Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How to nurture an online community

Like gardens, online communities need weeding and feeding to grow and thrive. Prospero Technology's VP explains.

Online communities are everywhere and more are popping up every day. Why? Simple fact: Communities help brands. Research shows that online community users spend 54 percent more than non-community users (eBay, 2006). Virtual forums also promote a much higher rate of customer satisfaction when compared to other forms of interaction. According to a recent Jupiter study, customers report good experiences in forums more than twice as often as they do via calls or mail.

Online communities are an incredibly valuable asset. It is your chance to speak directly with your customers or, if you prefer, just observe customers speaking with each other. There is a wealth of insight and opportunity to be gained, but you must first make sure you manage your online meeting place effectively and take the time to cultivate it properly. Most forums need to be tended like gardens, with moderation (weeding) and guidelines (feeding), to be productive.

In some cases you want to maintain a narrow, targeted interaction -- to keep the discussion focused and current. An example would be Fox's "American Idol" site, where discussions revolve around the most recent shows and who was kicked off that week.

You can see an example of an alternative approach on iVillage. People participating in iVillage's parenting forums, for example, frequently jump from parenting-specific topics to current events to life events such as work challenges or family illness. These forums are less focused, but quite often are characterized by stronger emotional ties.

It's up to you to set the guidelines. But, no matter what rules you put in place, online communities require constant monitoring and some level of moderation in order to succeed. Here are some important points to keep in mind for your online community:

Maintain focus
The success of your community will rely on your ability to maintain the focus of the forums. Some suggestions include:

  • Policies and guidelines should be as straightforward as possible to avoid questions and confusion. You should always have the ability to remove any content from your community area for any reason.
  • Stay in touch with topical current events; mine content from daily news events, using news and topical websites to assist and guide interaction.
  • Revive conversations that run out of momentum, or end them graciously.
  • Keep users informed of company news.
  • High levels of participation are not necessary; you just have to make sure that your community members feel comfortable within the community so they will participate when the time calls for it. Participation for the sake of participation can water down the community.
  • Make sure your early adopters are appropriate community role models.
  • As the community expands, begin to build niche communities of interest within the community.

Don't go it alone
To do the above for a successful, robust community can be a daunting task. In some cases, it makes sense to work with a third-party partner to help the moderation process in high traffic communities. A professional moderation team can help provide front-line support to users, as well as in-depth analysis to help you better understand the interests and needs of your customers. For instance, your moderation partner can assist in:

  • Maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all community members.
  • Seeding new discussions and pruning existing ones to ensure robust interactions.
  • Helping new users get comfortable and answering questions from the entire community.
  • Performing regular sweeps of community content to remove offensive messages as well as members who are intentionally/habitually disruptive or abusive.
  • Compiling a weekly report that summarizes ongoing conversations and interactions of the communities and analyzes trends.

In addition, once your company's online community is up and running, it requires a number of important roles to make it a success. Some of these roles you should consider are:

Community Manager

  • Maintains the community vision.
  • Develops, implements and maintains the forums' taxonomy.
  • Works with content producers and business development personnel to maximize user interaction between the forums and the main site (includes promotion and marketing).
  • Develops and implements user guidelines.
  • Acts on forum issues escalated by hosts.
  • Writes reports on community performance.
  • Helps hosts with initiation and facilitation where needed.
  • Is on the lookout for new topics of relevance.
  • Depending on the budget, may also perform host and monitor duties.
  • Has a firm grasp of the average community user's experience as the community evolves.


  • Welcomes new users, establishes authority, ground rules and tone.
  • Begins topical discussions with the first few posts (called seeding).
  • Answers questions and provides follow up (called facilitating).
  • Escalates issues that can't be immediately resolved to the community manager.
  • Writes reports on activity.
  • Keeps discussions and chats focused, engaging, robust and informative.
  • Issues warnings and disciplines users.
  • Identifies and rewards leaders in the user population.
  • Identifies community benchmarks, such as users scheduling face-to-face meetings or beginning to defend each other.
  • Hosts may also perform monitoring duties.


  • Reads every new post on an assigned schedule, i.e. every six hours.
  • Makes sure each post is on topic and conforms to the user guidelines.
  • Writes reports on community activity.
  • Escalates issues to the host and/or community manager.
  • Identifies under-utilized forums for increased promotion and host action.

Online communities, when properly tended, grow into lush, green gardens, free of weeds and producing the flowers of great customer relations and brand loyalty.

Rusty Williams is co-founder and vice president, Prospero Technologies. Read full bio.

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