posted on April 07, 2007 12:00
There is a lot of talk these days about online community and a lot of businesses popping up to serve this market. Tools out there to help online community range from the big guys like groups.yahoo.com and groups.google.com, to newer entrants into the market like meetup.com.
As those that know me know, I have been involved in building online networks of communities since 1998 when I first got involved with General Powell’s nonprofit, America’s Promise. Subsequently, I built PricewaterhouseCoopers’ global practice specializing in helping corporations, nonprofits, and government organizations create and utilize private online networks and online community.
At the time, even thought software packages enabling online community cost a small fortune, it was my position was that the technology problem was not particularly complicated and that organizations should not have to spend a fortune to build online community space for their members, clients, or constituents. But at the same time, the popular tools of the time (and still to this day) like groups.yahoo.com were (are) inadequate and ineffective in serving the needs of online community.
Over the past ten years, community tools have generally gotten better, and the prices have certainly gone down. It may have taken almost ten years for this notion to take hold, but it is exciting to see the proliferation of open source software and businesses springing up to support online community (including my company, iBelong Networks).
But what is still generally missing is incorporating the elements of best practice in online community into online community software. As is my opinion with most online technology, the successful of online communities is more than simply a bunch of cool features.
So to continue the theme of my earlier blogs, I want to emphasize that although the minimum software requirements for online community may not be particularly advanced, like so many things in starting a small business, the success lies in productizing the technology with a stellar implementation process. Below, I will highlight a few of my findings in studying online community strategy, process, and technology for almost ten years.
What is an online community?
An ONLINE community is essentially the same as any OFFLINE community. An online community is a group of people who share a common interest, common practice, and a commitment to share and expand their objective. Their objective may be to further the knowledge base within a certain area, to get a candidate elected, or to share information on an entertainment star.
The biggest difference between an online and offline community is that an online community can be geographically disperse and represent multiple layers, organizations, or communities while still being very active. This activity is typically through a diverse set of online functionality, including:
· Community homepage
· Personal homepage
· Conversation space
· Membership directory
· Shared workspace
· Document repository
· Search engine with visual display of results
· Community Management Tools for the leadership
· Ability to create sub-communities or project teams
Transcending the online and offline worlds.
The most successful online communities transcend the online and offline worlds. These communities have off-line goals, use tools to organize and communicate online, and perform some sort of activity offline. The following is an illustration of this model.
Collaborating and communicating online
Performing and achieving offline goals
For example, the nonprofit organization KaBOOM, has an existing network of volunteers and advocates around the country advocating safe places for kids to play. KaBOOM uses this existing offline network to mobilize resources for their organization mission.
The activities and tools in offline mobilization typically include traditional communication and marketing activities.
Then KaBOOM has an online resources and community tools to help this network organize into a more deliberate community to advocate and build of playgrounds.
The activities and tools in collaborating online typically includes online social networking and community tools.
For an organization like KaBOOM, it is all about building playgrounds. And of course, this can’s be accomplished in an online community, it has to get done, on the ground.
The tools and activities in achieving offline goals at typically the core tools of the organization.
Successful online communities.
In addition, in studying successful online communities, I found that the characteristics for successful online communities is not much difference than offline communities. These include:
- Clear, demonstrated need: In order for a community to really take off, there needs to be a good impetus for the community to coalesce. And it is this need that will keep things going. For example, Youth Service America is a large offline community focused on engaging young people in service and service learning. YSA has identified a global need to engage young people in service and they have successfully used their online community, SERVEnet.org, to manifest their offline community in an online world.
- Existing formal or informal networks: Existing communities have formed where there is an existing need – whether it’s online or offline, formal or informal. By applying additional principles of community to these existing networks, they will have the tools to thrive.
- Community leadership: Just like offline communities, there needs to be a community leader. This leader can take a formal high-profile role or can take a behind-the-scenes role. Either way, successful online communities need a leader who is passionate about helping to facilitate the achievement of the community’s goal.
- Organizational sponsorship: Although not necessary, most successful online communities tend to have an organizational sponsor. The sponsor’s role may be to provide financial resources, offline mobilization tools, or simply legitimacy. For example, SERVEnet.org is the largest online community of volunteers and nonprofit service professionals. I credit the success of this online community to the sponsorship of its companion offline organization, Youth Service America.
- Manageable size and scope: The most successful communities tend to have a very specific objective and not want to do and accomplish everything for everyone. This is particularly true in their infancy. But as communities grow, they tend to take on more goals. This tends to work out as long as this growth is organic and is supported by other factors of successful communities.
- Culture amenable to sharing and communicating: This may seem pretty intuitive, but obviously a necessary condition for a successful community is that the culture of the potential community members will need to be amenable to sharing and communicating. There are plenty of instances, where this is the case, as a natural course of business. For example, government agencies have tried to set up knowledge sharing amongst their contractors. Without some sort of contractual obligation, contractors tend not to want to collaborate, lest they reveal business secrets.
- Technical competence and access to necessary technology: As technology tools get easier to use and users are more tech-savvy, this becomes less of an issue. But unfortunately, as functionality of technology expands, good usability often takes a backseat to cool features. So it’s important to make sure that the software’s usability matches the sophistication of the target user group.
I’ll finish this topic in my next blog when I discuss the process of setting community norms and common community roles. In the meantime, the overall point I want to make is that only a fraction of this blog’s real estate was given to the actual technology behind successful online community. And even though I am a technology entrepreneur developing online community through iBelong Networks, I am the first to admit that having good technology to create and sustain online community is only the necessary condition—but good technology is not nearly sufficient.
In order for online community to be successful, there needs to be an entire strategy and process around mobilizing and maintaining online community – to facilitate achievement in the offline world. Unfortunately, a lot of the technology products created by entrepreneurs that I have seen, have great technology, but no means to support that technology through a community strategy that is integrated into its business model. This may work if the business strategy is to immediately sell to a Yahoo or a Google who can throw a lot of traffic at the technology and pray for community. But a sustainable business relies on fulfilling a consumer or client need and making a commensurate amount of revenue and profit.