My jambalaya is world-famous.

Well, family-famous anyway. For special occasions, I'll spend a good chunk of the afternoon chopping and simmering approximately 1,000 ingredients. The key to a good jambalaya is laying a foundation of flavor, slow simmering each ingredient in turn until the whole thing melds together into Cajun deliciousness. If you rush any of the foundation ingredients, it just isn't the same. In Cajun cooking, the foundation is often the "trinity" of celery, bell pepper, and onion, lovingly sauteed in olive oil or butter.

You must apply the same love and patience to your online community, and you can't short-change the foundational ingredients. That's the difference between a community that's a working asset and a community that's a resource drain.

Over the past 17 years I've worked with community builders and marketing teams across a diverse array of industries. A lot of organizations want to plunge headlong into building online communities by purchasing technology, announcing a big launch, or hiring a community manager. But the truly successful ones don't just throw rice and meat into a cold pot. Here's the online community "trinity" to ensure that your online community really works

1. Your community must have a stated purpose. If you're sitting in a meeting, and someone says, "we need an online community," make sure the rest of the conversation is about why. For a business case, community must be tied to a business goal.

  • Is it going to deflect customer support calls by allowing customer-to-customer help?
  • Is it going to bring together a group of influencers that can spread brand awareness?
  • Is it going to support your market research efforts, or provide a mechanism for customer input on product design?

Do not "pass GO" until you've completed this vital step. This fantastic Harvard Business Review article offers some additional insights into building a great branded community (

2. Your community must have cross-team buy-in. It doesn't matter if the online community is going to be managed by the marketing team, the HR department, customer service, or the IT group. If you've decided you need a community, start walking around your company and find internal champions across as many departments as possible.

Include the C-suite and the legal team too ( Clearly demonstrate your stated purpose and how it will support the business mission (you've already done the work in step 1).

3. Your community must have an action plan. Developing an online community is not a quick project, one-and-done. It's an investment that will require both human and financial resources, regardless of the platform you choose.

Your action plan should include (as a baseline):

  • Who will be doing the day-to-day management of the community
  • Other resources required (technology, design, content)
  • Playbook for handling common issues (moderation, escalation, customer followup, legal, etc.). What happens to the data and intelligence being collected within the community?
  • Brand guidelines
  • Terms of use, community guidelines
  • Content creation schedule, editorial calendar
  • Metrics you will use to determine success
  • Frequency of reporting, and to whom

Yes, there are a lot of decisions to make beyond these three, but this foundation of flavor will ensure that your community is set up for success.

What's in your jambalaya?

Rosemary O'Neill is Co-Founder/President of Social Strata, which makes online community platform, used by brands like HarperCollins, Pepsi, and Time Warner Cable to engage with fans, customers, and internal teams. For the last 19 years, she has been evangelizing the social conversation as an entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. She has also appeared on Fox & Friends and NPR as an HR rebel. Rosemary O'Neill is a Springboard Enterprises alumna and contributor to "Been There, Run That." You can find her online via Twitter (@rhogroupee).