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Building a successful online community

Originally written for Business Zone: Original LinkThis may not make me popular, but to me there are two constant truths regarding any online community. They seem to apply regardless of numbers of visitors, volume of postings, or even hours put into moderation and nurture.The first is simple, online communities are fundamentally flawed because they are driven by emotional humans like you and me! It's ironic, but people tend to show their feelings more readily in the online space than face-to-face. Managing the fallout while maintaining freedom of speech is a delicate balancing act.Moving on to my second point, we probably all remember the limelight-hogging natural performers from school days. Well they are still alive and well, and now living online. The power of any online forum comes from participation, which will come disproportionately from these guys. The challenge is both to encourage and protect the community.Within the eco system of an online community, members tend to fall into three distinct groups. These are newbies, casual users and hard-core fanatics. Each group tends to play a standard role. The newbies ask the questions, the fanatics answer them and the casuals move slowly up the scale or get bored and go elsewhere.This slow burn approach works, but it has a problem. It predominantly focuses on two groups; the "noobs" and the "ninjas", while ignoring the casuals. While there is no secret sauce to community building, there are a few tricks that can be applied to help to plug the gap.1. Understand the potential When you have a large group, there is always an immense amount of knowledge. You need to make your community members productive from the beginning. To do this, you need an environment where people feel comfortable and able to contribute.2. There is no such thing as a stupid questionNothing puts new visitors off quicker than a slap down after asking a basic question. This should be outlawed from the beginning. Adopting a zero tolerance policy and insisting that everyone is "friendly" may seem draconian, but you want to encourage everyone to stick around and participate further.3. There is no such thing as a stupid answerIf your "friendly" policy is working it also has a secondary benefit of allowing the newbies a chance to answer the easy questions. Extending the ethos to include "no stupid answers" is a natural second step.Your community should encourage everyone to have a go at answering questions. The key here is to carefully manage the fanatics. Ridiculing another's answer is simply against the rules.4. Motivate and informA great technique for encouraging participation is to feedback related user info and stats, then reward individuals and identify the top performers. The business networking site LinkedIn encourages healthy competition by allowing people to rate answers, and members can proudly display their ranking.Let's face facts, building a successful online community is hard work. Getting a bunch of emotional showoffs to work together for the greater good is never going to be easy. However, if you can pull it off the rewards are immense, and in the world of Web 2.0, your customers probably expect nothing less.