Getting an online community off the ground

15 June, 2009

It has been very quiet here around here for the few couple of months, but I am back from a very nice break honeymooning with my lovely wife and am looking forward to getting some more thoughts written down!

This year  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and writing and talking about what we can do to encourage the development of great online communities. I thought I would kick things off again with some of my thoughts, these are the ideas that I’m in the process of trying to implement, I will blog about how they actually pan out over the next few months.

I have read about a bazillion articles and blog posts recently (my favourites have been, this great video from Patrick Lambe,  this article from Keith De La Rue, lots of bits and pieces from Richard Millington’s blog and some stuff from the Ant’s Eye View team)  the collective wisdom (mixed in with my own experiences) seems to suggest that there are a few ingredients that any community will need to succeed:

  • Common Purpose
  • People
  • Content
  • Events

Today I’ll chat about Common Purpose.

The first thing that needs to be considered when creating an online community, is why you  are doing it. No doubt there is a general objective that goes along the lines of ‘get people talking about our product’ or ‘reduce calls to our help desk’ or in my case, ‘help people to get better connected to other professionals to help them be more effective at their jobs.’

These are a great starting point but we need to drill deeper if we’re going to be successful. From what I have experienced and read in order for a community to really take off, we need to either tap into a person’s passion or provide a real tangible benefit.

If the community is designed to promote discussion around a product, for example running shoes, then there is a good chance the community will be driven by passion, it will be a place for runners to share their experiences of something they really care about. If the community is aiming to become a professional network, to improve effectiveness and increase access to information, it is quite possible if not likely that your audience are not going to be passionate about the topic but are simply looking to make their job easier.

This changes how we go about attracting people, the community must not just provide community members with a space to talk about something they love, it must prove to be invaluable. It must provide information and people that community members can not easily get to anywhere else. It must be so full of smart people sharing insight and resources that it becomes a central work tool. If it is anything less it will be relegated to the ‘I should get around to looking at that’ pile, otherwise known as a ‘nice to have’.

That is a big ask, particularly if you are looking to build a community around a very broad topic.  I’ll use the example of a community for Taxation professionals to talk about how broad is not necessarily good. Our objective could be:

“To help Taxation professionals get better connected to other professionals to provide easier access to the knowledge and experience of others”

This seems pretty clear, lets get people who work in tax to talk to each other. There are loads of people who work in tax so it should be easy to attract enough of them to create interesting discussion that results in valuable insight being shared…right?

If we look a little deeper the water becomes quite muddied. Tax is a very broad area, even at a high level personal tax and business tax are very different areas, if we delve into either of those we’ll will see many more disparate topics. This presents a challenge for community builders as what is interesting and valuable to a personal tax professional is probably of little interest to a business tax professional.

The lesson here, is take the topic area and drill down. Choose a specific niche and identify a need that the community will address. Aim to have an objective that is as specific as possible:

“To help personal income tax professionals, connect and discuss recent changes to federal tax legislation” – (I don’t know anything about tax so that might not make any sense, but you get the drift!)

This level of detail will set the expectations from the beginning, it will help with recruitment of the right people and will help to ensure that discussions do in fact prove to be useful and valuable.

Next  – Recruiting the right people.

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6 Responses to “Getting an online community off the ground”


  1. Mick, you make me feel better about my blog slackness so thanks for that, and thanks for the info here.
    Have you also looked at Clay Shirky’s ‘Here comes everybody’? He talks about SM groups being built upon “Promise, Tools, and Bargain” and the delicate balance of getting all three right.
    I agree completely with the need to drill down, I talk to a lot of clients about Social Media loves a niche, it makes it easier to come up with a relevant content strategy.

    • Mick Leyden Says:

      @Paul – I know i’ve been slack but I reckon I have had a pretty good excuse! 🙂

      I’ve not read it but have been meaning to since it came out. Will look it up. Thanks for the tip.


  2. Mick –

    Thanks for the reference – glad you found it helpful!

    – Keith.

  3. Andrew Mitchell Says:

    Congratulations on getting married.

    It is an old custom but I think its a nice one to refer to her as your bride for the first year.


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