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How to Build and Lead Successful Online Communities: Getting Started With An Online Community

By Nic Laycock / May 2012

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Finally we have gotten to online communities! But just to emphasize something I discussed earlier in this series—a community is very different from a network.

As with so many other ventures, the initiation of a community is all about planning. In the online environment, which is so characterized by spontaneity—the instant and the abbreviated—proper planning is so much more important if the high failure rate of communities is to be avoided.

There are a number of simple steps that are likely to increase the chances of success.

Clarify the Purpose Well

Knowing exactly what the community exists to do will help you in your leadership, guiding and energizing those with whom you are intending to interact. A well-established purpose will also provide the tools you need as the inevitable scope creep occurs. You will easily be able to return to the core reason for the community's existence and redirect others to that purpose.

It is not common for a single individual to conceive of a community and set it up. Normally a community is the result of a number of people seeing the need for this kind of collaboration and wanting to work together. The use of an offline environment is often a consequence of geographical separation and may also result from a need for people to be available to one another on a more or less continuous basis.

Clarification of why an online environment is the most appropriate way forward for the intended group is important and it must always be remembered that the community will rarely be the only place where it's members interact. Many well meaning community leaders or energizers, as they may be better described, in fact strangle their communities through their zeal to direct all communication between participants through its platform. It is unnecessary and denies the multiple ways in which we as human beings naturally interact

With a clear purpose and an understanding of the chosen platform and its benefits, the next step in planning an online community is to understand the intended participants. Who needs to be involved to move forward its reason for existence? What level of comfort do they have with the intended platform? What experience do they have of online environments? What level of commitment do they have to the proposed community and it's potential benefits? What fears and concerns do they have about the new venture? What support will they need in order to feel part of the community and to contribute positively to it?

As complete an understanding as is possible will ease the path of community leadership and development from the outset and will encourage commitment to it. At every stage, remember that every person who is to be involved is a real, warm human being, needing to feel safe and comfortable in what will be a new space in which to collaborate. We are all resistant to change to some degree, and fear of the unknown is part of that. Challenging oneself and overcoming that fear is more difficult if we are isolated, unfamiliar with the technology, and without the benefit of being able to use all our natural senses to give us an understanding of those around us and the ways we can work with them. In one sense that isn't a problem because the nature of an online community is to level the playing field and to eliminate all those factors that work in our subconscious to influence how and to what extent we will join with others. In another sense it is a real issue because the unseen and dispassionate nature of online working means that it is far less easy to pick up the fears and concerns of others.

Time to Initiate

I assume that the prospective leader or energizer of the new community is thoroughly familiar with the features of the platform that is being used. More about that further down… Online communities are no different than any other form of community in that the more the participants are given the opportunity to contribute and build up their ownership of what is happening, their commitment will be greater. Being together at the moment of launch of a community and having the opportunity to jointly envision, share, build on ideas, and get to know one another is time well spent. Ideally and wherever possible that should happen on a face-to-face basis where all our naturalness as relationship seeking human beings can come into play. Clearly there are circumstances where geography, time, opportunity cost, or other reasons mean that a face-to -face formation session for the community is not possible. There is then a need to take great care to on-board community members by the use of a patient but enticing online process.

The launch of a community is an exciting time, but success in developing an internal self-sustaining energy will not come without hard work. Leadership of a new community is demanding. Not only will the leader be expected to answer technical queries of all kinds about the use of the online platform, but they will also need to monitor activity and guide the content of the community. Some analytics, however simple, will help with assessing the degree of involvement of members. Dominance that deters others needs to be identified and addressed at an early stage. Non-participation requires probing and the support and encouragement of people who may be finding difficulty in joining in for a whole variety of reasons. The tone of the community conversation is important. The energizer may need to intervene to set an example, which ensures respect for the individual and encourages questions, experimentation, ideas, and supportive sharing. How to tackle this wide span of roles in the community is the subject of the next post in this series. But the energiser must be aware of the time and investment demands that a new online community makes.

Being involved in the start of a new community is a fun and exciting ride. A wise consultant once said to me as a guiding principle for helping groups "Don't listen to what they say—watch what they do!" We will interpret that for an online community in the next post. In the meantime, plan thoroughly and have fun.

About the Author

Nic Laycock blogs at Nic's Discoveries and can be found on Twitter @alc47.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/05 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2207270.2207271


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