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.