Friday, December 04, 2009

What does it take a government agency to build a successful online community?

I regard creating a sustainable online community as very hard to do. It is almost always easier to join an existing community - although this presents its own challenges.

However at times it will be necessary for government agencies to consider creating their own communities online. This may be as reference groups for specific initiatives or campaigns, as peer communities on particular topics, or to fill a gap where existing online communities are not sustainable or have commercial interests which don't support the needs of everyone involved.

Below are some of my ideas on how to influence the successful development of an online community. Note I'm not an anthropologist or psychologist. However I have participated in the formation (and witnessed the destruction) of a number of online communities over the last 14 years, watching and testing what does and doesn't work. Anyone who has different views is welcome to provide their response in the comments below - or post their own blog post on the topic (and please add a comment linking to it).

The engineering side of building a community is relatively straightforward.

First you must determine the community's goals and how the community will want to interact. Next you need to establish an appropriate technical environment that supports these needs. This may be a forum, blog, social network (using a white label platform such as Ning or Elgg), chat channel or other mechanism.

After this it is important to put in place a framework for community engagement to guide the initial culture and place boundaries on behaviour.

This is essentially a moderation policy, although active moderation may not take place. It should defines what is acceptable behaviour and how transgressions will be treated. If possible the community should be involved in setting these boundaries, just as in society our legal boundaries often reflect the collective views of the community. If set well the community will help you in your role as 'enforcer'.

Finally you invite individuals in and allow them to begin playing and testing the space. Initially there is always some form of testing, with new communities pushing the boundaries to establish what is really acceptable (not simply what is written down).

Voila! Instant community!

Or maybe not.

Communities are not formed simply through infrastructure and boundaries. Nor even through common purpose. They also need a social hierarchy, shared experiences and social investment. Over time these form the social 'glue', the culture allowing communal bonds to form and welding a group of individuals into a community.

While these are 'soft' factors, almost impossible (and undesirable) to engineer, they can be influenced through shrewd planning and ongoing support.

Social hierarchy
In every community there are leaders and followers, talkers and listeners, jokers and admirers and similar groupings of people. Some provide content and advice, giving of themselves for the joy of sharing or for some form of social capital. Others are avid listeners, sucking in information but only participating to ask questions. Some people will want to break community rules, innovating or disrupting. Others will happily stay within the community guidelines at all times. Some people will network broadly, forming wide circles of peers, others communicate exclusively with only one or two others.

All of these types of people bring something to a community. They either provide content, an audience for content, force people to think outside the box and grow or bond people together and attract more people to the group.

When forming a community it is important to involve people of different types.

In particular you need to have several people willing to actively contribute and participate and a few who will network widely and draw in their colleagues from other communities. To support them you need an adequately sized audience. Just like regular speakers are stimulated and energised by their audience, to keep your content contributors feeling that they are adding value you must give them an audience who appreciates their contributions.

Finally, you will need a few rule breakers to 'keep the community honest' - to occasionally question some of the community's core values and make them rethink whether they are still valid. This is one of the hardest groups to 'manage' as they will follow their own thoughts. If there are too many, or individuals are too disruptive, they can blast apart a newly-forming community and destroy it before it gets its legs. However if you don't allow people to test and press the community 'rules', a community can stagnate and grow so boring and predictable that most of the participants leave for other groups.

If talking numbers, for every 50 participants I would suggest you need at least 5 people willing to contribute content and actively discuss topics (Leaders) and 1-2 disruptive people willing to question the status quo (Disrupters). Most of the rest can be passively involved (Audience), though having another 10 willing to contribute questions and comments (Commenters) will help lubricate the community and keep the most active members involved. You will also need at least 2-3 people involved who form wide circles of friends (Networkers), both bonding others together and attracting additional members.

The breakdown for a 50 person community is as follows:

Leaders: 5
Networkers: 2-3
Disrupters: 1-2
Commenters: 10
Audience: Everyone else

Note that people may perform multiple roles. Leaders are often Networkers and may be Disrupters. Commenters may also be Networkers or Disrupters and are also part of the Audience.

If when forming the initial community you're able to identify people who fill the top three roles and specifically invite and support them you will increase the chance of the community succeeding.

Shared experience
An online community will, over time, share certain online experiences which bond it more tightly together. These are often based around 'defending' the community from outside forces such as technical issues, roving spammers or other unwanted influences.

However when first forming a community any of these perils can be fatal. In any case they are 'natural events' and should not be deliberately engineered.

To create an initial shared experience the best approach, in my view, is to get as many of the group as possible together physically and share a common offline experience. This can be as simple as a launch party or casual drinks, or can be a more elaborate conversation starter related to the initial theme of the community. For example, if the community is about driving, take them out to a race track and give them a turn behind the wheel of a performance car.

This helps creates an initial bond, giving the participants a shared feeling of community. It also makes it clear that you want the community to succeed, overcoming any initial views that it may be only a fake community to meet a bureaucratic tick-box.

As the community begins to solidify online it is important to maintain infrequent physical contact or, at worst, live events via phone or chat, to keep the bonds alive. It is also important to not coddle the community too much. If you're in the role of an 'enforcer', ensuring that the community's rules are obeyed, it is important to step back occasionally and allow the community to itself deal with disruptive influences. These shared experiences bond the community together more tightly and give them a sense of self-reliance.

Social investment
This is the great 'secret' that makes services such as Facebook successful. As people spend more time in a community, building friendships and sharing experiences, they increase their social investment in it.

Past a certain point it becomes difficult for people to simply walk away from a community because it is where they connect with others. They have a significant investment in tje community's ongoing success.

When forming a new online community it is valuable to build an understanding of what people want to get out of it. Do they want to learn more, meet new friends and peers, be in the 'in' crowd or have a readily accessible network they can access to solve issues?

There are many other reasons people may have for joining and it is important to uncover them, where possible, and support the community in fulfilling these needs.

If you are able to reconfigure a community to better meet these individual needs it has a better chance of being 'sticky'. This helps ensure that people hang around long enough to build the lasting relationships that bond a community together.

This reconfiguration could be as simple as providing technical tools for certain purposes, such as sharing documents; or adjusting community guidelines, such as how moderation works. It can also involve more complex steps such as inviting 'guest presenters' into the community or providing exclusive content.

You must, of course, balance the level of effort required to fulfil individual needs against the level of need in the community. However it is particularly important to support the most active participants (Leaders), as they are providing a great deal of the content required to draw in broader audiences. It is also important to support people with broad networks (Networkers) as they are important influencers of whether people join or leave. However neither group should be coddled to the detriment of other community members.

Influence not control
As a final point, all of the above ideas can influence a new community towards success. None of them guarantee a community will work or that it will develop in a way you find acceptable.

You may find that your initial reason for the community is not strong enough, that there aren't enough potential participants to make a community viable or that external factors, competing communities or internal changes in your organisation stunt or prohibit growth.

However if you're serious about establishing and growing an online community I believe the suggestions above will help.


  1. All very helpful Craig. I think there is major potential for using free tools (such as ideascale) to tap into and reinforce peer communities on particular topics especially as a way to channel ideas about a particular project. I persanlly exoperiment with this as a means of trying to better streamline colutation and workflows, and reduce chaotic email threads.

    As with wikis etc the hurdle is often at a very basic level...I might invest a few hours to set something up, my peers are ususally interested enough in "doing things smarter" to giove it a go and are usually prevented from access due to their govt ITC blocking the exchange. For most, internal IT is seen as the end of the line (too hard to fight).

  2. A thoughtful article, born from experience. , By providing comments on the social side, you remind us all that it's not just the content - it's the people who are commenting, and their worthwhile or funny contributions, that make us come back to the community.

    You've covered the issues well. Thanks!