I’ve done a lot of thinking lately about the current state of online community and its shift from message boards to more mainstream forms of social media. Online community is not dead, but it has certainly evolved.
I admit that I am a bit traditional with how I view online community. I grew up on forums and chat rooms and these experiences have shaped my views on how people come together to discuss or lend a helping hand on a specific interest.
Just to give you a picture of the landscape of yesterday’s community, it looked something like a series of small, but tightly connected villages. People have often stayed within their villages, contributing, self-governing and unifying together to remove threats to their shared cause.
Using a similar analogy, today’s communities are simply rest stops peppered along the Information Super Highway (yup, I just used that phrase). I’m not saying online community is dead; I am saying online communities have become fragmented and loosely connected.
I’ve seen that engagement is down across the board with only a few exceptions. Brand managers and those in the social media workforce now burden the responsibility of establishing communities for their brands. Gone are the days of people regularly congregating in a digital meeting space to support and connect with each other. This isn’t really anyone’s fault, but rather a byproduct of a decentralized web and the proliferation of personalization throughout social media.
In other words, people no longer seek connections with like-minded individuals in a structured community. The rules of community engagement change frequently and often involve less friction, less barriers and less exclusivity.
For those who fell behind in the digital divide, they are disenfranchised from forming meaningful connections with digital natives. The gap is widening and newer, younger generations getting online have missed out on the opportunity to experience rich and meaningful community interactions. Nevertheless, online communities do exist and are present through a variety of platforms.
Communities do exist, but they require a substantial effort to build and maintain. No, creating an online community does not simply mean spinning up a vBulletin or phpBB instance. Community management entails attracting, advocating and retaining people with a common interest. It requires selective and creative positioning so people are encouraged to not only join, but to actively participate.
If you maintain a community or you want to start one, here is my advice.
- Define your audience. Saying your community is for “anyone” will get you “everyone” and you will be disappointed by the lack of engagement.
- Think about the pains felt by your audience. Communities allow you to offer help and support, emotional connection and shared digital experiences.
- Start small and stay small. While having the largest community is certainly desirable, the reality is you don’t want to grow too fast. What you want is an active community and that often means fewer, but much more highly engaged individuals.
- Know how to handle human conflict. If a community is successful, human conflicts will occur. Think about how you intend to keep things civil, fair and productive for everyone’s benefit. (And that doesn’t mean the goal is to have no conflicts – they are actually quite healthy and bonding in nature.)
- Define your engagement. This is a big one. You should be confident and crystal clear about exactly how one discovers your community, ascends into it and how they will engage. It’s not about control; it’s about facilitating online interactions and providing the means for people to behave naturally.
One must accept that communities are living, breathing ecosystems. You get what you invest into them. They introduce as much opportunity as they do threats and a Community Manager prudently responds to these and acts on them. Regardless of the platform, I strongly believe communities require leaders and those leaders must be driven to drive social interaction and not simply page views or member counts.
Are you interested in learning more about online communities? I’d be delighted to pontificate more, but I’d love to answer your questions on community management in the process. Let me know in the comments.
Image credit: jamesarcher
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