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A Primer for Building Online Community

by Toby Bloomberg  |  
April 18, 2007

From Usenet of the 1980s to MySpace, Second Life and Daily Fix almost 30 years later, people have created valued relationships online. When blogs entered the virtual scene they provided an opportunity for anyone with an internet connection to build their own community.

Ann Handley, the fearless leader of Daily Fix, makes it seem effortless. Have you ever wondered what goes behind the scenes to that makes a successful online community?
Nancy White, Full Circle, has helped organizations develop online communities for over a decade. She graciously agreed to share her insights. However, Nancy goes beyond answering a few questions to providing a Primer of Online Community Best Practices.
Toby: How do you define community online?
Nancy: First, it is important to distinguish between community as an overall descriptor and online community. Sometimes we mean we use online tools to support a community that may have many other aspects offline. Other times we mean groups of people that almost only connect online. For the latter, I define online community as a group of people with some shared interest who connect and interact with each other over time. Relationship of some sort is implied.
Compared to networks, communities have an "in and an out." Membership has some defining element - a login, a place where you have to join. A way where your membership is made visible. Networks are often the containers for communities -- where a node grows dense with connections.
I think today we talk about them interchangeably which is sometimes useful, but not always. What I also see is that the line between community and network is fuzzy. Which makes that space very interesting and pregnant with possibility.
Toby: What makes a community successful?
Nancy: This is highly context dependent. The one thing that seems to show up is some sort of shared purpose. But other than that, the variables are huge.
Small communities may be successful because of the depth of relationships, while large communities are successful for their breadth of relationships. Diversity can be the life pulse of one, and tear apart another. Like our offline communities, success is a complex interaction of factors, circumstances and sometimes just plain luck and timing.
If you ask the question from a commercial perspective, or from the perspective of someone trying to convene a community, I think we can think of factors that impact success:
1) Is the purpose clear? Shared?
2) Is there the useful level of identity for members? (Sometimes anonymity is the key, sometimes it is not, for example)
3) Is the means of interaction, the technology, appropriate to the community's desired activities and technology inclinations? Techie communities may look technologically very different from communities that serve second wave adopters.
4) Is there the right level of organization and facilitation? Different groups embrace more or less emergence or order. When I bake, I need a recipe so the cake rises and I follow it carefully. When I cook soup, it is taste, experiment and adjust. Communities need the same range.
5) Is there the right balance of interaction and content. Content draws us and helps focus our attention. Interaction engages us, creates bonds that strengthen interaction.
6) Is there the right level of trust? The recent situation with Kathy Sierra shows us that in our open, unbounded networks, we often don't know enough to clearly figure out what is going on and that can be threatening or liberating.
7) Are there enough bridge builders and connectors to weave the community together? These are really important actors in communities.
Toby: What should community "builders" the people behind the scenes do to engage members?
Nancy: There is a lot of good advice out there already. Interestingly, I don't think it has changed much in the 10 years I've been involved. That would be an interesting retrospective study! Here are a few of the golden oldies.
Listen to them! Build from where they start and where they want to go. This is the spark for the fire. If you ask for feedback, use it as much as you can otherwise you won't get any more feedback and the community will disappear.
Create just enough structure to create just enough comfort and navigability - don't over build, over legislate or over formalize, especially at the start. It's like making a wind break to get the fire going. You need a little wind, not a gale.
Use the power of invitation - questions that beg answers, ideas that stimulate our interest and imagination. For communities where people come to get and offer expertise, don't YOU tell them everything they need, create the space where they can invite and engage each other. Think of this is nice, dry kindling.
1) When the embers are burning bright, get out of the way. Sit back and enjoy your s'more. You can kill a community by overdoing it.
2) Role model the behavior you want to see. Take the high road.
3) Don't assume you understand what is going on - ask and learn more. Get multiple perspectives before you take action or make changes.
Toby: Where do you see the future of online communities heading?
Nancy: Some of the changes I see are:
Less concern about changing tools and platforms than before. People are getting more agile. Likewise, they are leaving faster. So fast adoption may also mean fast desertion. Maybe we need to think of community life cycles as something shorter and more ephemeral.
The challenge of multi-membership - at some point, how many networks and communities can we belong to? This is both a social and technical question. Single ID's, portable identity tools kick in on the tech side. But seriously, at some point one can only meaningfully participate in a set number of communities. So we'll see some fallout.
Multilingual communities (is this just in my dreams) where we can engage across cultures and languages in new ways. This is probably the optimist in me.
The dark side of community will show up again and again. Community is not a value neutral word.
Thank you Nancy .. birds of a feather do indeed flock together!

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Toby Bloomberg
President of Atlanta-based Bloomberg Marketing

Toby is passionate about helping companies create strategies that harness the power of social media communications. She believes that social media marketing can go steps beyond traditional offline/online marketing to create corner grocery store relationships with customers and other stakeholders.

She works with organizations to develop traditional/new social media integrated marketing plans that result in reaching business and marketing goals/objectives. Toby also spends lot of her time on the road speaking to marketers at conferences and company sponsored workshops about the importance of businesses taking an active role in these new conversations.

She made blogs and blogging understandable. Her presentation was fun, informative rich and I'd recommend Toby to anyone interested in getting the scoop on blogging. Lorin R. Robinson, 3M

Toby’s main squeeze blog, Diva Marketing was required reading for several higher ed marketing courses: University of Delaware, Atlanta Art Institute, Bentley College and the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Find Toby Blogging at:
Diva Marketing
Blogger Stories
Business Blog Consultant
The Medical Blog Network
Corante Marketing Network

..and of course Marketing Profs!

She services on the boards of the Atlanta Interactive Marketing Association, American Marketing Association and is a teaching artist for the Alliance Theatre. Toby holds a degree from Emerson College and has performed post-baccalaureate studies at Emory University.

Although she now calls Atlanta home - with her Westie pup Max - Toby is a Yankee from Boston who still loves ice cones with chocolate jimmies.

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  • by Mack Collier Wed Apr 18, 2007 via blog

    "Listen to them! Build from where they start and where they want to go. This is the spark for the fire. If you ask for feedback, use it as much as you can otherwise you won't get any more feedback and the community will disappear." Great advice and great interview Toby, thanks for sharing!

  • by Toby Wed Apr 18, 2007 via blog

    Mack - Excellent point. Providing feedback with no one listening (or responding) is the antithesis of the concept of building "community."

  • by David Reich Thu Apr 19, 2007 via blog

    I think another thing we must remember is to have patience. It takes time to build a community. When I started to blog, Seth Godin told me to be patient, they will come. I'm seeing it's true online beyond blogging. Thanks for sharing this with us, Toby.

  • by Elaine Fogel Mon Apr 23, 2007 via blog

    This is great, Toby. I'm going to share this with a local consultants' group to which I belong, as we're trying to build our own online community.

  • by jay Rush Fri Apr 24, 2009 via blog

    Great points. Another: I've been witness to the fact that specialization, especially community goals that result in the greater good (not just a commercial trend, or a marketing ploy), tends to gather consistent and focused activity.

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