Article: Strategizing online communities »
FERDY CHRISTANT - MAY 5, 2010 (02:35:50 PM)
Creating a community site does not create a community...
I don't recall where I heard that statement, but it feels like an absolute truth to me. It has led me to think of the composition of existing communities, why they work or do not work, and how to grow them. I am in no way an authority on this subject, but in this post I want to simply structure some thoughts around this.
The layer of circles above in some way or another is commonly used to visualize the composition of communities. Although the exact sizing and naming of inner circles may vary, the key message of the visualization is that there are different types of groups or potential groups within a community, and that their sizing and added value varies greatly. The closer to the inner of the circle, the greater the value, so it appears.
Let's have a look at each of these circles, and see what one can do to influence their size.
Reach is the most outward circle. It is your potential audience. You could assume this to be any internet user but that hardly ever is true. There are many factors that could exclude internet users from your potential audience:
- System requirements. What is required of your users for them to participate in your community? Which browsers are supported? Does Flash or Silverlight need to be installed? What is the minimum resolution their display device should support? This is not only about being able to run the community software, it is also about being able to use it effectively. If your web community requires a minimal resolution of 1024x768 pixels, you are possible excluding a large group of mobile only users.
- Internationalization and localization (I18N/L10N). Probably the most important factor determining your reach. If you offer single language support, you are locking out a huge audience who does not speak it. Besides language, there are other local factors commonly referred to as "culture": timezones, date and number formatting, DST, etc.
- Accessibility. Is the community usable by people with visual, hearing or other impairments? What about people with color blindness?
- Culture. The topics and content of your community may not be appropriate for all cultures or even be actively blocked by governments.
This is not the end of it. Your reach may not only be limited by the characteristics of your users. It may also be restricted by your own limitations, your ability to scale the community, typically based on resource limitations.
What ammo do we have to grow our reach? Here are a few:
- Make your community usable on common clients. Think web standards and low performing clients and network connections.
- Consider implementing optimized interfaces for the most popular mobile clients
- Extend the experience to additional languages, most popular ones first (i.e. Chinese or Spanish)
- Comply with at least basic accessibility guidelines
- Make sure your system is able to scale to an increased reach (easier said than done)
Circle 2 is the community. These are the actual users of your community, including inactive readers and hardcore contributors. A common term used here is "eyeballs".The size of your community is restricted or influenced by many factors, of which the following are key:
- Content. Content is king. Without original, useful content, there is no foundation for a community. If your content is user generated, an additional challenge appears: seperating good content from poor content. More content does not mean a bigger community in all cases, but it often helps.
- Findability. This is not a proper English word, but I keep using it anyway. If your community or content cannot be found easily, you are limiting the size of your community. You do not exist. The obvious weapon here is to apply Search Engine Optimization. SEO, however, is only one part of Information Architecture, which is key for findability.
- Marketing. Marketing relates strongly to findability; it is about telling people that you exist and what you have to offer. The marketing approach may vary based on your resources, but common ways are online ads, social networking, magazines and speaking events. If you have a truly healthy community, your community members will market the community themselves.
- Experience. So your content is great, is easy to find and people know about it. If the actual experience of being in the community sucks, people will quickly stop participating. There are many aspects to experience, and UI is only one of them. For example, if trolls and spammers are not moderated well, that hurts the experience and people will leave. If people contributing to your community are not recognized and rewarded as such, they might leave. Invade on the user's sense of privacy? They will leave.
Circle 3 are the contributors, in many communities only a fraction of the total community. These are the people that are actively contributing content, commenting, rating, etc. It is of the greatest importance that there is a certain mass to this group, because they are the prime source of activity in your community. Without them, it would feel like nothing ever happens. Without them, good content does not get promoted over poor content. Without them, there is no community.
So, what determines the amount of contributors? As before, there has to be a base of good content to lure them into contributing more content. The experience has to be good too. These aspects apply to the entire community, so what is it that specifically appeals to contributors?
Recognition. People doing completely voluntary work for you want to be recognized. They want to be rewarded. Hence, the birth of reward/reputation management systems. These systems are as old as games are. Typically, reputation management systems hand out rewards with a real value of zero, and an emotional value that is substantial. For example, a system may reward contributors with credits, badges or karma. In simple reputation systems, that's it really. The credits act like a badge of honour and recognition. More advanced systems may go further, and actually raise the influence of succesful contributors and give them access to exclusive features. Important to remember is that the rewards assigned should be based on community recognition, not on system recognition. An important difference.
Reward systems as such fuel user engagement and perhaps even addiction. Ideally, contributors enjoy contributing, helping themselves and the community. However, reward systems can be destructive too. Without proper anti-gaming mechanics, real contributors and cheaters are impossible to differentiate. If recognition is for the taking, everybody stops caring. A secondary problem is in the reward hierarchy. If only top contributors run the show, the larger group of incidental contributors stop being engaged.
The 4th and final circle is the community core. This is the hardcore of the community, a small subset of the contributor circle. These are the people that go beyond just contributing; they may be community leaders or recognized as such, they may be early adapters or people actively marketing your community. They may even think constructively about the future direction of the community and have close contact with the community owner. In a way, they are partners or co owners, even though they are not legally so.
Unlike the other circles, there is no clear formula to recruit or grow this important group. Still, the following comes to mind:
- Treat them with the respect they deserve, they are an important reason for the success of your community. Consider asking them for strategic feedback or even make them part of decision making. Consider giving them extra rights, rewards and visibility. Make them feel proud.
- Match their interests. Typically, the core community is in the community because they are fanatics in a certain niche. Do not lose sight of that reason for existence.
As with the Community circle, the core circle can be supported through a well balanced reward system. However, the reward system should not position these users as community dictators.
The perfect community
It may be tempting to conclude that every community should try to grow each of the circles at all times, up to the theoretical situation where all circles are maxed out and of equal size. In practice, this hardly ever makes sense as can be seen from the following examples:
- There is no point for a local Oklahoma fishing community to grow its' reach or community to a global level.
- It would be ineffective for Wikipedia to max out on the number of contributors, instead, a small set of high quality contributors is more effective.
- There is no core when everybody is part of the core. A core should be small and effective, as it is about leadership and the future.
In online communities, it is the core and contributor group who run your community. In essence, they are doing work for you, completely voluntary, mostly for free. It is a mistake, however, to treat this relationship like a work relationship. In a work relationship, the owner is there to minimize the cost of people and to maximize their value. Human needs are only secondary. In a community relationship, you have already minimized the costs, because their participation is voluntary and without pay. You are economically powerless to force community members to do anything. Therefore, the only way to maximize their value is by asking them nicely. By being friendly. By being supportive. By making them visible and rewarding them. The human approach.
The community of communities
Many communities allow for the creation of sub communities. This can be by design, for example a Flickr photo group. Flickr has purposely designed this feature to allow for specialized communities within the larger community. Sub communities can also occur spontaneously, for example a group of like-minded Twitter users following each other. They may not be recognized by Twitter as a designed sub community, but they are a community nevertheless.
The interesting thing about sub communities is that their composition (think of the circles) is often dramatically different from the larger community. There is a smaller total size, yet the core and contributor circles are much bigger. However, there is strong relationship with size. A wildlife photo group may have a large community with few contributors, yet a lion photo group may have a small community with many contributors. The more specialized the community, the more likely fanatics form the majority of it.
If you own or run a community where the creation of sub communities is within your control, a strong aspect to consider is ownership. Sub community leaders should have the feeling that they own and control it, so give them plenty of ways to tune and customize it.
There are many reasons why some communities never really take of, but here are two popular syndromes:
- The empty restaurant syndrome. Nobody walks into an empty restaurant. It must not be good if it is empty. This is why new restaurant owners invite family and strategically seat them next to the window. People walking by will see that the restaurant is not empty and may consider going in. The same is true for communities. You need to have a solid base of materials and users to work with before you launch anything.
- The "now what?" syndrome. You have lured new members to your community and they have completed the registration process. Now what? You should offer users something to do. Easy ways to get in touch with like minded people, find fresh content and discover features.
In closing, community commonalities
When using the circles to analyze communities and figuring out where the value and growth is, we see that a strategy depends on many factors. However, I would like to believe that some things are important for any community:
- Being accessible and findable (information architecture, accessibility,SEO, I18N)
- Being friendly and inviting (human approach, the community runs the community)
- Being rewarding to those who contribute (reputation management, cherishing key contributors)
- Being interesting. Content is king. Without it, all else fails.