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8 Best Practices for Online Communities

When I conduct an online community audit, usually in order to help organizations figure out why their community might not be as active as it could be, I start by explaining my philosophy around online communities. These are simple best practices (even though I hate that term) that provide the context for the recommendations I provide through my audit.  I thought it might be useful to share them here.

Truly understand the actual value YOUR community provides. It’s not “networking”- that doesn’t differentiate your community from anyone else’s (especially in your own industry). Why do members truly get out of it? How are you helping them do their work better? How are you helping them advance their careers? And how is this value different depending on who they are (e.g. new practitioner versus seasoned professional)?

Define what engagement means for you. This is a problem endemic to the association industry in general – everyone is desperately trying to measure engagement, but few spend the time to actually understand and define what it is. Is it user generated content? Is it purchases? Is it discussions? Is it registrations to events or education? Is it volunteering? Of course it’s always a combination of these – but how and why? This issue is bigger than just online community engagement; we have done a lot of work around this–please read this white paper for more on this subject.

Activity begets activity. Hiding community activity behind logins and inside groups is like walking into an empty restaurant – the food may be amazing but most people won’t even bother going in to find out. The most successful communities find ways to show off as much as possible. Once you know what value you want to showcase, and what engagement really means in the context of your online community, you can direct people’s attention to the right things (what you want them to do or find) most effectively and most visibly.

Don’t segment users, segment active topics. Similarly to the last point, it’s important to put as many people together BEFORE they are split up into groups and subgroups. If you think of visible activity as a percentage (i.e. of content creators and commenters versus readers and lurkers), then the bigger the total number of people, the better chances of seeing a decent amount of activity. When a discussion topic gets big enough to segment off into its own place, that’s when you can create a group for it. (How do you know? Either when a member participating in the topic asks for a separate space to hold these active discussions – or when other members complain that the topic is crowding out other stuff.)

Digital connections drive content sharing. Assuming it’s not meant to be a secret community nobody knows about (which can be a viable strategy in some cases!), a community should be connected in as many ways as possible to both internal and external stakeholders. There should be appropriate linkages to any and all other web properties, social media sites, and email marketing. Every internal department (or almost) should have a presence, whether through individual participation or overt departmental representation (eg “member service desk”). If your (member-facing) staff aren’t using it, why would your members?

Don’t forget calls to action.  Listing top discussions in an email newsletter is great, but if you don’t ask people to click on something (“can you help answer this question?”) they may not have a specific reason to go back into your community site. Especially if they can do everything by email.

People want to talk to people.  Show faces! Humanize your site!  I’ve seen too many online communities with tiny avatars and giant lists of links to discussion threads.

Your community is not your database.  Just because your member segments and committee governance structures are set up a certain way does not mean that your community should follow the same rules from a user experience perspective.  You can set up the appropriate permissions and segments on the back end, without it creating a bunch of walls and clicks (which equal walls) for the individual user navigating around.

And so we come full circle right back to the top.

These are some of the most critical things I look for in an online community audit – and while they may take some thought, attention to these can result in easy usability fixes that don’t involve ditching your online community platform and repeating the same mistakes with the next one.

(photo credit)



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