Sometimes it is easier to think about what not to do rather than what to do with online communities. Each community has a different purpose, target audience, and style. There are many approaches you can take. But there are a few key poison pills to avoid.
1. Build it and expect everyone to come.
This is no field of dreams. You are in the thick of the "attention economy," and the competition is intense. Not only do you have to create a compelling purpose and setting, but you also have to let people know that the door is open and draw them in. This includes marketing to your target audience and providing explicit, easy directions on how to find and join the conversation. Do not underestimate the time and effort this may take.
2. Control it to death.
The people who join your community are just that: people. Most do not like to feel controlled. As the community host, you have the delicate role of balancing order and spontaneity. You want to create an environment in which people will feel comfortable participating. Once people start participating, they feel a sense of ownership, which in turn motivates them to keep participating. But remember, sometimes the good stuff happens on the margin of order and chaos. Try to allow that emergent space to exist in your community.
3. Forget it.
Have you ever arrived at a party and wondered where the host was? Where the chips were? Arrived at a dance to find the hall empty? If you make the commitment to build an online space, plan to visit it very regularly -- perhaps daily! People take their cue from you. If you participate daily, they are far more likely to follow suit. If you are invisible, they will disappear as well.
4. Make it too complicated.
This is neither a jigsaw puzzle nor a rat maze. If your members have to wade through too much clutter to find something of interest, they won't stick around. Don't start with too many spaces or topics. Let the space grow organically. This evolutionary approach gives your members the chance to contribute. This will create a win-win situation.
5. Take it too personally.
A little perspective goes a long way in online communities. This is your baby. You dreamed it up and set it up, and now you might find yourself taking it a bit too seriously. Keep your perspective and sense of humor. When you find yourself overreacting to people's posts, step back and remember that sometimes we interpret the written word differently from the spoken word because we don't get any nonverbal cues from the speaker. Let it roll off your back. Breathe deeply.
Online communities are, in the end, an experiment in human interaction. Jump in and explore.
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