Building online communities, part 1

I’ve been writing a white paper for my colleagues at Virtual Surveys on how to create and manage online customer communities.  In writing this, I drew on all the unofficial knowledge that I’ve built from years of immersion in what is now termed ‘participatory culture’ but is known to the rest of you as blogs, bulletin boards and amateur websites.

In the white paper, I’ve talked about the need to design a community in the same way that you design a workshop or indeed plan a great party: thinking through the setting, the needs and the stages that people will move through in becoming a reasonably bonded group of individuals.  

I have a 4-stage model, the community staircase:

  1. Gaining access (and simple re-entry) to the system
  2. Establishing social presence
  3. Dialogue
  4. Interactive discussion and debate

There’s a temptation to pay attention purely to Step 3, because those are the things that everyone wants to know. However, if you neglect the previous two steps, the community may never be capable of delivering the rich discussion that want.

Let me explain.  

Access.  If your initial account set-up is difficult and demotivating, people will abandon the attempt half-way.  Equally, if people manage to participate at the beginning but they never know when there is a new discussion or when someone replied to their comment (and they forget their username, anyway), you will not have a sustainable community.  Simple access and re-entry are the dull foundation stones of great communities.

Social Presence.  So, your customer is in.   Now what? Well, in a real community, they’d go and read all the comments up there so far, and pick a place to start.  Of course, in a real community, they’re probably already quite motivated to join in.  The first things that people usually want to do is see what people talk about round here, and how they do it.  They also want a safe place to start contributing.  

What is social presence?  Artificial communities need more development, and both the participants and the community sponsors or facilitators need to gain an understanding of what each other is like – in other words, through writing content, sharing opinions and asking questions.   As a result, planning a new community is probably more like planning an online magazine than planning a questionnaire.  It’s chicken and egg: to feel comfortable about contributing, forum members need to see some evidence of the facilitators’ (and the site’s) personality. 

So, to begin with, the site facilitators need to make friendly, interesting content that forum members read; and forum members need to be encouraged to interact with the site, by writing and personalising it.  All those things create a sense of social presence on the site (that is, of real people with real personalities being present).

In part 2, I’m going to give a few more examples of access and social presence, to show you how it works in practice.