What’s the 411 on Building Online Communities?

by Sean Arayasirikul, Guest Blogger for the Network for LGBT Health Equity at Netroots Nation 2011

Online communities have revolutionized the ability for individuals to engage in community-making over the Internet. From Friendster to Myspace to Facebook and LinkedIn, successful online communities have a distinct identity and fulfill a particular niche and purpose. Especially significant in the LGBT community, online communities have been at the heart of socialization and community-making (consider, for example, downelink.com and gay.com). Organizations can now easily create online communities with out of the box templates like Ning (http://www.ning.com/). However, all types of social media can host an online community, including most notably Twitter and Facebook. If your organization is thinking about launching a campaign or initiative that leverages creating an online community, below are some helpful things to consider.

Solve a Real Problem. What keeps people coming back to your online community is the sense of purpose that it represents. Ask yourself what problem your online community is solving? Be specific and ask around. Is there buy-in? Remember, many already fully participate in online communities on Facebook and Twitter for example. A challenge that many online communities face is the competition for user time with these big name, well-established communities. Consider whether your community members will go to a separate site or is a Facebook group or a Twitter hashtag more advantageous for your efforts? The bottom line: know your audience and pick a social media home for your online community accordingly.

If You Build It They Will Come – Not Quite. One common misconception about the management of online communities is that once it is built, people will gravitate towards it. This is not true. Online communities are fragile and need tender loving care. They need to be promoted, marketed and fed. Once people join your online community, community managers play a central role in keeping activity and content live and current. They listen, respond, energize and advocate for the users of your community.

How Do I Know If My Online Community is Working? In choosing your metrics for success, be creative. Below is a list of some of the usual suspects, but also some qualitative means of assessing the success of your online community.

  • Web traffic (with Google Analytics)
  • Membership numbers
  • Mentions (via Twitter)
  • Feedback (positive and negative)
  • Revenue (via FB causes, for example)
  • Referrals
  • Growth OVER time
  • Comments left on blog
  • User conversations with other users
  • Time between responses (less time as an indicator to high community responsiveness and cohesion)
  • VIP retweets, guest authors, and interviews (if you have high profile followers or other community members, consider the reach of your online community as a success!)

Reward Your Users. Identify your super users and incentivize them! Implement an ambassador program or institute a leader board for your users who are active. Highlight their involvement with increased responsibility like guest writing a monthly blog.

The Content Push – Focus on Integration. Static content can be the Achilles’ heel for any online community. Leverage your social network tools to cross-publish content. Make it once, use it twice (or three times)! If your have an event that’s coming up, highlight it on your online community’s calendar, RSS feed, Facebook, and Twitter. Cover the event with a live blog, tweetchat and live streaming. Archive video on Youtube and link it to your online community. Run a content series that occurs on a weekly basis. For example, you could profile a member every Mondays for “Member Mondays”.

 What’s the Bottom Line? Any form of community building – online or offline – takes work, passion, heart and drive!

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