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The Secret to Creating a Private Online Community for Developers

Written by Katie Oakes on October 1, 2015 at 8:00 AM

Online customer communities come in many shapes and flavors. Some online customer communities provide support for end users of products and services. Others are designed to keep partners engaged and informed.

Some audiences are more difficult to engage than others. Among the most challenging people to engage in an online community are developers. Online developer communities play an important role in helping enterprise companies to extend their products, create advocates in the market, and help customers get results.

How do you build a community for the people that literally wrote the code on the online community?

Engaging software developers and highly technical audiences presents unique challenges.

Socious has been aiding the launch of online developer communities and user communities of various sizes for a technology companies for over 10 years. Along the way, we have gained insight into what works and what does not.

Inside the Mind of a Developer

The launch of any online community starts with getting to know your target audience, in this case, developers. Why do software developers join a community? What are they hoping to gain? The developer community has unique characteristics.

Software developers are stereotypically less “social†than other online audiences – think dimly lit development bullpens, multiple monitors with endless code, and excitement of solving problems that the rest of us can't begin to fathom.

However, technical folks are looking for connections like members of every community out there. The purposes of their connections are to gain knowledge and share their experience to help others (and often be recognized for it). Developers are often looking to further their skills or solve acute problems by reaching out to a specific community of developers.

For example, Oracle developers often reach out to the Oracle community for their specific product or vertical. Additionally, Microsoft and VMware developers seek help in their private online communities by connecting experts to solve problems.

While developers may not always be the loudest voices in a company, they are competitive, detailed, and care about being credited for their hard work.

How Do You Make it Happen

One of the keys to a successful online community is relevance through personalization. The engagement options available may vary depending on the online community platform. Regardless of your online community software platform provider, there are choices to be made when it comes to the features that make sense and that are going to add value to your members.

What are the element that you can input that will draw out that passion around one shared interest?

Recognition for Contribution

A decent amount of software developers also share an interest in gaming. Their math-oriented minds and competitive spirit are likely the reasons that gamification is a common feature across online developer communities.

Gamification features often take the form of a point system for community members. Community members can earn points by taking actions in the community, like sharing documents, code, or videos, or helping answer the question of another developer in the discussion area.

Often, online communities for software engineers are set up so that in order to see or contribute to forums you have to gain a certain number of points.

Some communities even allow members to gain basic community management privileges with a certain point value. These administrative privileges include editing or formatting content, removing spam posts and removing unhelpful questions. Developers join a community to gain and distribute information. Thus, allowing them to police that data is very enticing. Sites such as, Stack Overflow or Experts Exchange leverage a point system for their users with great success.

Don't Divide Too Much

One of the top five reasons that anyone joins an online community is to grow their skill-set. The opportunity to connect with experts is one of the key factors that drive community engagement and interest.

It can be tempting to segment your users as finely as possible across as many identifiers as possible. However, this decreases social density and can be detrimental to the engagement of your community. Too much segmentation limits the opportunity for your members to find each other. Encourage a range of users from beginners that are seeking guidance to high-level experts and then put them all together!

In addition to providing a diverse community, take it one step further and offer a space that allows users to find mentors. Personalization is the best way to add value for your users. 1:1 connections with someone that speaks their language is a value that can't be easily achieved.

Sites such as, PHP Mentoring do an excellent job of serving lurkers, participants while simultaneously encouraging personal connection.

Make it Meta

Don't avoid talking about your community in your community. If users are invested in your community, they should have a place to talk about it. Let them suggest updates and share what is and is not working.

However, not every suggestion is a good one. You are under no obligation to make every change that your private online community members suggest to you. Check them all against your roadmap and larger big picture goals for the community.

There are no black and white guidelines, so always take into account the type of community that you've created and make sure any modifications fit within that scope. Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse, shares, "Community feedback is great, but it should never be used as a crutch, a substitute for thinking deeply about what you're building and why."

Make it Simple

Developers aren't looking for something with step by step instructions and cheesy welcome avatars. They don't need Facebook Tom to get them “friends†or hang onto their screen and tell them how to use basic features.

Keep it clean and simple. Socious's very own Paul Giberson said it best, “Software should get out of the way. We don't need hand-holding!â€

Make it Customizable

This should be a no-brainer. The community that is literally building the code that runs a community isn't going to appreciate limited flexibility. They are going to want to have a lot of freedom to communicate and build their profiles.

Grant them the flexibility they need to get the value that keeps them logging in regularly. They want to share their thoughts and ideas with minimal limitations. Additionally, technical people are often perfectionists, which means that they like to fine-tune everything.

They appreciate the ability to customize widgets and add personal data. Build a community that makes room for their creativity, so they keep coming back for value.

Online Developer Community Takeaway

Building a successful and thriving online community starts with understanding your target audience. Focus on the goals of your target community members and build a community that supports them.

Software developers are seeking guided, but not overly guided, social interactions. Creating rules for online community engagement, such as gamification, are balanced by having no rules when it comes to customization and communication.

Choose features and a structure that makes sense to your members and never forget the importance of providing a relevant experience.

Tips for developing a great online customer community strategy.

Topics: Online Community Management, Customer Communities, Online Community

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