When you think of “community-building,” what do you think of? Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn or Pinterest? Well, those are close, but all those social platforms are simply the foundation for which community takes place. I’ll explain why building an online community is a wise investment of time and resources for many small businesses.
“Welcome, you’ve got mail” proclaimed a voice narrated by Elwood Edwards, when people signed onto the popular Internet service provider, America Online (AOL). But, what transpired during the early nineties was much more than email for over 30 million people. It was more than web browsing and special celebrity content. It was community.
Community was the cornerstone of the AOL service during the late nineties. There, people would not only log on to gain access to their email and web browsing, but they would do it because they had formed friendships with people who share similar interests. These community interactions often took the form of chat rooms and message boards. Basically, it was a Craigslist before Craigslist even existed.
Even though I was an eager and spirited AOL “member,” I eventually joined the company and a couple years later I became a Community Manager for them. During this time, I helped manage these communities and have created, curated and pruned communities of all types across the service. While it was work, it was work I loved. In retrospect, I think I loved seeing people collaborate and connect over a fairly expression-less platform. Basically, I enjoyed seeing human nature at work in a petri dish on the web.
Six Qualities of Online Communities
There were communities consisting of discussions on all sorts of topics – from everything such as current events, politics, sports, parenting, gaming, technology and much, much more. Within these communities, I observed that they shared six distinct qualities:
- Leaders – These are people who viewed themselves as natural leaders; they led the discussions, often contributed the most and ‘enforced’ the community guidelines. Leaders aren’t “me too” kind of folks; they have a perspective and they are unafraid to share it. Essentially, their communities are gardens that they fertilized, nurtured and pruned so they would become vibrant and healthy.
- Guidelines – In many of these communities, there was an additional set of guidelines created and enforced by its members. For instance, in a community about Chevy Camaros, you would find it difficult to discuss Honda Civics because simply, it wasn’t allowed. They primarily had their own set of rituals and practices that facilitated a very productive community.
- Lurkers – A silent group of participants were lurkers. Even if a community had a small group of active participants, there were probably eight times as many people browsing and reading the discussions. When there were meaningful conflicts, the lurkers frequently came out of the woodwork and made their presence known.
- Events – Much like the user-created guidelines, these communities often hosted sanctioned events, meetups or other scheduled chats. These were big. Since many of these communities had members that spanned across the world, so having scheduled events made it easier for people to connect at the same time.
- Conflicts – While the majority of community interactions are positive, they aren’t always like that. Often this is how leaders are discovered and how communities evolve. Many successful communities often had healthy conflicts that would help the group grow and develop their identity.
- Progress – Ultimately, successful communities weren’t stagnant. They shifted topics, leaders, participation, events and guidelines on a fairly regular basis. And while the topics changed frequently, the members didn’t. Each of these communities had their own perspectives on current events. A good example of this was that the discussions about upcoming presidential elections varied greatly between the Finance, Parenting and Political communities respectively.
Some people may dismiss community as “recreation.” Yet, in the same breath, people could be emotionally hurt by insults, disagreement from those same communities. Online communities represent real life; they aren’t always happy. And that’s okay.
The strategy that AOL adopted was to build topical and communal spaces because inevitably, people will come. At its peak, the service attracted just over 31 million active users, something that no other ISP had done at the time.
Competition from telephone companies, cable providers and rival dial-up service providers ate away at the bottom line at AOL for several years. However, even as late as 2008, the service had over 24 million active subscribers who were using the service. For a good number of those folks, the draw that kept them coming back was the online community they established with people they never even met in real life.
Since then, AOL had changed directions and their true north pointed towards becoming a leader in the publishing, content programming business. Eventually as more users left the service, it became less appealing for people to log on. Ultimately, the business decided that it was best to generate revenue through advertising across all their myriad of web properties.
Are online communities dead?
Not at all.
Communities today have become fragmented across many different platforms and services. Some social media experts disillusion themselves (and their clients) by claiming they’re building a community, yet fail to provide any of the elements of community. In other words, creating a Facebook Page alone does not have the merit of building a community.
Entrepreneurs have the most to gain by participating, contributing and leading in communities that are close to them. Why? They are able to be discovered and are able to develop a platform that helps them articulate their points. Likewise, they are able to share their experiences with others who aspire to think and act like them. And when you see someone who is innately passionate about a topic so much that they don’t mind helping others, natural sparks of curiosity occur and you earn trust.
Entrepreneurs can build great communities, but they must also distance themselves from their personal desires and business interests. People are tired of getting pitches and other faux-networking functions. Do not start or participate in a community if you only want to generate leads or make money. It doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked and it likely won’t work. But if you genuinely identify with a topic like Elon Musk does with electricity and sending rockets into space, then by all means, give yourself the permission to participate and lead an online community.
There are a number of ways to authentically participate and even lead an online community. Again, have a look at the six qualities I shared above. But here are a several great suggestions as to where you find communities that pique your interests:
- Facebook Groups
- Twitter Chats
- LinkedIn Groups
- Google Communities
- Online Forums
- Multi-Author Blogs
- YouTube Channels
In the end, communities bind topics and people together. They consist of constructive conversations, meaningful connections and they help you attract a loyal and engaged audience.
What communities do you participate in? Share a link to it in the comments below and help other fellow entrepreneurs connect with you.
Image credit: EJP Photo