Starting and Growing a Small Online Community

23 May

Today I was interviewing Eliese Watson, the founder of Apiaries and Bees for Communities, about her experience in launching and growing an online community. Her online community got started about a year ago with about 50 users and has since grown to about 200. I’ve written a separate post about the typical types of activities on her site, but suffice it to say that the community is quite active.

Two things came up in the interview that I thought were significant. The first relates to what motivated her to create the online community, and the second concerns how the community has had to evolve over time. With regard to the launch of the community, in some sense it was driven by necessity. Apiaries and Bees for Communities is a membership organization with a strong history of face to face activities such as meetings, mentoring, and hands-on demonstrations. Eliese found that she was acting as the conduit for a lot of information flowing between the members. In some sense it was almost obvious that she needed to have some way for members to interact directly with each other. An online community for her members was the solution.

Because the online community was solving a problem that her members had; that is, the need to coordinate with one another and to share information, it was quite successful from the start. Given the challenges that we sometimes see in getting online communities established, I think this is significant. Just because you have a membership organization doesn’t mean that an online community for those members will naturally succeed. There has to be some problem that the community addresses that will make members take the time to visit and participate. Eliese knew that her online community would succeed because she knew from first hand experience that members needed to communicate with one another.

The second point that came up in the interview that I thought was interesting was how the community has evolved. As the online community grew and became more visible, it started to attract a wider audience and a wider range of opinions. The level of activity on the site increased, and some of that activity was not at the level of civility that Eliese wanted. Because of the level of activity and also because some of the harsh commentary was directed at Eliese herself, it was challenging for her to moderate. Eliese responded in a way that not only helped restore civil discourse, but also contributed to the growth and ongoing health of her community. She reached out to some of the more active and respected community members and asked them to come on board as community moderators. By allowing members of the community itself to step forward and take on leadership roles, Eliese has not only eased her workload, but she has helped create a stronger sense of collective ownership of the community, which I think will serve it well as it grows.

Eliese’s experience shows that small online communities can indeed thrive, but it takes planning and it takes the courage to allow the community to evolve over time.

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