Characteristics of Successful Online Communities

Successful online communities require more than a software package. In this article, we outline the strategies and features that can help you build online message boards, social networks, or other conversation based sites that become vibrant, useful communities.

These days, an organization can create an online community site in minutes. But creating an actual online community takes much longer.

In this article, we'll review the key characteristics that are shared by successful online communities. This discussion should help you create a vision for your own community, a plan for your operating style, and an outline of the software features that can support them.


Plan for Success

Before you think about software, do your homework to clarify your community's purpose and composition. If you were building a new residential community, you'd certainly think hard about what sort of people might choose to live there and why.

Clearly state your objective in creating a community. Then list your likely audiences -- researchers, college students, human rights activists, pet owners, or whomever -- and figure out what they might want out of a community experience. Remember that your community members are not likely to participate merely to support your mission -- what is their core motivation?
Are they seeking to share research? Looking for answers to a problem? Do they want to vent about a specific issue? Do they need to plan a project or action together? 

Or are they just looking to meet people like themselves? Socializing or networking is a key attribute of nearly all communities. So even if you are planning an extremely goal-oriented community, give people the ability to mingle and get to know each other. For example, TechSoup's community, a technology resource for nonprofits, has a forum titled "Introduce Yourself."

Remember that your community is not likely to be their only option. Where else might they go to fill their needs? A competitive analysis can help ensure that your community is offering something useful that cannot be found elsewhere -- including within your own network. People have limited time and attention and it may be unreasonable for them to belong to multiple, overlapping communities. Perhaps what you are seeking to create already exists and just needs to be cultivated. 

Review the existing sites related to your topic. Technorati, Google's Blog Search, BlogPulse, and other sites can reveal what people are saying about your organization, your top issues, or the key topics of the community you are planning. Also search the "walled garden" spaces such as Facebook, MySpace, and Ning. Sites like these have discussions that are only available to registered users and therefore may not appear in standard search results. 

Finally, be sure that you intend to be in it for the long haul. Online communities take time to catch fire. A member's connection with your community grows with each individual small interaction, even those that have no obvious immediate organizational benefit. If you interact with your community members only when you want a favor from them, you may drive people away. Like a friendship, relationships that are only about favors do not stand the test of time.

Once this homework is complete, you are ready to think about how your community will work.  


Make People Feel At Home

Successful communities have to put out the welcome mat to create safe, open and fulfilling environments. Establish community norms that encourage open communication rather than stifling it. Set boundaries for acceptable behavior. Treat new members like you would a new family in the neighborhood.

Next, don't be a pest by sending too many email notifications. How and when should emails be sent? Allow your members to decide. Some people prefer daily updates, others weekly, and still others prefer to receive messages via a news reader, through RSS. Let the users pick their own preferences. However, opting out of absolutely all emails should be politely discouraged when possible as regular email stimulates online participation.

Making people feel safe is another important part of making people feel at home. Most often, participants are looking to connect with real people, rather than an online pseudonym. Encouraging members to share personal details and interests, or even verifying participants, can help. But people also want to feel comfortable that they are sharing detailed information only with people they recognize and trust. Therefore it is critical that your community offers easy-to-use granular privacy controls that let the user specifically control which personal information is shared and with whom. For example, when a member sends a message to another member, your community should let the user decide whether the message should be a) visible to everyone, b) visible only to the two people and others within their group or c) exclusively visible to the two people alone.


Rule With Benevolence

Once your community members have been welcomed, its time to establish a few ground rules. For starters, never set a hard rule if a guideline will suffice. It may be your kingdom, but your citizens can leave at any time. If you want your community to thrive, consider allowing people to speak freely.  Heavy moderating, such as approving every post, stifles conversations. (It also may expose you to more liability, as screening can carry additional legal obligations.) Instead, set clear standards of conduct up front. We can't consider all of the legal and free speech considerations here, but in particular, be sure that your community has clear standards for when messages are to be deleted -- such as use of profanity, slander, breach of privacy, copyright violations, or inappropriate promotions. When users do breach protocol, correct them immediately and firmly, but kindly.

Next, when you are first getting started, seek to limit the number of different gathering places.  Many communities initially thrive by focusing attention on a limited number of central message streams such as a central blog, or a main discussion forum. Discourage "ghost town" forums where no one is yet active. Once the main channel is established, then you can then use software to set up more specific discussion areas. Community software metaphors vary, but most offer "channels," "forums," "categories," or "groups" that can support different topical areas, geographic regions, professional associations, or whatever sub-culture will best support your community members. Encourage people to wander into new spaces that address more focused interests without creating redundant areas or places so obscure that they wither and die. If you are not certain what people are interested in, it might be desirable to allow members to create groups themselves according to their personal interests.

While people don't care for overbearing governance, they often value communities where it's easy to separate the highly useful from less useful postings.  More feature-rich community platforms can empower the community members themselves with voting rights to help moderate messages -- rewarding good postings and reporting "inappropriate" postings. Voting can be important if the community is large and there's little chance that your moderators will catch all of the bad behavior on their own.

When setting up your community, be sure that you've anticipated roles for all of the different ways people wish to participate. More robust community software packages allow varied permission levels for all sorts of types of participants. On one end of the spectrum, your community is likely to have a small, active, group of "Super-Users": people who login daily and account for the vast majority of community activities -- writing, commenting, adding events, posting photos, voting, etc. On the other end of the spectrum will be lurkers or browsers: people who mostly read and perhaps, depending on your configuration, do not even register.

The bulk of your participants will fall between your Super Users and your Lurkers. Given these varied levels of participation, your community platform should enable active members to see and do more as their activity level increases. Likewise, it should make clear the additional benefits that members enjoy at higher level of engagement. For instance, even the most rudimentary community tools typically grant benefits for members who register. Advanced community tools can be configured to automatically knight members with additional privileges as the member's activity level grows. It's worth considering whether these sort of advanced permission capabilities are appropriate for your community.


Encourage Personal Relationships

Nonprofit communities thrive on the same sort of social dynamics that exist in face-to-face interactions, including the desire to collaborate, network, make friends, and even date. People want to be respected and well-liked. User-to-user communication is key. While your organizational objective is to increase your ability to communicate with people, the participants are likely primarily interested in talking to one another.

  • Privacy Protection

    Think carefully about how you want to allow people to talk to one another. It is vital that your community is configured to facilitate interpersonal communication, while also honoring people's privacy preferences. As mentioned previously, there should be clear distinctions between private messages (visible to just the sender and recipient), semi-private messages (visible to everyone in a particular group) or public messages (available to the entire community and the world). Robust systems also allow members to set their contact preferences (e.g. "only allow messages from my friends" vs. "allow messages from everyone."). Physical addresses and phone numbers should generally only be shown with user permission. Be extremely cautious with personal data such as exact dates of birth.

  • Rich User Identities

    Communications between members are enhanced when people know more about the person with whom they are communicating. Consider letting users set a photo, declare their personal likes and dislikes, provide links to their other sites and blogs, or add work experience. Some communities also encourage users to complete their profile by giving the member a higher rating for each additional item they add to their profile.

  • Groups and Discussion Lists

    Once your community achieves a critical mass, you'll want to allow members to branch off and create their own discussion forum, email lists or other groups. This allows people to discuss topics that are more specific to their own interest, and also can allow for deeper, more focused conversations within a smaller group of familiar members.

  • Leverage Off-line Events

    Be sure your community has a calendar or event listing for face-to-face events. Even though the internet allows your community members to be anywhere in the world, off-line events strengthen and reinforce their online connections by letting them meet other members in the flesh.

Facilitate Reputation Building

Higher end software enables you to display the number of posts, uploads, reviews, ratings and other activities for each community member. You can set reward thresholds and distribute virtual ribbons when people reach "gold" status or whatever you choose to name it.  For example, SOAPPHOTO, a photographer community site, allow members to earn points for various activities (logging in, earning votes on submitted photos, etc.) As the user progresses from "bronze" to "diamond" membership status, they earn new abilities such as uploading more photos, entering more photo contests and voting more often.

Encouraging and rewarding your most active members and leaders  is crucial to maturing a community from fledgling to established.  Give your leaders power. Pick technology solutions that give them the ability to do more within a designated area -- such as approve comments or post polls. Highly active members should be personally acknowledged through featured interviews or being highlighted as the "community leader of the week." Likewise, members with true expertise should be given a recurring forum. For instance, ASPCA's community holds twice-monthly chats with a veterinarian.

Ranking mechanisms can also help here. Let other users reward leaders' postings by voting up the best and most active members. Ratings are more valuable to members if they are paired with additional privileges or higher quotas. Similarly, contests that offer a tangible reward for winners also stimulate member activity.

Reputation is not only a product of what you do, but who you know. That's why person-to-person "friending," "linking," and "connecting" is a central organizing principle of the commercial social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. When planning your own community, consider offering features that allow members to build a list of acquaintances to display on their member profiles.

Finally, reputation is built by fundraising prowess. Personalized fundraising is still in its infancy, but if you do have features that allow fundraising, be sure that member's profiles can easily tout how much they raised, for which cause, and from whom.

Software Alone Isn't Success

By now it should be clear that a successful online community requires more than just a software package. The right set of features, standards and best practices needs to be combined with thoughtful management your organization. A successful community strategy begins with planning and ends with a long term commitment to the space you've created

Andrew Cohen is a Project Director for Forum One Communications who has helped nonprofit organizations with Internet technology projects for ten years. Andrew has directed redesigns of dozens of organization web sites and has also led the development of solutions for email marketing, advocacy, donation processing, blogging, online community, and online collaboration. He is a contributor to Influence and Online Community Report and coordinates Forum One's Web Executive Seminars, an ongoing series of presentations by leading nonprofits at the National Press Club.

Bill Johnston, editor of Online Community Report with Forum One Communications, Laura Quinn of Idealware, Ayumi Stubb of ASPCA, and Nancy White of Full Circle Associates

also contributed to this article.