lot of fun—it makes sense. We don't plan on paying people, either, to contribute. People don't ask, "Gosh, why are all these people playing basketball for fun? Some people get paid a lot of money to do that."

The key in this statement is that contributing to a community requires social interaction to be fun. Communities that fail to provide a social outlet miss the ingredient that makes participation fun.

In a separate interview conducted by WorldChanging.com in 2005 entitled “Why Wikipedia Succeeds,” Jimmy Wales is quoted saying “people will collaborate with whatever tools they have. The thing that makes a thriving system is the project--the best tools in the world will not save a project whose people lack motivation, and most of what the system needs to do is get out of people’s way.” Clearly, Wikipedia’s success (at least in the opinion of its founder) is based on the ability to create a motivated community and provide them with tools that “just get out of the way.”

Unlike other community sites, Wikipedia does not make individual user accomplishments or stats central to the community’s success. While these numbers are available by digging through each user’s profile, there is no prominently featured “Top Users” list that contributors aspire to make. This is an interesting departure from the recognition model that most other successful communities seem to use (or used at some point in their growth, as we will see in our next example).

Digg

Created in December 2004, Digg.com is a popular example of the flourishing social bookmarking sites. With over 1 million registered users and over 5,000 “stories” (or links) submitted daily, Digg represents one of the most active communities on the Internet.

In Digg’s early days, a “Top Users” list existed to encourage people to submit content and to help new users find content from active submitters. Due to the site’s popularity though, this feature was removed since it had become the focus of Digg “gaming”- or users trying to get higher listing on the Top Users list by manipulating Digg’s ranking systems. Although the “Top Users” list has been removed, it is clear that the desire to be ranked highly on such a visible list was extremely motivating (for both good and bad behavior) and key to Digg’s early success.

Now Digg focuses more on fostering strong social communities within the large site. People connect on common interests by “digging” stories on related topics and adding people to their “Friends” list. Digg believes future growth will come from strong social communities that organically form around specific topics.

Experts Exchange

Experts Exchange claims to be the number one I/T Knowledge Sharing Community on the Internet. Built in 1996, EE sports over 220,000 registered users and over 15.5 million postings on previously answered questions. The site allows people to ask questions in any number of content areas and then awards points to the “expert” that answers the question correctly (up to 500 points per question). Experts answer questions for the self satisfaction of helping others and to rack up points that can eventually earn EE “certifications”- a type of trophy that signals an expert’s relative expertise in a specific content area.

Unlike Digg and Wikipedia, the reward of being visibly recognized on the site for your accomplishments is front and center at EE. It is very easy to browse the list of top EE experts, and individual question pages display lists of the top 12 experts in a content area. Also unlike other large communities, there is not a strong social system for facilitating friendships on EE. They do, however, provide extensive information in user profiles that help people find others interested in similar topics.

The site also has a special "skin" (or style) and tools specifically designed for experts (different from what unregistered or anonymous users see). The customizations for experts are designed to make it easy to quickly answer questions, track questions that are open, and interact with the site as quickly as possible (the expert skin removes most images from the site). EE has clearly embraced the concept of “tools that get out of the way,” in addition to a strong recognition program to build its community.

Official ASP.NET Forums

Recently, the official ASP.NET forums were revamped with a new community recognition system. The new system borrows a page from Experts Exchange and awards points to users for their contributions to the site. As users earn more points, their status on the site is elevated from “Member” to “Contributor” to (eventually) “All Star.” The status that each user has obtained is clearly displayed on each forum post, so answers from users with higher status rankings are generally respected among their peers as authoritative.

ASP.NET also features on their homepage a rotating list of top community members, top movers from the previous day, and a link to the “Hall of Fame” that shows top users overall. It is unclear how much this new program has helped increase activity in the ASP.NET forums, but the model has worked well on other sites for generating more involvement. People, especially people in I/T, are naturally competitive and they like to be recognized among the best by their peers. 

CSS Zen Garden

The CSS Zen Garden is large online “community” in which graphic artists submit custom CSS styles for a common HTML page. With over 950 submissions to date, the community is relatively small compared to others that have been examined so far. This can be attributed to two key factors: the site lacks good tools for adding submissions (Dave Shea, the project’s creator and curator, must manually add submissions to the gallery) and there are no tools for social interaction on the site (no comments, ratings, user profiles, or view/download stats). If Zen Garden followed some of the guidelines we have established in this research, it is likely the community and submissions could swell.

Nonetheless, CSS Zen Garden is a good case study in sites that ask users to create content and submit it. Despite its anemic community efforts, CSS Zen Garden remains a popular CSS resource on the Internet today and provides some level of expectation of how hard it is to get people to submit complex content (like custom CSS and graphic design work- highly relevant when looking at looking at efforts to build communities that ask users for more than quick comments).

If Zen Garden lacks good community features, why did over 900 designers submit? The project’s homepage makes it very clear: recognition. It encourages people to participate for “recognition, inspiration, and [to create] a resource… [for] making the case for CSS based design.” Again, recognition is used as a key motivator to get people to participate in the community.

The Code Project

The next community in our extensive study of online communities is also one of the largest. With almost four times as many registered users as Digg (nearly 4 million) and over 12,000 user submitted articles, The Code Project is an excellent example of a community that has managed to attract users and get them involved.

Not surprisingly, The Code Project implements our 3 keys to a successful community very well. It has a very strong recognition system that is similar to Experts Exchange and ASP.NET. As users submit more articles, they progress through different author status rankings, such as “Contributor,” “Writer,” and “Legend.” Even commenters (people who simply post comments on articles) get special recognition with a separate status system that recognizes their involvement. Furthermore, The Code Project has a number of “awards” (such as “The Code Project MVPs”) that are handed out by The Code Project staff to add another layer of recognition to the mix.

Users are clearly motivated to get involved for the recognition, but The Code Project does not stop there. They run a monthly competition for author’s to create the best article in different categories. The winner of each month’s competition gets a “swag pack” of donated goods from vendors often valued at over $1,500. Clearly, there is no shortage of recognition or motivation on The Code Project.

Recognition alone is not enough though, and The Code Project acknowledges this by providing equally strong socialization tools. All articles, interviews, and surveys can be commented on and all users can rate (on a scale of 1 to 5) the quality of an article. These conversations and rankings turn static articles and content into vibrant social interactions. The Code Project also features a “Lounge” for off-topic socialization, but unlike many forum “lounge” areas, The Code Project features its lounge on the homepage (along with featured content, latest updates, popular content, and a weekly poll). All of these social features, combined with homepage promotion, contribute to The Code Project’s massive popularity and success.

Facebook

Finally, we will round out our look at successful online communities by looking at a less "tech oriented" example. Facebook, the popular social networking site, has been all over the news lately and growing at an outstanding clip. Founded by the irreverent Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, Facebook has grown from almost 1 million active users in late 2004 to over 20 million active users in mid-2007. The growth and success of Facebook is shared by only the most popular of online communities, which makes them a great place to learn the do's and don’ts of successful community building.

Clearly, Facebook above all else has succeeded in implementing rule numero uno: create a strong sense of community. From its inception, Facebook has been centered on connecting small groups of users around a common central interest. Originally the common interest was users' schools, but in more recent months Facebook has enabled new interests- like employers, cities, and families- to join the fray. By capitalizing on the natural sense of community these interests generate in the "real world," Facebook avoided the pitfalls of other community sites that try to ambiguously connect everybody to everybody. Looking for these real world crossovers and focusing your communities around a common interest are good lessons to learn from the FB.

Facebook did not find its success without following the other observed rules of successful communities, though. To the contrary, they implemented a community system with tools that are very simple and easy to use. The system makes it very easy to find and add new friends, update personal information, and even send messages to your friends from within Facebook. Unlike My Space, Facebook did not allow users to customize every aspect of their page, but that simplicity and clean approach is what helped generate its appeal.

There is also a strong recognition system built in to Facebook. It is unique, though, in that the recognition does not hand out gold stars for actively contributing to the site. Instead, it automatically aggregates any activity you generate on your profile and announces to your friends that you have done something. This is not recognition in the traditional sense of thinking about rankings and titles, but the effect is the same. Individuals are being promoted on the site to many other people- in this case to people that might actually care- for being active in the community. Lesson: recognition does not have to include points or awards. Be creative.

Theoretical Insight on Building Strong Communities

Beyond the practical examination of successful online communities, it is also important to look at what theoretical rules apply when seeking to build a strong community. Kathy Sierra, a prominent blogger on the cognitive “rules” that govern good communities (as seen on the “Creating Passionate Users” blog), has put forth 6 “rules” (or guidelines) for turning average users into passionate users:

1.    Encourage new users- especially active askers- to answer questions.

2.    Give tips on how to successfully answer questions.

3.    Tell newer users that it is okay to guess a little when answering, as long as they say they are guessing.

4.    Adopt a near zero-tolerance “Be Nice” policy when people answer questions.

5.    Teach and encourage advanced users how to correct a wrong answer while maintaining the original answer’s dignity.

6.    Re-examine your reward/levels strategy for your community.

Sierra’s rules are based on her experience as the founder of JavaRanch (a large Java community that sees over ¾ million users each month). Chief among her rules, though, is number four: Be Nice. Sierra believes that communities must adopt a culture of “Be Nice” if they ever hope to grow and bring new users into the fold. She paints the following picture of a users “journey” in a community.

 

Figure 1

 

http://headrush.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/buildingausercommunity.jpg

Communities that succeed, in her opinion, learn how to engage new users quickly and transform them for “takers” to “givers” before they get lost in the intermediate void.

Danah Boyd, UC-Berkly PhD student and researcher at Yahoo! Research Berkley, offers some more advice in her speech delivered at O’Reilly’s ETech conference last year. In it, Boyd points out online communities are often built to invite “random collisions”- such as two people meeting due to similar photos posted to Flickr. But contrary to designers’ beliefs that these interactions are random, Boyd stresses that people interact because they have something in common and the online communities simply help people find those commonalities. A successful community must provide tools and interactions that enable people to make these discoveries if it is to flourish and grow.

Boyd also stresses a concept she calls embedded observation. Essentially, this idea says that it is important for community designers to exist within the community they are building. Communities are fluid and the best communities know how to recognize what users are doing (vs. what the designers “tell” users to do) and quickly respond with changes that support the observed behaviors. Boyd encourages community designers to design for re-interpretation instead of perfection and allow the passionate user community to refine how a site is used.

In short, do not count on building the perfect community site in version one. Do count on releasing versions two, three, four, and so on in rapid succession as you observe and interact with your community, refining the tools, recognition, and central focus of your site as you go.

Community 2.0

It is time for you to build “Community 2.0.” The singularity of “Community” is important. It implies that you need to build a strong community that unifies users from different backgrounds and interests, enabling them to share expertise and socialize across the boundaries of location and time. Clearly, there will be times when subsets of users focus on specific interests, but they should still feel like a member of the overall Community that you build.

To build Community 2.0, you need to learn from all of the communities examined in this research and focus on maximizing the 3 key principles:

1.    Sense of Community

2.    Strong Recognition

3.    Simple Tools

Let us look at specific steps you can take to embrace these three key principles and create a community that produces passionate users.

Sense of Community

Almost all of the successful sites we looked at in our research managed to build dedicated communities by fostering strong relationships between users. On some sites that was done by providing a "friend" system; on others it was done by enabling users to easily communicate. However, it is implemented; a successful community site needs to enable users to be social.

Social enablement does not necessarily mean talking. Enabling users to be social simply means providing them with tools to interact that enable them to be individually expressive. In practical terms, several things you can implement on your websites that facilitate this principle are:

·         Rich user profile support – User profiles are a great place to enable users to “get personal” and share details about their experience and background. If users are given the ability to create personal profiles that are publicly available on a site, a new level of social interaction will emerge as users discover people with similar interests and backgrounds. Profiles can be further enhanced to provide better user recognition, but more on that later.

·         Enable comments on everything – While being social does not necessarily involve talking (or on the web, "commenting"), it is certainly an important aspect of social sites. You can easily transform bland static content into rich social interactions by simply giving users the ability to talk about it. The value of comments can even be enhanced by clearly highlighting items on your site that are actively being commented on so that other users can join the conversation.

·         Share information with your users – Not in the “secret” sense, but in terms of what other users on the site are doing. How many other users are online right now? Who is online right now? Which blog post/news article/picture is being viewed the most this month? The more users feel connected with each other the more inclined they will be to become involved in the community and contribute to its success.

·         Provide “befriending” tools – As your new community grows and diversifies, users are likely to run into other users that they have more in common with than others. Providing tools to users that enable them to “befriend” one another is common on social websites today and adding that to your community is a powerful way to create connected users that have a real sense of belonging.

·         Facilitate community events – Whether online or in the real world, the community experience needs to continue past the casual interaction on your site. Occasional gatherings in areas with high concentrations of users or live online chats are a good way to help people see past digital avatars and connect with real human beings.

Strong Recognition

Most successful community sites need some hook to motivate users to get involved. While many people are happy to participate in a community expecting nothing in return, the human desire to be recognized by peers always seems to help motivate people to go the extra mile. Recognition can take many forms (as we have seen), from "points" to certificates to publicity to actual prizes. Finding the recognition that motivates your users is the key to making the system work.

To that end, it is difficult to suggest a one size fits all recognition scheme. What motivates one community may do absolutely nothing to motivate another. You must really seek to understand your users at this point, which may not be as hard as you think if you are practicing embedded observation. What would motivate you to contribute to your community? What would motivate your friends? Answer those questions and you will probably have a good version. But be prepared to respond quickly if you find the users your site attracts to have different motivations.

Rather than provide concrete steps for implementing recognition on your site, I will provide you with some ideas based on other site systems to get the thought process started.

·         Promote user activity - People that time contributing to a community tend to appreciate public recognition for their efforts. They would continue to do their work without the recognition (for a while), but for relatively little effort as a developer, you can give these active members the boost they need to keep pouring new content and life into your site.

This recognition can be a top users list, special "status" or "rank" given to active members. Whatever it is, it makes these users feel needed, special and encourages other users to strive for the recognition.

·         Create contests - Nothing gets people involved faster than a contest with an attractive prize. You would be amazed how much users will do simply to win something "cool" like an iPod nano. For $150, you can jump start your community and capitalize on most people's desire to win. Do not forget to publicly recognize the winner in your community to maximize the benefit of this form of recognition.

·         Establish community "shepherds" - Every community will sooner or later (probably sooner) attract some wolves that do nothing but ruin the community atmosphere. A good way to handle this inevitable problem is to promote your most active users to unique roles- like MVP or Moderator- giving them some power to help keep the community running in the right direction. By establishing this advanced form of recognition, you give users an even greater sense of ownership of the site and help ensure the community's continued quality.

 

Simple Tools

Providing simple tools to users is as difficult to do as it is to describe. Often, tools that seem simple on paper are more complicated than they need to be and lack in areas that users really care about. For example, when Facebook introduced its seemingly simple News Feed in late 2006, thousands of users decried its existence and petitioned its immediate removal. What seemed like a good idea on paper had somehow missed the mark with the large Facebook community. Eventually the new feature was made optional and life returned to normal, but it remains a cautionary tale about adding tools and features to site consumed by an active community.

 

Choosing the right tools and features to support your community is clearly a difficult task. Often, these choices are what enable one site or community to become more successful than another. Showing restraint and choosing only the tools that are relevant to your community- especially in its infancy- is the most reliable path to success. And before you think that you can add tons of extra features and make them optional to your users, remember that every option in your site represents a decision your users must make. As author Joel Spolsky says, do not make your users make decisions about things they do not care about or they will get ticked-off and leave!

 

While defining simple tools is a bit abstract, there a few general things you can focus on when creating tools for "community 2.0."

 

·         Build tools that are fast – One of the biggest differences between interacting with the ASP.NET forums and the Experts Exchange forums is the speed. The lag between clicking “Reply” to load the editor and then later submitting the reply often is the worst part of the ASP.NET forum experience. Communities depend upon tools that reduce the barriers between communication, and slow responses create instant barriers for time starved users that cannot wait on a site to participate. Whether the issues are infrastructure or design, community 2.0 should offer an experience that is fast and responsive.

·         Enhanced tools for advanced users – Among the things Expert Exchange does exceptionally well is offer special tools for advanced users that are primarily trying to “give” to the community (instead of “take”). Experts on that site have a set of tools that make it easy to find unanswered questions and deliver fast responses. Superior tools can maximize the time users are willing to spend helping the community and fully harness users’ passion for your community.

·         Provide clear, simple instructions for tools – Even if the tool and process for contributing to the community is simple, a poorly presented set of instructions can hinder their effectiveness. Making tools easy to access and understand is just as important as making them easy to use.

Creating communities with ASP.NET

Before you rush out and use a "community in a box" solution to build your web site, consider the principles and concepts discussed in this article. Does the pre-built solution deliver just the tools relevant to your community? Does the pre-built solution enable you to easily recognize your community members? Does the pre-built solution "get out of the way" and let your community flourish or does it bog it down with unnecessary weight? While ASP.NET shortcuts definitely exist that can help you build a community site, they are not always the best choice if you want to build a strong community following.

Where do you begin then? Try joining one of the active ASP.NET communities and seeking help from the vast army of ASP.NET developers. Aside from getting quick technical advice and help, you will also experience firsthand the elements that make a thriving community work.

Once you have refined the vision for your site, try looking in for robust controls to provide the "out of the way" UI that your site needs to succeed. One of the many advantages of developing with ASP.NET (versus say, PHP) is that there is a rich component model and marketplace established, which enables you to easily add rich functionality to your application. From free controls like the ASP.NET AJAX Control Toolkit to more advanced controls like the RadControls for ASP.NET from Telerik, turning your vision into a high performance community site is probably easier than you think.

References

Wikipedia Statistics:

http://stats.wikimedia.org/EN/Sitemap.htm

Time.com. “10 Questions: Jimmy Wales”: http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1601491,00.html

WorldChanging.com. “Why Wikipedia Succeeds”: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/002411.html

Digg the Blog. “A couple of Updates”:

http://blog.digg.com/?p=60

Experts Exchange. “About Us":

http://www.experts-exchange.com/aboutUs.jsp

Creating Passionate Users. “How to build a user community, Part 1”: http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/12/how_to_build_a_.html

The Code Project. “Editorial Focus”: http://www.codeproject.com/info/MediaKit/CodeProjectMediaKit2.asp

Boyd, Danah. Danah.com. "G/localization: When Global Information and Local Interaction Collide":

http://www.danah.org/papers/Etech2006.html

Spolsky, Joel. JoelOnSoftware.com. "User Interface Design for Programmers": http://www.joelonsoftware.com/uibook/chapters/fog0000000059.html

Facebook.com. "Timeline":

http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?timeline

Community Server Quickly - A Guide to build successful online communities:

http://www.packtpub.com/community-server/book

Conclusions

All successful communities on the Internet have clear similarities that help them attract committed groups of active users. Understanding these similarities enables you to replicate their success in your own efforts to build a community. It does not matter if your site attracts millions of unique users every month- if you focus on building tools that bring people together around a common interest (be it a product, a service, an idea, whatever), the numbers will come with time.

 

A number of concepts have been presented in this article that should help spur your thought process on “Community 2.0” and inspire new ideas. As long as you keep the key concepts- sense of community, strong recognition, and simple tools- in front of you as you lay the foundations for your community, you will create a community of passionate users that are actively involved and provide your site with a long term competitive advantage over competitors.



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