If you have ambitions beyond communicating to people and actually want to communicate with people these three principles will help you when starting an online community. Since this is a blog have I chosen the blog as an example, but it could also be a mailing list, a message board, etc. Remember that nothing is set in stone and that planning everything isn’t possible. Change is everywhere and only the flexible survive. Nonetheless or maybe exactly for this reason you need a backbone, a foundation, a root or whatever you want to call it and these principles can in my opinion serve as just that. They will help you set up the essentials and plot out the course, but in a way that allows you to develop, grow and expand.
Design for growth and change
Every successful community starts out small, simple and focused. Some remain in that state because they choose to, but others do so because they do not have the necessary prerequisites for organic growth. Most communities are meant to grow, adding breath, depth and complexity in response to the members changing needs and wants as well as the changing conditions of the environment. Ensuring that your community can grow and change is not as simple as it sounds and thinking about it should therefore be one of the first things you do as it influences a lot of the basic decisions you have to make when starting a community. If you simply get the idea and implement it you risk having to start from scratch more than once because you chose the wrong approach, the wrong platform or the wrong design to name a few examples.
For a blog this would mean finding a name that is precise enough for people to know what it is about, but broad enough to be able to cover eventual adjustments of your subject or subjects. Whether you pick a free service or set up your own script should you consider where you want to go and what you want to do. Setting things up and then realizing that the feature you depend on the most isn’t available for your platform can be avoided by thinking ahead. The same goes for your design. It has be constant enough to be recognizable and useable over time, but it also has to be flexible enough for you to add features and ads for example without having to redesign from the ground up.
Create and maintain feedback loops
Helping you design for growth and change when you get off the ground is the feedback from the community. When building a successful online community you will constantly have to balance your efforts and those of your members. Regardless of how well you plan, organize and manage the community you will run into problems if you do not listen to the ideas, suggestions and needs of your community. With feedback loops built in will you not only benefit from feedback on what you are doing right and wrong, but also on what you could or should be doing instead or in addition to your current efforts. Do not forget that it is a balance act though. Simply implementing everything that people want is as bad a solution as not listening at all. Everything have to work together in harmony for the community to develop and you as the community builder is the only one who can ensure that it does.
On a blog this would mean enabling comments and actually reading and responding to them, making sure people can contact you in at least one other way if they don’t want to comment publicly (or alternatively allowing commenting without asking for personal information) and encouraging feedback in what topics you cover and not least how you post. Asking questions, soliciting comments and suggestions and generally signaling openness will help you a lot. Sadly do I not see much feedback when visiting blogs and I think these bloggers are really missing out on something. Staying on topic (while never making your blog or subject the topic), providing answers (never asking questions) and not to blog too much about yourself and your thoughts are perhaps all good ideas most of the time, but if that’s all you ever do then you may very well find yourself flying blind and maybe even solo at some point.
Empower your members progressively
Even if you are the community builder and designer you alone are no community. To actually get something you have to give up something. In this instance what you have to share is power. Obviously you will be the one contributing and influencing almost everything to begin with, but just as obvious is it that this is no lasting formula for community growth. You will have to define the initial purpose, features, design and tone, but as the community grows your influence should diminish as the that of your members grow. You will still be the formal owner, but if no one else feels ownership then the community will cease to evolve and will never mature.
There are two ways that this could work on blogs. One progression were to add contributor profiles to the about page, highlighting people who contribute with the most or best comments, promoting people who comment to actually write posts as well, etc. All more inward oriented activities, but as I see it effective nonetheless. An even more progressive way would be to add guest bloggers and thus draw people from other communities into the blog. This can also be done with linking exchanges in one form another with other blogs and communities. Again could you argue that you aren’t empowering your members, but at best creating new ones. However, if you consider how strong these new members are will it inevitably mean that the power is distributed, which is the point. The community have to start defining itself at some point and if you can help that along while growing and expanding it, why not?
The principles themselves are from the book “Community Building on the Web” by Amy Jo Kim, while their interpretation and adaption is mine.