Top Tools & Tips to Start, Run & to Promote Successful Online Community Sites. Most Common Mistakes

Jun 25 09:06 2006 Karo Yegyan Print This Article

Building a website into an active community filled with many contributors is very difficult and is impossible to break down the exact steps, however following Tips can help you a lot.

Following article covers dos-and-don'ts of starting and building a successful Online Communities (Forums,Guest Posting Chat Rooms, Bulletin Boards, Discussion & Message Boards), but this is only a general guideline. Every community is different, and every administrator of a community is different, so an aspiring community leader needs to adjust accordingly.

Building a website into an active community filled with many contributors is very difficult and is impossible to break down the exact steps, however following Tips can help you a lot.

Issues to Consider

You probably have a pretty good idea why you want to build a community and what sorts of visitors you have in mind. If you think about it, you can probably figure out what types of people would be most likely to visit, where they're likely to be located, and what kinds of technology and internet connection they'll have. These are crucial issues to keep in mind as you decide what types of tools will work best to help your community members connect.

Before starting to create your online community you may need to consider some issues such as: Will your users be visiting from home or from work? (Home users usually have slower connections, maybe not state-of-the-art equipment, don't have tech support available to them. Visitors coming from work may have faster connections, probably have newer computers and software, more likely to be Windows users, tech support may be available). Will your users be in one time zone or not? How many visitors are you anticipating? Will most of your users speak the same language?

Tools To Create, Start & Run Successful Online Community Sites

1) Using Email Tools

Some community software has a feature called "topic subscription" which allows people to participate in conferencing via email. They receive the posts in their mailbox rather than signing onto a website.

Email can also be used to send newsletters to keep in touch with those who don't visit your community regularly. A newsletter can help you keep these people in touch with what's new, reminding them that your community is there when it arrives in their mailbox. Remember, though, that your newsletter list should always be opt-in in other words, don't Spam people who don't want it. Email is also a good tool for you, as host, to keep in touch with members individually. Sometimes you need to say something to someone that it isn't appropriate to say in a public space. A good host can encourage lurkers, show appreciation to core members, and defuse trouble - all with the judicious use of private email.

2) Altering Posts by using "Content Management" Tool

You need to get rid of dormant topics, to edit, hide or to delete the "bad" & unrelated posts of your members, or to move those posts to a more appropriate area.

3) Controlling Users by using "User Management" Tool

Users sometimes do things you wish they hadn't. Occasionally it's necessary for you as a host to step in and revoke the privileges of that user to post. Or to moderate their posts - meaning that you will review what they have to say before it's made public. Sometimes in a chat situation someone needs to be removed forcibly from a room and kept out. Sometimes you'll need to remove someone permanently from your community.

Tips to Create, Start & Run Online Community Sites

1) Good & Fresh Content

After you start to get some new members and posts, be sure that you are always feeding the forums new threads. Nobody is going to keep coming back if there is nothing new to read. One of the things that keeps people coming back to communities is good, fresh content. The forum should have a good number of interesting and focused topics. The content should reflect the interests of the target audience, and every care should be made to have well-written and informative content that is updated regularly. This not only helps attract new members, it keeps older members from losing interest and defecting to other forums. In one way, your users are generating their own content by continuing their conversations in your community space, but it sometimes helps to be able to provide other content to them. This can be in the form of links to other appropriate, interesting sites, articles written by you or other community members, or discussion-starter posts from you which help to jump-start a conversation about some hot topic or vital issue.

In each of you new forums, start a thread that ends in a question. At least definitely invite an answer. Start with a controversial subject, one which some guests may feel strongly about and feel the urge to become a member and post.

2) Be Honest & TransparentInternet communities are notoriously good at smelling a rat. If you're not honest, even by omission, you can get in a big trouble.

3) Provide ToolsMore and more media is not simply being passively consumed but being re-mixed. Give a community tools that they can use to upload artwork, create their own blog, or join a message board. For example, if a person is able to upload a picture of himself, dressed as a character from a game, he feels like he's actually doing something rather than just passively viewing a trailer of the game.

4) Hierarchy is importantIn a community, "elders" begin to emerge, and their opinion counts more than the opinion of someone new. You might assign points based on how many times a person has posted or how much they read on the site. A certain number of points signifies a certain rank.

5) Trust your usersGiving your users community features means giving them power -- power to leave their voice on your site, power to form an intimate, personal connection with the site and their fellow users. Don't do this unless you're prepared to treat them with respect, be honest with them, and trust them with your site. This can be hard. As the site creator you may feel compelled to control everything. Don't give in to the dark side! To raise a happy community, you've got to trust its members.

6) Create some basic guidelines and be as fair as possible

When you're the administrator on a community site, it's important that you set the examples to follow. Post regularly and intelligently, and keep a high profile on the site so others know of your presence (this keeps some troublemakers away, since they know that the site owner will quickly catch wind of their mischief). Follow the Golden Rule, treat others as you would like to be treated, and watch for unsavory patterns that form. If you catch something that's happening with some regularity, and you'd like to see it stop, make it part of the rules of the site, and explain somewhere why people shouldn't do it (start by putting a pointer somewhere near the posting forms, so curious contributors can read them if they like). Keep track of these rules, and put them somewhere people can easily find them on the site. When you have to enforce them, be nice about it, and show people the rules and how they broke them. The world isn't a black-and-white place, so a lot of things will be up to your judgement, but explain as fully as you can why you chose to enforce a certain thing, and point out what the person can do to prevent it from happening again.

What users of a community don't want to see is a headstrong leader who rules with an iron fist, and seems to take pleasure in enforcement. Users also don't want to see a leader that changes his or her mind from day to day, enforcing rules with some users, while letting friends or long time members get away with murder. Users don't want to be yelled at publicly when they make their first mistake, and they want to be given second chances. Fairness and consistency are key practices when you're running an online community.

7) Interlink Content Now that you've got community tools and content to discuss, interlink them as much as possible, at the most granular level. For example, link to a discussion about a story from the bottom of the story page, and back again. This link forms a positive feedback loop -- members of the community will be exposed to the content on your site, and readers of your content will become members of your community to discuss it. Also, the conversations will be more focused, because they're based on something specific

8) Have a place to talk about the site, somewhere on the site

I've had a lot of success with a special section of MetaFilter designed to talk about issues around the site, bugs and features users wish for, or any etiquette that may have been breached, and I created it because I noticed people were talking about the site on the site itself fairly regularly. Having a separate section conveniently allows that to run in an organized fashion, while at the same time keeping the main site free of looking like one big game of Duck-Duck-Goose. It doesn't necessarily have to be on the site itself, or even on the web. It could be a many-to-many email list for interested parties to participate in, if that will easier for you to implement.

9) Spread the work out as much as possible

If it's possible, have a few trusted friends act as moderators and administrators and allow people to contribute and streamline the code that runs the site. When the day-to-day maintenance can be spread out among several people, it's okay if someone goes on vacation, gets busy with work or gets ill, or takes some time off from the site. If lots of new features are being requested, several people can work on them, and debug them faster.

10) Deal with troublemakers as quickly and nicely as possible

If you're running a community site of some sort, there's a good chance that people are going to try and mess with it, push the envelope, and hack at it for no good reason. The important thing for you to do as the administrator is deal with problem members as soon as possible and as carefully as possible. If you act rashly, or too strongly, you may incite a casual hacker into a full-blown making-your-life-a-living-hell type of hacker. You want to defuse any situation before it gets out of hand.

Start by emailing the person as soon as you can (but give yourself a little time to think, don't send anything too rashly or in the heat of the moment), and asking them gently if perhaps they didn't catch the guidelines pages, or that you'd prefer if they did their thing in a different way. Be careful of your wording in these emails - you don't want to sound threatening or patronizing in any way. You might want to have a friend review the message before sending it to make sure it's neither of those things. A short email reminding a trouble-making member of the error of their ways can usually take care of 90% of problems. Even if a member is doing something obviously malicious, they'll usually stop when called on it.

If that doesn't stop the problem member, the next thing to do is enforce some sort of penalty. This would usually be something like taking away posting rights or moderation rights, posing some new limit on their participation in the site. You will probably want to email them, letting them know what you've done, why you've done it, and most importantly what they can do to get the ban lifted. Hopefully, you'll never need to proceed after these first two measures, because a situation can quickly escalate into a war of willpower. If you have to start banning members, doing so will prove quite difficult. You may take all rights away from their account, block their IP address or range of IP addresses, and/or remove their contributions from the site. There are trickier means of hiding a problem user's activity from the rest, but I won't go into that here. It's not a path you'll ever want to take, and no one "wins" in the end; it's just a big waste of energy for all involved.

The bottom line is to stop unsavory behavior by defusing nasty situations as early as possible, in as nice of a way as possible.

11) Highlight the good, recognize the work of others

I'm still searching for the perfect way to do this, but you'll encourage good contributions by recognizing and highlighting the best your community has to offer. This is especially true when your community is larger, and you need something to point to as a casual "Hall of Fame" that new users can take their cue from. This can take many forms, you can use voting/moderation to let the community pick its favorites, you can utilize some sort of Brownie Point system where members earn credits for good contributions which are displayed somewhere (an ego stroking stop, basically), or if you're lacking the extra technology just keep track of them by hand in a "Best of" setting.

Building an inviting place that attracts users and maintaining high quality content on a bustling community site is far from easy, but these key points should help get you going in the right direction.

12) Value added resources Industry News can aid in bulking up the board in threads quickly - particularly if you have auto replies from GoogleNews. KnowledgeBase: keep a watchful eye for the "Best Threads & Posts" that answers newbies’ questions without a continuous rehashing of the same topic... have a forum specifically for these 'shadows' so mods & active posters can reference quickly... you will also find that lurkers will congregate... that's is an advantage for advertisements and sponsorship.

13) Rules, Policies & Guidelines

In your forum insert Rules, Policies & Guidelines, so very important particularly because of cultural diversity. Get very specific about what is tolerated and what isn't - it will save lots of headaches later on since your active membership will grow and quickly point out breaches to newbies.

14) Be Innovative

Promotion, especially in the early days, will take considerable time and effort. Forums can be difficult to start (members generally are "shy" when there are only a few present), and the more posts that take place, the more individuals will join. When you start a forum, it definitely has to look active & people won't register unless they see something they want to respond to. One of the most overlooked ideas in forum development is contributing yourself. Register 5 or so names, and start new threads, and reply to them with those different names. If I go to a forum and I see 1 name with 99 posts, and 100 posts total, I'm leaving. If I see 100 posts by 25 different names, then I may stay...once the ball gets rolling, you should just use the one name you want. Another important part of starting a forum is to get friends/family/whoever to help you out with posts on the topic of the forum. Do whatever it takes to get some posts up and make it look like your forum is already an active community to someone who visits. More you and your friends post, more new members will join.

This is a "snowball" effect of forums, so marketing must be done consistently, day in and day out, until the forum becomes more self-sustaining.

15) Easy & Friendly Forum

Take care when choosing the type of forum and forum script or software that will be used. The forum should be easy to access, easy to use, and come with "visitor- friendly" features. All visitors should be made to feel welcomed and find the navigability of the forum, user friendly.

Tips & Techniques to Promote & Market Your Online Community Sites

"If you build it, they will come." Well, on the web, that's not exactly true. Publicity and marketing are crucial to your community's success. If no one knows about it, no one will show up. Depending on your community's goals, you may find that one or all of these techniques are what you need to draw traffic:

1) Banner ads

2) Advertising in your email signoff signature

3) Posting on appropriate newsgroups or in other communities

4) News releases

5) Notices or links on your home page

6) Print advertising

7) Business cards

8) Networking among those you know who would be interested

9) Pay for or Exchange Posts

You can either pay for posts or exchange them. If you want to exchange posts, I suggest you take a look http://www.adminfusion.com/forums/pfusion.php. It'll automate the entire process for you....If you are going to pay for posts, be very careful. Do some research - because most of these paid posting companies have a bad record.

10) Offer Freebies/Contests

Give your visitors more reasons to sign up. You can offer some Free stuffs, giveaways to attract users.

Also, try to have something that keeps people coming back...advice, great information, etc. A good way to get people to sign up would be to have a contest. On one of my forums, any members with at least 5 posts are entered into a contest to win a gift. This encourages visitors to register and once they do so, will post.

11) Participate in other forums

I would recommend you participate in other forums and make quality posts but use your signature to promote your forum. Post something useful and don't just plug your new site or forum; it is best to answer someone's question, proving you are knowledgeable in your subject.

1-) Registering with the forum directories

It is very important to register your forum with Forum Directories such as "TIFD"-Top International Forums Directory (http://www.TheyAboutUs.com/ForumsDirectory.htm )

Most Common Mistakes & Problems

Sometimes it is easier to think about what not to do, rather than what to do with online communities. Each community has a different purpose, target audience, and style. There are many approaches you can take. But there are a few key poison pills to avoid. Think about it. Do you want to go to the trouble of setting up a community only to doom it from the start? No? Read on.

1) Build it and expect everyone to come.

This is no field of dreams. You are in the thick of the "attention economy," and the competition is intense. Not only do you have to create a compelling purpose and setting, but you also have to let people know that the door is open and then draw them in. This includes marketing to your target audience and providing explicit, easy directions on how to find and join the conversation. Do not underestimate the time and effort this may take.

2) Control it to death.

The people who join your community are just that: people. Most do not like to feel controlled. As the community host, you have the delicate role of balancing order and spontaneity. You want to create an environment in which people will feel comfortable participating. Once people start participating, they feel a sense of ownership, which in turn motivates them to keep participating. But remember, sometimes the good stuff happens on the margin of order and chaos. Try to allow that emergent space to exist in your community.

3) Forget it

Ever arrived at a party and wondered where the host was? Where the chips were? Arrived at a dance to find the hall empty and silent? If you make the commitment to build an online space, plan to visit it very regularly -- perhaps daily! People take their cue from you. If you participate daily, they are far more likely to follow suit. If you are invisible, they will disappear as well.

4) Make it too complicated.

This is neither a jigsaw puzzle nor a rat maze. If your members have to wade through too much clutter to find something of interest, they won't stick around. Don't start with too many spaces or topics. Let the space grow organically. This evolutionary approach gives your members the chance to contribute. This will create a win-win situation.

5) Take it too personally

A little perspective goes a long way in online communities. This is your baby. You dreamed it up and set it up, and now you might find yourself taking it a bit too seriously. Keep your perspective and sense of humor. When you find yourself overreacting to people's posts, step back and remember that sometimes we interpret the written word differently than the spoken word because we don't get any nonverbal cues from the speaker. Let it roll off your back. Breathe deeply.

Online communities are, in the end, an experiment in human interaction. Jump in and explore.

6) Don't forget the content! Community features, on their own, do not a community make. One of the most common mistakes I've seen is to forget that people need something to talk about. Don't just stick a chat room in a corner of your site; give it a daily theme. Don't add a discussion tool without also adding something to discuss.

7) Don't try to control the messageA brand used to be able to carry a company through hard times. Today, brands can't trust that anymore, because the minute a company does something "wrong," it's dissected online. If you decide not to put up a message board because you're afraid people might write something negative about you, you're simply hiding your head in the sand. Instead, learn from what is being said.

8) Don't call it a communityCommunity membership is a very personal decision -- it taps into a person's deepest self-image. It's something that members have to decide for themselves -- you can't decide it for them. So I advise my clients to build the tools, make the content, and create an experience that is conducive to community. If you do all this, and do it well, your members will call it a community for you.

9) Too many categories to start

If you have too many categories to start with could slow down your forum’s growth. After starting a few different boards, it's quite obvious to me that having only 3 or 4 forums is the best way to start. If you have 100 threads spread out over 10 forums, it doesn't look anywhere near as active as 10 threads in 3 forums. You'll get more responses, more new threads, and more new user registrations. Wait for quite a while before adding extra forums/categories.

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Karo Yegyan
Karo Yegyan

Karo Yegyan – Webmaster & Administrator of

"TIFD" (Top International Forums Directory),  "Flat World" Forum & TheyAboutUs.com cultural & Ethnic Site.

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