Community 2.0: The Recipe for a Successful Online Community
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by Todd Anglin
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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.


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