Field of Dreams gave us the famous quote “if you build it, they will come.” It’s a great line for a movie. Sadly, we’ve heard too many people use it to justify their plans to build an online community. Certainly, if you don’t build it no-one will come. On the other hand, the mere existence of a gathering place is not enough to result in anything worthwhile.
Building the community is only the construction part of the process; like pouring the foundation and framing a house. Establishing an engaged community — and an engaged community is really what you want — is more of a creative process. In the online world, the work just begins when you cut the ribbon.
The Small Pieces Add Up
Most of the successful web/social communities began not because of a single large scale contribution, but because of a lot of small ones — just as with building personal relationships. Grand gestures like presenting a cool gathering place is simply part of the process. Remember, to be successful, a restaurant needs to be accessible, have an appealing atmosphere, offer good food, good service and prices people are willing to pay. Of course, it helps if one of the elements stands above the others. Still, service needs to be up there. Most people won’t suffer terrible service for a superb gastronomic experience if they can get both (or an average of the two) somewhere else.
And so it goes with online communities. You need to have most of the elements covered, yet still offer something to your audience they can’t get anywhere else. The business world calls this the “value proposition.” Whether your community is intended to support your business, hobby or political aspirations, you must offer something people can’t get anywhere else if you intend to get noticed.
Digital pioneers had the edge. There was little (if any) competition when they launched their communities. In these cases, the value proposition was obvious — they were one of the only (or only) destination for that interest. As the interest became more popular, “competing” online communities (that is to say, new communities that serve the same niche) needed to offer a slightly different take in order to be attractive to others.
My friend (and co-author on TOUCH: Five Factors to Growing and Leading a Human Business) gave me two great examples:
- The Canadian Podcast Buffet was the first community specifically created by Mark and Bob Goyetche to promote and support the Canadian podcast community. It had a built-in audience of podcast creators and, as we learned when we loosened the format and had more fun by incorporating interviews and guest hosts, the podcast listening public. Over time, our audience grew well beyond Canada even though the show was Canadian-centric.
- Just One More Book joined the online effort to promote great children’s books and the people that create them in July 2006. There were already many successful blogs and active communities dedicated to the subject. None were podcasting. So, Mark and his wife Andrea offered something no-one else did at the time — they offered people the ability to eavesdrop on two people, passionately and energetically talking about the books they loved and why. They could do so on their computers or portable MP3 players. This led to weekly audio interviews with authors and illustrators; again something noone else was doing at the time. Eventually we produced a few videos and a special video series called Rock Stars of Reading (again, a fresh idea). Some people say JOMB arrived late and became a standout because we offered something different. We believe JOMB arrived differently and carved out its own space.
What’s important to note about these two examples is the role of interaction, specific and implied. In both cases, there was a rapport between the two hosts which energized the listener. The tone was such that listeners felt present. This was particularly true of JOMB which was recorded in a coffee shop. Mark and Andrea often received feedback that listeners would wake up ahead of their families, brew some coffee, download the latest episode, then sit in their kitchen or living room, coffee in hand, earbud in ear, and join the hosts, virtually, in the coffee shop.
The atmosphere of the two shows helped build community. Listeners felt connected with the hosts. Both shows enjoyed routine contributions from listeners who felt comfortable reaching out and extending the conversation beyond the regularly released audio files.
If You’re Relevant, They Will Come
Consider a restaurant analogy. A great restaurant is a destination, has a welcoming atmosphere, quality food, remarkable service and charges prices people are willing to pay. Your online community requires similar elements.
- Destination: Your community must be located in a good and memorable online space. It must also be presentable and have a great name and easy-to-remember URL. More importantly, the site should appear welcoming, be easy to navigate and offer visitors the ability to interact or participate.
- Atmosphere: While a slick design which punches out content and avoids clutter is important, atmosphere is more about the tone and activity in the space. This is set in large part by the host of the community making it very important for the host to immerse him or herself as an active and committed participant. The host must become a personality rather than appear a robot. If the host can’t be a player or influencer in their own community, it will be nearly impossible to manage a crisis when one emerges.
- Content (adapted from food): Valuable, interesting and entertaining content will help build a dialogue and motivate return visits. Of course, the goal of most communities is to have such an engaged membership that the content creation and sharing part will take care of itself. However, the host must be an active participant in the generation and sharing of content — even maintaining a content calendar for at least some days of each week. Hosts who go dark might end up sending a message that the community isn’t worth their time; a message with the potential to cascade. We can talk about what can happen in those situations another time.
- Service: Just as some restaurants have greeters and hosts who make sure you feel important when you arrive, ensure you’re seated quickly and comfortably and a server is assigned to take care of you, so, too, should an online community host be concerned about the comfort of their participants. This becomes increasingly difficult if the rate-of-growth or the size of the community becomes overwhelming. However, there are many things a host can do to make sure information can be found, that they or prominent members of the community can be available to help integrate new members and support the community on an ongoing basis.
- Tiered access (adapted from price): Marketers, communicators and campaign managers love this; hobby folks not so much since conventional thought is this involves the exchange of money. It doesn’t have to. Nor are you obliged to offer tiered access. The principle behind tiered access is giving something else of value for a greater level of participation — be it a click, completed registration form, membership, sponsorship, donation or purchase.
Relevance extends beyond just the idea of an online community. Relevance must be pervasive throughout the destination, atmosphere, content, service and value. Perhaps the quote becomes “Relevance is the foundation of community.”
Perhaps that famous Field of Dreams quote needs to be adapted for the online world: “If you’re relevant, they will come.”