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Nine Characteristics of Online Communities That Work

Written by Lindsay Starke | on December 14, 2015 at 10:30 AM
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I started my session at this year's Super Forum with the same line I use to start my Higher Logic Academy presentations and my consultations with clients: Community management is not a one-size-fits-all discipline. Different strategies will work for different communities. And if anything I say feels like it doesn't fit with your community demographics or organizational goals, then throw it out.


Yikes, huh? It may seem a little disheartening when you realize there's no silver bullet for community triumph. But fear not—although no two successful communities are the same, most successful communities do have a few things in common. At Super Forum, I went over nine of these characteristics. If you didn't make it to the session, here's a brief rundown to get your community on the path to win.

1. Successful communities have a plan.

Do you find yourself working toward boosting discussions and member adoption without a real long-term goal in mind? Engagement is an indicator of a community’s health, but it's not a goal in and of itself. Right now, take some time to consider: what is the purpose of your community? Are you trying to recruit new members or retain existing ones? Are you looking to collect business intelligence or create a member benefit? Choose a concrete goal to work toward, and then decide how you plan to attack that goal. In the case of retention, you could work to improve customer service; or work to improve the perception of the organization in the minds of its members; or promote awareness and usage of non-community member benefits; or provide a great member benefit: the community! Once you drill down on your strategy, you can start to create a plan for how to achieve it. Block out at least a few hours each week to evaluate how you are working toward those goals, and don’t lose sight of your plan.

2. Successful communities are run by humans.

Far too frequently, community managers can become a sterile, emotionless face of the organization they represent. Sometimes it's pressure from others in your organization, and sometimes it's a bad habit that we fall into, especially in uncomfortable interpersonal situations. This "robotic" tendency can manifest in a few different ways: you could only speak in a stilted royal "we," you could twist every conversation into a bland, brand-positive interaction, you could use PR-speak or write in ways no actual person would. All of these make it that much harder to connect with your users. They won’t see you as an ally, and they won't see your community as a place in which they can speak authentically. You don't have to be an overly-friendly folksy CM like yours truly (you can take the girl out of Georgia, but you can't take the Georgia out of the girl), but you do have to speak as you would to someone in any other interpersonal conversation. You are not a PR robot. You are a human being. 
Act like it!

3. Successful communities are designed for the user.

When you are designing the layout of your community site, think about what is the number one action you want your users to take, and design the community to push them toward that action. Because of the flexibility we have in user controls, widgets and the like, community managers are often tempted to add way too many bells and whistles onto the community landing page, which can overwhelm first time visitors. Simplicity is a good thing, and you can attain this blissful simplicity if you keep the user in mind at all times. What is the first thing he or she will see? Sometimes it helps to perform a community audit, where you interview people who use the community to discuss everything that is confusing or annoying to them. Chances are, you'll be surprised and learn a lot! User experience: it’s kind of a big deal. Don't let it fall by the wayside.

4. Successful communities have a culture.

Much like communities in the meatspace, successful online communities share a purpose and a culture. Burning Man is very different from the Boy Scouts. Reddit is very different from Tumblr. Whenever people come together repeatedly, cultural signifiers start to develop: inside jokes, special terminology, community traditions, and the like. These are signs of a culture, linking people together. These links are the basis of community. This is a tough thing to develop, since culture is a process - it can’t be forced. Nothing is cringier than somebody trying to create an affinity that isn't there. But you can nudge it along through little acts like recognizing individual members and running mini "events" on the community that start to build the groundwork.

5. Successful communities are cared for.

I feel like this metaphor gets trotted out constantly, but that's only because of how apt it is: communities are like gardens. With a community manager, they are fed, watered and pruned. Weeds are removed, fertilizer applied where needed, and slowly the grounds become beautiful and lush. Without a community manager, the garden will struggle. Some parts will become like kudzu, overtaking the entirety, while others will wither away for lack of nutrients, water or sunlight. Community managers don't control the community, but we do serve it, tend it and care for it. We survey the community and consider how best to shape its growth to reinforce the greater plan. Long story short: if your community doesn't have someone explicitly managing it (even if that person may have other roles in your organization), you are going to spend a lot of time in the weeds.

6. Successful communities have awesome content.

Having a community isn't enough. Having an "active" community isn't enough. To be successful, your community has to provide some kind of concrete value, and one of the easiest, most fool-proof ways to provide value is by facilitating great content. This doesn't mean re-posting articles from your blog or magazine to the community; you have to take advantage of the interactive and collaborative nature of community to make it shine. So gather together speakers, bloggers and thought leaders, and ask them to do an Ask-Me-Anything. Throw out discussion topics that invite everyone to disclose and share expertise. Want to drive people to a blog post? Share an excerpt and ask a question about a big picture topic related to the article in question. Check out this blog post to learn more about how you can facilitate great content, collect it and re-use it in order to help your community shine.

7. Successful communities are data-driven.

What is the ROI of your community? Remember, "engagement" doesn't count; you can't pay rent with engagement! Here is where you look back to your plan and consider the purpose of your community. Once you know what you're looking for, go to the numbers. Are community members more 
likely to renew/engage in other programs/evangelize/etc.? Figure out which metrics reflect your goals and track those obsessively. Is your community intended to be a repository of knowledge for your members? Look at library entry views and downloads. Interested in raising awareness of other organizational programs? Take some time to drill down into your community's popular search terms to figure out what they're looking for and how to address them. This doesn't mean that qualitative data (i.e. great community "stories") isn't valuable. Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. However, a lot of things that count a LOT can be counted. So count them.

8. Successful communities allow for many voices - not just one.

I know I mentioned raising awareness of organizational programs and services as a possible goal, but remember at all times that it's not about you. Your community is a support group, not a lecture hall. Any community that is full of marketing messages, top-down communication, or where the community manager jumps on every question immediately with an answer of his or her own, is doomed as a community. Think of it like a party: do you like to hang out with the guy who is always talking about himself and how awesome he is, and who turns every discussion into a discussion about him? No, we hate that guy, and we don't invite him to our next party. Any community where the loudest voice is the voice of the organization (especially if that voice is the PR robot I covered in #2) runs the risk of driving away your users. Instead, create an environment where your members feel able to ask questions and share struggles freely. Then, when the issue is something your organization can assist with, step in and offer help. This genuine spirit of service reflects positively back on your organization, and other members will notice.

9. Successful communities are fun.

We have a tendency in communities of practice to fear the Facebook effect, for good reason. If a community just becomes a place for ranting, raving, liking and sharing, its value can drop precipitously and be hard to recover. However, educational doesn't have to equal boring and stuffy. Consider having a place in your community for "fun," whether it's a special community, a running thread or whatever makes sense for your organization. Higher Logic's HUG is devoted to community management and our clients' success, but that doesn't mean we don't love our GIF party. A sense of fun helps to create that affinity, which is so crucial to a sense of true community. Don't fear fun!


So there are my nine characteristics of communities that work. I'd love to hear which ones ring truest for you!

Topics: Community Management

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