Eight ideas for nurturing online communities

A job opening came across my desk recently. The alumni office at New York college is seeking an online “community nurturer.” The role involves maintaining “an online community with social networking and event marketing components for over 79,000 alumni.”

Kudos to the college (Buffalo State) for recognizing an oft-overlooked imperative: if you intend to establish a successful online community, plan on staffing it with someone with the skills to tend it, to grow it, to breathe life into it.

But with CMS vendors tripping over each other to bring you bundled CMS solutions that manage your content and website as well as your online community (blogs, wikis, forums, ratings, social networking), we tend to ask the obvious: Think throwing a CMS at your content-rich website instantly solves your content and web strategy problems? No? That goes double for running a vibrant online community.

So let’s puncture this Myth-in-the-making before it grows wings: “If you build a community, will they come?” “The answer is: maybe; but it will take some serious nurturing to succeed.

Just like a backyard garden that requires watering, fertilizing and weeding long after you’ve planted seeds, growing and maintaining an online community is a process that really never ends.

There are clear parallels between the traditional website content manager role and mindset, and that of the successful web community manager.  If you’re jumping into the fray (or considering it for 2009) here are some best practice tips from what we’ve seen and learned:

1. Put your online community in the hands of someone who can live and breathe it every day. And if you can’t devote at least a part-time resource, consider holding off starting your community.

2.  Ensure your community manager has the right mix of skills. They’ll need to be ready to write, edit, create e-newsletters, evangelize topics and brands, review user-gen content, monitor comments, reach out to active members – and communicate constantly with the audience.

3. Think about giving the community manager(s) a persona – let them establish an identity, use their face and name. Establish them as a dynamic presence who represents the community and bridges your company (or college, or non-profit, or publisher) with member interests.

4. Actively foster active participation. Dynamism is key – focus on getting people to communicate, comment, share, provoke ideas and questions. Rating members based on frequency of participation, or prodding them with small giveaways for participation, can help provoke interaction, and bring new ideas to the community.

5. Develop and nurture a handful of evangelists to keep things moving.  Don’t underestimate the power of a devoted fan or follower outside your organization who brings enthusiasm and genuine interest to rev up the community and keep members coming back for more.

6. Constantly tap into the motivation and interests of your audience – define (and ask) why they’re there, what excites them, and try to serve them what they want (within reason) – and be ready to shift gears when they do.

7. Be authentic in your approach to cultivating the community and resist looking at it as a marketing lever to drive more traffic and transactions.  Avoid hitting members over the head with product messages, for example.

8. Use the community for front line research and trend-spotting, and run that up the chain at your company, incorporate it into your service, product, or website.

Do you have any best practice ideas for running an online community? We’re all ears. Please share your ideas and thoughts in the comments section or email us.

About the Author
David Aponovich

A former 'CMS Insider,' David is relentlessly focused on the gap between vendor speak and customer adoption. In addition to keeping a keen eye on industry trends, he works with clients on the cultural and process implications of CMS that are so often overlooked. David wrote for the CMS Myth during his time working at Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design).

More articles from David Aponovich


2 responses… read them below or add one.

  1. John Jones says:

    Great suggestions David. I continue to follow your posts and enjoy your energy and great personal insights, agency experience and best practices input.

    Let me add a 9th which I am confident you know very well but is often overlooked or underestimated.

    #9 Pick the right community manager who has a tangible connection to the audience. — If you’re community is about sales, pick a salesperson. If it’s about the coolest trends in wireless devices, pick an early adopter mobile geek who lives and breathes text messaging and mobile Twitter. You can’t fake a relationship and you can’t fake a community nurturer who does not have the chops to be part of the community.

    Keep on fighting the Myth- I do so everyday!

  2. Brian says:

    I’m very wary of company online communities. Third-party forums and communities can be great places to swap ideas, but public online communities rarely address WIIFM or are responsive enough for it to be a worthwhile comm’s channel to the company. As one speaker at Web Directions South put it, if you have to have your posts approved, you probably shouldn’t be there — to which I’d add, if there’s no path from the community to management, you shouldn’t be doing it. And intranet communities regularly die from office politics. If you build it, will they come? Probably not — but they will privately join a third-party forum on the same topic and tell the truth.

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