So how do you design and run an online community, anyway? And what small-business owner has time to figure it out when there are a bazillion things on the to-do list? And do the community right?

Despite the continuing buzz of community and interaction, there are still many communities that are poorly designed, constructed, and run. Communities seem to have to relearn the lessons of their predecessors along with each new twist, as the concept of online communities evolves.

There have been a few books (most notably Cliff Figallo's Hosting Web Communities: Building Relationships, Increasing Customer Loyalty, and Maintaining a Competitive Edge,), but rarely does a publication make ideas accessible to both large and small businesses. Most aim at the big, high-end markets.

A Great Book

Amy Jo Kim has collected many online community learnings and turned them into a practical, readable, and useful book, Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. She has distilled things down to a level where they make sense for the smallest online community, as well as for the mega-commercial sites. It is a great book!

In fact, just about the only beef I have with the book is the use of the word "secret" in the title, because most of this information is not a secret. The secret is that too many people ignore tangible lessons learned!

What's to like about this book?

It is well organized. Kim has built the book around her nine down-to-earth community design strategies. Each chapter then presents specific elements on how to execute those strategies. She stays on track.

It uses examples from both large and small sites. Some of the sites she calls "community" sites may not reflect one's personal definition of community. But they are solid demonstrations of her design suggestions, which take this book from the realm of theory to one of practicality.

You can read all of it or one section and it makes sense. It is a resource you can pick up again and again, even if you never have time to read a whole book. Her chapter divisions and subheads also make for a pleasant browse to grab inspiration or get a specific tidbit. Graphics are used generously, but my old eyes had to strain a bit on some of the screen shots.

From a content perspective, I found myself repeatedly nodding my head in agreement with her assessments and suggestions. She pays attention to what I feel are the three main domains of a successful online interaction space: purpose, design, and social structures or interactions.

Kim also identifies three underlying design principles:

  • Design for growth and change.
  • Create and maintain feedback loops.
  • Empower your members.

Such common sense we can apply to many areas of our business, not just our online community spaces.

While the business models of online community may not yet be clear, the mechanisms are becoming much more visible. Small-business folk can save a lot of wasted time and effort by using the guidelines, pulling what is relevant, and leaving the rest for when their needs grow or change. The word "options" comes to mind.

Kim has pulled this together for one fine road map, worth the toll and useful for some time to come.

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