It happens to online communities of all sizes. A community is established, the invitations go out, discussions are initiated, interesting content is posted, but there just isn’t much response. The initial enthusiasm of the organizers drains away. The community is in danger of dying. Can it be saved?
In most cases, I think the answer is yes. If the original community organizers were driven by a passion that they wanted to share, then it’s very likely that others will share that passion as well. But even if there are reasonable number of people passionate about a given topic or field, it does not mean that an active and engaged community will spring into existence the very moment that the opportunity presents itself.
People are busy. It seems like they’re getting busier all the time. For someone to devote even a fraction of their time to a new activity, there pretty much has to be an obvious and immediate value that they’re going to receive. This is bad news for newly formed online communities, because much of the value in the community is, at the risk of being tautological, the community.
How does any online community survive these birthing pains? There are 4 key ingredients for an online community to succeed:
- Time: Communities are about relationships. If your online community does not spring from an established set of relationships amongst its members, then it will take time for those relationships to develop. And developing relationships in a purely online environment is going to be slower than developing them face to face. If you have an opportunity to bring your community together physically, then do it because those relationships will carry over into the online universe.
- Core Members: You need a set of individuals who are passionate about the community. People who will reach out to others and get them involved. People who will start up discussion threads, knowing that there may not be a lot of activity. People who are willing to live with a community that for perhaps several months may consist of only a few people interacting with each other. You need to make sure that your core members feel connected to one another because they *are* the community which will seed further growth.
- Content: Online communities for professional and trade associations will have members who come looking for the specialized knowledge and skills that have been one of the traditional strengths of associations. You need to do everything you can to ensure that they find value in the community. Over the longer term, the community will indeed move to a more inclusive model (i.e. social curation), but initially, you and your core members need to find content that will be of interest to your members. And not only do you need to find this content, and make it available via the community, but you need to use it as a starting off point for further interactions.
- Seeding Interaction: As with the need to initially ensure that there is a good flow of content into the community, you also need to ensure that there is a level of interactivity which may exceed that which occurs naturally when you only have a small number of active users. You need to ask questions, even though you know who is going to respond and how they are going to respond. You need to make sure that those active members really do respond, even though they know there’s not many people listening. It has to be obvious that there is an ongoing level of interaction in the community, even if those interactions are not immediately satisfying your needs for new information and new relationships.
Are there other key ingredients? There may be, and I’d love to hear from you about what has worked and what hasn’t worked in your experience.