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Online social communities are all the rage these days. Sites such as MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook have grabbed headlines over the past year or so as examples of how to create successful online communities.

As a result, many have tried to emulate these sites and create vibrant online communities... with mixed results.

Those who wish to create a successful online community should follow some key steps to ensure their project's success.

This article will walk you through the most common steps in the evolution of your online-community project from an idea to a group of users to a passionate community.

1. Consider why you want to create an online community

The great temptation is to view an online community as a revenue source. But to have a successful community you must first give something of value to your visitors. Users come together and coalesce into a community because they enjoy each other's company and share a sense of ownership in something larger than themselves. Communities do not form around the idea of being monetized.

If you create a vibrant community, you will be able to later monetize that community, and your users will be fine with that because you are providing them with a place and reason to come together. But monetizing your community should never be your primary concern, and your users will leave you if it is.

Key action point: The creation of an online community should never be seen as a money-making venture. As your community is created and grows, you will have opportunities to indirectly make money from it. But your primary goal should be the creation and growth of your community. Users will not invest their time and energy into making you money. If your motivation is to create an online community to serve as a source of revenue, it's best that you drop the project now, because you are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

2. Give users a clear benefit

As soon as users arrive at your site/forum/blog/service, they must have easy access to what you are offering and they must quickly understand why they should be interested in it. This is especially true for search engine traffic, which is likely arriving at your site for the first time.

Providing a clear benefit is probably the biggest hurdle to clear, because there are so many choices available online. But if you can cut through the clutter by giving users something that they can't find anywhere else, or at least give them content and information in a better package than they can find elsewhere, you'll create excitement for your site. Which is a great foundation for creating an online community.

Key action point: Make sure to spell out clearly what the purpose of your site/forum/blog/service is, so that anyone visiting you for the first time can easily determine whether it's where they belong. Information explaining your purpose should be easy to access: Create a highly visible "About Us/FAQ" section on your site's homepage. Once users realize what you are offering, then they are far more likely to explore your site and tell others about it.

3. Give your users the ability to create, share, and exchange content

This step is vital in creating a community, as it gives users the ability to create and interact with each other's content. As a result, users will build off of what other users are creating, and a sort of teamwork in content creation develops. Once a user shares her content with other users, and that content becomes altered and shaped by others, then ownership of the content has been transferred from the individual to a group of users. This goes to the heart of creating a community.

Key action point: A vital step in creating a community is giving users the ability to create original content, and to share that content with other users. It can be something as simple as an online forum, or a user-submitted product design that users can alter or vote on. When you give users the ability to create and then share content, they want to see that content grow and thrive. Communities form when you give users a sense of ownership in something larger than themselves.

4. Create ways to spotlight and reward the efforts of your community evangelists

As your community begins to grow, you will discover that some users are taking a more active role in this growth, perhaps by creating more content or helping other users. When you notice this happening, make a point to let the rest of your community know that you appreciate the efforts of these special users.

Doing so not only lets them know that their efforts are appreciated but also encourages other users to take a greater role in the community.

Key action point: Look for ways to put the spotlight on, and reward, your most active community members. You might give them a greater role within the community, such as making them moderators. That also helps to transfer ownership of the community to its users; those who are acknowledged for their good efforts are more likely to evangelize your community to others.

5. Be a member of your community

Participating in the community you have created not only gives you a better understanding of what does and does not work in the space but also allows your wants and needs to become those of the community. That is why Step No. 1 is so important: If you are a member of your community, then you share the community's desire to see it grow and you are participating in the space for the same reason that your users are.

If you instead decide to isolate yourself from your community and seek ways to monetize what your users have created, they will feel as if you are taking advantage of them, and they will leave. But when you are in this space alongside your users and are participating for the same reasons they are, your community grows all the more stronger.

Key action point: Make every effort to participate in your community. This allows you to stay in constant contact with your users and understand what works and what does not in that space. Participate in the community in the same way your users do, so you can experience first-hand what your users do. It also becomes easier to understand the feedback and concerns raised by your community.

6. Give your community multiple tools for leaving feedback

Make every effort to make it as easy as possible for your users to ask you questions and raise concerns. And make every effort to constantly monitor feedback that your users are leaving. This makes you more responsive, especially to time-sensitive issues that your community might attempt to warn you about. Being able to quickly respond at such times tells your community that you are listening to what they have to say and that you value their feedback and opinions.

Key action point: Add as many feedback mechanisms as possible in your community. Give your users the ability to contact you within the community as well as making your email and, if possible, phone numbers available. Also, add a section where users can leave suggestions on how the community can be improved. In keeping with Step No. 4, reward the best suggestions from your users so that they have incentive to provide useful suggestions in the future.

7. Look for ways to share potential revenue with your community

As your community grows, you'll have opportunities to monetize the space you have created. But when you consider your options, always examine any potential revenue possibilities as a way to also add value to your community.

Doing so helps to strengthen your community and sends a strong message to users that your chief concern is not to make money off them but to continue to support the growth of the space that you share with them—this ties back to Step No. 1. You will be able to generate revenue from your community, but you should also look for ways to share the benefits with your community.

Key action point: Whenever you consider monetizing your online community, always consider how your community will benefit from the move. Instead of simply running banner ads that might not be relevant to your users, what about trying a sponsorship or co-branded campaign that awards cash or prizes to your users? Your thinking should always be "what is my community getting from this?" If you can't answer that question, then it's probably best to change the direction of your monetization efforts.

8. Be patient

Sometimes vibrant communities can spring up quickly, but more often than not they take a great amount of time and energy to create. Even well-known sites such as MySpace and Facebook that are considered to have successful online communities took years to achieve success. View your community as a labor of love that you must give constant care to and nurture if you want to see it reach its potential.

Key action point: Understand, up front, that creating a vibrant online community requires a long-term commitment. Think again of Step No. 1: If you try to create an online community just to monetize it, you'll likely never have the patience required to give users time to merge into a vibrant community. Go into your project assuming that it will take years to create a vibrant community. With proper planning and dedication to your users, you might shorten that timeframe; but if you can't make the long-term commitment that's usually required to create a vibrant online community, it's best to abandon your project before you start.

***

Lessons learned: To create a successful online community, you must focus your project on providing value to your users. Look at your project through the eyes of your users. A great way to do this is to join your users in this space and interact with them as they do with each other.

By using your site/blog/forum/service as your users do, you understand the issues, good and bad, that they are encountering, and that helps you focus your efforts with your users' interests in mind.

But, above all else, you should never attempt to create an online community with the intention of creating a money-making effort. If your passion is in monetizing your community, then you are not on the same page as your users, because they won't come to your space just to be monetized.

You have to provide them with value, and you need to be a member of the community you create. That's the only way that your wants and needs can be shifted to also become those of your users. And when that happens, you are well on your way to creating a vibrant community that you and your members can enjoy for years to come!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

image of Mack Collier

Mack Collier is a social-media strategist based in Alabama. He helps companies build programs and initiatives that let them better connect with their customers and advocates. His podcast, The Fan-Damn-Tastic Marketing Show, discusses ways that brands can turn customers into fans. His first book, Think Like a Rock Star: How to Create Social Media and Marketing Strategies That Turn Customers Into Fans, was published in April 2013 by McGraw-Hill.

Twitter: @MackCollier

LinkedIn: Mack Collier