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Planning a Private Social Network: How to Structure the Community

Written by Katie Bapple | on February 20, 2015 at 9:25 AM

Private Social Networks: How to Structure Your Online Community

One of the most important decisions you'll make in the early stages of planning your organization's private online community is the structure of your interactive spaces.

While this might initially seem like a simple decision, the structure and design of your online community can significantly influence how and to what degree your members choose to engage. By being more intentional with your choices, you can ensure you're creating a platform in which your target audience will find it easy to participate.

Before getting into how different online community structure choices can affect participation level, let's break down some of the basic options.

Structuring Your Private Online Community: The Basic Choices

Topically Specific

Since you've already determined the common identifier that unites your private online community, you may have also identified a few common sub-topics that could easily function as sub-communities under the umbrella of your main community.

Some examples of common sub-topics are geographic locations, specific products, or various interest groups. From there, you can decide which sub-communities need individual forums, file libraries, and events.

Role Specific

Or, if you're building a private online member community for an association, you may choose to structure your online community around the specific people that need access to various engagement opportunities.

For instance, you could break your community down into sub-communities – one for chapter members and one for board members – then decide which features are needed for the members of each sub-communities to perform their necessary duties.

Without Specificity

Lastly, it's entirely probable that you'll determine your community doesn't actually have many logical sub-communities and groups, allowing one main space to be sufficient. Don't be alarmed if this is the case – sub-communities shouldn't be a structural choice that feels forced.

Now, keeping those basic options in mind, let's discuss a few things to keep in mind when making structural decisions in your online community platform.

5 Tips for Structuring Your Private Online Community

Tip #1: Keep Your Audience in Mind

Yes, you've already done your research to determine who your audience is, what they want, and if they'll engage with your new private online community. But that doesn't mean that the work of researching your audience is over. In fact, now that your online community is getting ready to launch, it's really only just beginning.

Keep your audience in mind during every single structural decision you make. Go back to that initial feedback your research provided and listen to the voice of the majority. By making sure that each feature you choose and sub-community you develop has the necessary interest-level behind it, so you can set your online community up to flourish from the beginning.

Tip #2: Build From The Bottom, Up

In the beginning of planning any private social network, it's easy to get caught up in big dreams and plans for what your online community will eventually become.

However, in the planning stage, it's much more important to plan for the density you expect to have than the density you want. You can always grow and expand the space as engagement increases, but building from the bottom up (as opposed to the top, down) will help allow that growth to happen organically.

Tip #3: Don't Overbuild

Even if you find yourself barely able to keep up with the flow of ideas and inspiration surrounding the design of your online community, avoid the impulse to overbuild.

If you create too many separate areas for participation too early in the process, your online community is more likely to end up with a lot of empty space. Instead, begin with a small number of areas for members to contribute to increase the social density (i.e. concentration of participation) in each space.

Here's the problem with empty space: your members won't feel motivated to engage if the participation in your community is already stretched too thin. When they see a forum that hasn't seen another response in months, they won't want to ask a question because they'll assume they won't get an answer. An excess of inactive spaces will cause your members to ask themselves, "Why should I bother?"

Tip #4: Think Intuitively

The user experience of your private online community is hugely important to convincing your new members to return and continue participating.

As you're determining what kind of structure works best for your purposes, take the time to consider the humanness of your navigation.

  • Will new members be able to easily determine their options for participation?
  • Does the internal organization of your community have the potential to cause any confusion?

Put yourself in your future members' shoes so you can create a space that will elicit minimal frustration among your community members. 

Here's an example of how to build out intuitive navigation for your community and sub-communities:

Community topic

  • Sub community topic
  • Related discussion forums
  • Related blogs
  • Related wiki
  • Related events
  • Related document uploads

However, that's not to say that every sub-community needs every feature – which brings us to the final tip…

Tip #5: Consider Features Carefully

Let's say you've decided to divide your private online community into a few different sub-communities that you feel strongly will be supported by your expected level of engagement. Next, it's time to consider what features, content, and engagement opportunities you'll make available within each sub-community.

Just like you don't want to overbuild your community as a whole, you also don't want to overbuild your sub-communities. If the topic of a certain sub-community doesn't support certain features, you shouldn't feel obligated to include them.

For instance, not every sub-community necessitates a corresponding wiki or its own blog. Take care to choose features that your target audience has already indicated an interest in.

Private Online Community Planning Takeaway

How you choose to structure your organization's new private social network can have a make-or-break effect on how your members engage.

Being overly ambitious (or "overbuilding") with the structural decisions you make could result in a low participation density that creates too many empty spaces.

Since people tend to find empty spaces and discussions without responses disenchanting, structure your new online community for the level of engagement you currently have. The option to expand will always be there.

Use this guide to evaluate, select, and plan a successful online community for your association.

Topics: Online Community Management, Online Community Software, Online Community

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