In an earlier post, I put forth a checklist of things to think about before launching a business-oriented Web 2.0 effort (thanks, everyone). Going to continue that discussion here and get down to some tactics. In particular, going to look at a number of the things that one can do to help get a community on the path to critical mass and, more importantly, ongoing sustainability.
Like offline communities, online business-oriented communities grow over time based on the interactions of their members. As such, growing an online community takes time and dedication; there’s no “just add water” silver bullet. (We’re people, not sea-monkeys.) That said, there are a few things that can be done to get things off on the right foot. These are host graciously, act as a catalyst, and help community participants to achieve their goals.
Host Graciously: This means exactly what it sounds like. The job of hosting any interactive effort does not end when the site goes “live.” Quite the contrary, actually. Some things that can be done:
- Welcome newcomers
- Make “virtual” introductions between members of the community
- Start conversations
- Keep things (relatively) on track (a little drift is actually good, however)
- Highlight commonalities between members
- Keep the dialog going
- Thank others
Act as a catalyst: A host’s job is not to “be” the show. Instead, the host should start snowballs rolling and enable others to engage with each other. Particular things that can be done include:
- Promoting others in the group
- Posing questions to the group (can be open-ended, or polls)
- Starting conversations by asking others “Why did you join?” — This is key to ensuring the group meets the needs of its members
- Commenting on contributions that others have made
As anyone who has ever started any online group can tell you, getting things rolling can take a fair amount of effort. Some groups by their nature seems to have a sort of shyness with respect to individual contributions. While it’s easy to attribute this reticence to personality, it’s equally likely that it’s due to other factors. That’s why “ease of contribution” needs to be considered — the less friction there is in the participation process, the easier it is to engage. Augmenting online efforts with regular face-to-face interactions also makes it easier for folks to contribute online, since there is a certain je ne sais quoi to that first face-to-face meeting that seems to catalyze later online interactions. Regular, outbound reminders such as newsletters and mailers also aid in bringing participants into the fold.
Help community participants to achieve their goals: Kathy calls this “helping users to kick ass.” What this means is it’s all about the customer.
- Enabling participants to connect with others working on similar problems
- Connecting with others who do business in similar ways, and are going down similar roads
- Facilitiating person-to-person information exchange
Especially in the business-oriented world, it’s critical to note that, while an online connection may initiate the interaction between individuals, the final exchanges of information are not always electronically mediated by the system. While forums and bulletin boards and comment threads make be the common means of interaction on Slashdot and Digg, many exchanges of business information already have well established paths, including email, phone and in-person conversation.