A couple of years ago, I attended a launch event for Halo 2 in Chicago that drew a crowd from all over the country. As I was introducing myself to attendees, I asked: “What’s your name?; Where are you from?” I was expecting to find out where they lived. One guy attending the event answered “My name is Joe, and I’m from the SomethingAwful.com forums.”
Joe had identified with forums where he was active just as strongly, or perhaps even more strongly, than the place he lived. That is the power of community, and for SomethingAwful it translates into 94,000 people paying $10 just to be a part of their community. For anyone building a true Web 2.0 application, one that creates meaningful connections between people and ideas, building a community is extremely important. The community you construct will distinguish your site from competitors, create organic word-of-mouth advertising, and drive growth.
So how do you develop your community effectively? Like a newborn baby, the first shaky steps your community takes will play a crucial role in its development. Do you start off with an exclusive closed beta so that by the time you open your site to the public, the roots of your community are in place? Or do you simply throw open the gates of your site at launch, letting anyone in who wants to register? There are a few important things to remember when building communities:
• *Control your demographics* The first few beta users of your community can and will influence the direction of your community’s development. Google’s social network Orkut, one of the most popular social networks in the world with over 46 million users, floundered when it first launched in the US. Then it was discovered by a few hundred Brazilians, and its adoption in Brazil took off, with Brazilians now constituting over 50% of Orkut’s user base. By controlling the initial membership of your community through beta invitations or selective marketing, you can shape its future.
• *Like attracts like* Facebook became successful through tight control of its demographics. By limiting its user base to those with .edu email addresses, Facebook created a community exclusive enough that other college students wanted to join it. But technological controls are not always necessary. FoundREAD is a community–driven website were the user base is self-selected based on a common interest in entrepreneurship.
• *Strength is not only in numbers* Simply drawing users to your site will not suffice. Your customers are not just eyeballs; they are people with friends, likes, dislikes, goals and expectations. As with business networking, community building is more than a numbers game. You must foster meaningful communication and emotional connections between your users. This could be done by giving them the ability to post a basic profile with a picture of themselves, offering them the opportunity to engage in full-blown debates on the site, or anything in between.
• *Users are not created equal* This may seem counterintuitive in a democratic web, but every community will have some users who create more value for your site than others. If you want a strong, self-sustaining community, you need to acknowledge the users you value most with systems that encourage and reward active participation. Recognize top users with a karma system like reddit’s or eBay’s or a top users list like Digg’s (before it was removed to wide public outcry from top users). Give your most valuable users the opportunity to impact the entire community by appointing them as moderators/editors or showcasing their work for everyone to see like the “top blogs” list on WordPress.com
• *Use cumulative advantage* The law of cumulative advantage states that things that are already popular will become more popular. More active communities will in turn engage more active users.
• *Be agile* As your community grows, the needs and desires of your users will change. Stay flexible enough to address their needs and adapt your community to them quickly. If your users take your community in a direction you did not anticipate, go with the flow instead of fighting them to maintain your vision.
The formula for creating successful communities is simple: Build a well-focused application that connects people, encourages individuality and responds to the needs of its users, and you will create something far greater than the sum of its parts.
11 thoughts on “Vet & Reward”
I’d also add –
1. Jump-start the system quick and big. There is limited time available between when you launch and when your community should achieve critical mass and become self-sustaining and growing thereafter. You need good initial (and probably artificial) users to get it over the initial cusp. If you can’t get there soon enough, it will sizzle down forever.
Om – I think this where you need to intervene and continue to post some useful stuff initially to keep this community active. Its been very dry lately 🙂
2. People engage best when the topic is debabatle, controversial or an opinion is sought of them actively. Thats when they will express, if they have an opinion. Ex. the techrunch post on “Digg should sue Wired” probably generated the most user comments on Techcrunch (http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/03/01/digg-should-sue-wired/)
Another example is a posting on Signal vs Noise blog asking users to define the world in 10 words or less. It was probably one of the most popular posting on that blog, generating 241 comments. http://www.37signals.com/svn/posts/363-define-the-real-world-in-10-words-or-less}
I’ve got a good community on my site, but this article and the suggestions included are helpful. Yay! thanks!}
Big V, Your comment rules. Do you have a blog or contact info?}
Very good write-up and helpful read and indeed good comment by Big V. Please put up some more of the suggestions.}
“You need good initial (and probably artificial) users to get it over the initial cusp. If you can’t get there soon enough, it will sizzle down forever.”————this is the part that caught my eye.
for eg., if your site depends heavily on user generated content and in the early days your are caught in a “you need content to attract visitors …you get content only after you get significant visitors” sorta chicken and egg problem.
BigV tries to address this problem but i still think it is unrealistic to have artificial content put on it to attract visitors.
Anyone any thoughts????????}
You’re comments got me to thinking…maybe we’re re being too general when speaking of “building a successful community”…aren’t there in fact different kinds of communities, some that require a certain fashionability (myspace) and others that require a critical content value (found|read)…I’m sure there are other ways to slice the communities and each might impact the requirements and expectations on how that community is built…this may not be a one size fits all situation…}
May be Om or other seasoned experts could take it up and elaborate on the issue .
“HOW DO STARTUPS THAT HEAVILY or may be EXCLUSIVELY RELY ON USER GENERATED CONTENT GET THEIR INITIAL CONTENT THAT COULD eventually KICKOFF A CHAIN REACTION between VISITORS and CONTENT”
One classic case study could be digg or may be craigslist}
I think it is a good point you raise. I think the trick is in finding that fine balance between user generated content and self generated content.
As a content creator, I am more interested in people’s thoughts and ideas. Because they lead to new and different thinking, which results in more writing by me and rest of the crew.
I think users, in a community are the real catalysts. The biggest achievement of gigaom is not my writing, but my community always prodding me to think different.
Anyone who is looking to create a community, should think of themselves as a vessel. And that’s when the chain reaction starts.}
kris kris –
By artificial, I did not mean hollow, incorrect or fake content. I meant “creating” users in artificial manner. A good community thrives and grows by word of mouth and marketing costs are zero. But to jump start it, we need to ‘create’ users; these could be our very very close friends, who we beg to participate more actively initially, or they could be acquired by spending a lot of marketing dollars upfront. ex. Google Answers started off with 500 experts that were paid. They jumpstarted the system with those initial contributors, but failed to open it up to the community at the right time. Playstation does a big marketing splash prior to each release, every new movie has a big splash prior to release – these are all ways to get the system ignited. If the initial splash is big enough, and the product is good, the early adopters will do the rest of marketing for you.
Om makes a good point – we are a vessel in the long term. Initially, we lay a few first eggs, then we just provide the breeding ground and let it multiply on its own.}
I think it’s important to point out that not every community works/grows the same way. We often talk about how tech-related communities grow, whereby the geek-chic crowd actually cares whether or not a site is cool.
What about non-geek sites like autos? RoadFly.com has grown over many years as a top forum destination for auto enthusiasts (I remember it as bimmer.org)
Even at our startup-related site, the Go BIG Network (www.goBIGnetwork.com) we have grown quickly but not in a “pop”. You don’t need to be instantly huge to build a community.}