Building successful online communities….

Astute readers will know, or have worked out, that I’m involved in a couple of projects that seek to build communities of interest. I really believe in the power of the network and the efficiency to be gained by creating a place where individuals, joined by a common interest, can meet. That interest can be social, technological, vocational or whatever, it matters not.

One of the examples I hold up as a shining light to community building is Geekzone. Geekzone has created a locale where like minded people (admittedly early adopter techy types who are a sure bet to “do stuff” online) can meet, discuss, create forums, ask questions etc etc etc. Mauricio (founder of Geekzone) deserves mountains of praise for what he has achieved.

Anyway, a post over on Web Worker Daily absolutely resonated with me, it discusses some “rules” for online communities. Some of the points raised really hit the mark and I thought I’d repost them here;

You can’t own a community. A lot of people who start and build communities immediately assume ownership. They get lawyers to craft a Terms of Service that says that they own everything posted within a community. They set the rules in stone and police the community. While I understand why companies want to “protect their assets,” ultimately, online communities can be fickle and rebellious. They do not want to be owned. Trying to turn a community into a commodity is ultimately a recipe for failure.

This is a fantastic point – witness those who have failed trying to be a proprietary community. Online communities need to be Switzerland, neutral and open in word and deed. So many large organisation try to build communities as a shallow attempt to quickly and directly lead to sales. This ploy is pretty obviously false – the communities that succeed are those that encourage dialogue, even when it challenges the views of those supporting it. It’s interesting to note the number of high level executives from New Zealand Telcos who spend time on Geekzone – sometimes the discussions there challenge them but better to be challenged and know what the market thinks than to exist with a “head buried in the sand” attitude.

Every community needs leadership. I know some people will debate me on this point but I don’t think a community can survive without some person in a leadership role. They don’t have to be “boss,” they don’t have to be “dictator,” however, there is usually one person who initiates a community and is the driving force behind that community. The community leadership could consist of several people, but leading by committee can bog down a community’s growth. At the end of the day, the buck must stop with someone.

I agree entirely – Mauricio, whether you call him ambassador or figurehead or whatever of Geekzone, is front and centre as the leader in terms of direction and strategy. Similarly Richard McManus over on ReadWriteWeb.

A community dies if it is all about you. Often a community grows around a single person but that is really more “Cult of Personality” if the community continues to revolve around that person. Many blogs are activated by Cult of Personality. Successful bloggers nurture their comments sections so those who comment get the spotlight as well. Online communities may need a leader but they should not be reliant solely on a single person to survive. When that person goes, what happens to the community?

Again both Gekkzone and RWW are examples of communities where it’s not necessarily about the figurehead. One runs a fine line between lack of direction and too much control. Online communities have a lifecycle and they reach a point at which they can be cut loose from their figurehead somewhat.

Community building is not all about the tools. But the right tools do help. These days, the right community building tools seem to be social networking features (friends), blogs or microblogging features, and even SMS features so the community conversation gets carried onto your mobile device. Bells and whistles don’t make an online community, but as people get used to using new networking and communications, they’ll come to expect them in the platform where they choose to start a community

It’s all about the solution – Geekzone is kind of plain in execution, but it serves a purpose and that build it’s following. Many communities are heavy on features but light on delivering users wants and needs.

The entire article really struck a chord with me, especially after a couple of discussions with people over the last couple of days who similarly appreciate the value of community.

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