How to Host an Online Community
Learn everything that goes into hosting an online community to decide whether or not you should take the hosting plunge.
Hi there, The Digital Marketer here, ready to help you put the power of the Internet and technology to work for your business.
A Twitter follower of mine asked if I'd do a show about the pros and cons of hosting an online community, so here it is. Should you or should you not embark on the development, building, cultivating, moderating, and managing of an online community?
Should You Host an Online Community?
My advice to others regarding online community hosting has been the same for over 15 years. Do it if you have a strategic reason to do so and if you have the resources to grow and manage it properly. If you can't do it well, why bother?
What Does it Mean to Host an Online Community?
But what do I mean by hosting an online community well? A good community host has the following:
- A topic or theme that people are passionate about.
- Clear and fair community policies and guidelines established before the community opens.
- People to invite into the community who are passionate community members and good conversationalists.
- Easy-to-use and easy-to-manage forum software for a good end-user experience. Using good software will also help you avoid a lot of tech headaches.
- A strong community host or hostess—who could be you--who is skilled and adept at being an online host.
- The right balance of moderating, managing, policing, and punishing to keep the community vibrant and engaging. And yes, you will at times have to "punish" someone by banning them from the group for inappropriate behavior.
Other Things to Consider
Are you still on board with the idea of hosting an online community? If everything I've mentioned so far doesn't scare you away from becoming a community or forum host, how about this:
You may want to check with a lawyer to see what kind of legal liabilities you-or your company or organization- might have by hosting an online forum. Many major companies decide not to attach their name to a forum because somebody might blame the company for things that community members post. Do you know what your legal liabilities are in terms of online communities and how to limit them? Disclaimers and disclosures can only go so far.
How to Host an Online Community
If you're still on board with hosting a forum, there are several ways to do this with relative ease.
Use blog comments: Cultivate the community that can form on your blog through blog comments. If you already have a blog, you have a built-in conversational forum in the comments section. If you aren't getting blog comments, it could be a sign that you aren't very good at cultivating community. If you have a very active blog community, you could potentially move the discussions to an actual forum.
Use an existing community: You can also go into an existing community where members are allowed to start their own conversation threads or discussion groups, however, keep in mind that what you create within someone else's community might not be owned by you or easily transferred to your very own forum setting when you decide to try to move it.
Use Facebook: A popular place to start an online community where you have more control is on your company or organization's Facebook Page. The Discussion tab is a default feature on Facebook Pages and is reminiscent of early Web-based messaging boards. Facebook Groups are also an option but not an ideal place for a company-run forum because they require a lot of upkeep.
Try a Ning community: If you want to get more ambitious about building and hosting a community online, try Ning.com. Though the service's free level does have Google Ads automatically displayed on the side of your community, most people aren't distracted by them and can focus on the interactions within the Ning Forums and the Ning Groups where community members split off into more narrow affinity groups.
Control the Creation of New Topics at the Beginning
One trick to starting an online community to help build critical mass is to control the creation of new topics and new groups at the beginning. If you create too many topics or groups to follow and join, you end up segmenting your community members too quickly and diluting the power of many people speaking about the same thing. Open up new topics for discussion as members request them or to maintain the clarity of a particular conversation.
If you decide to give others the ability to start discussion topics or form new sub-groups, provide guidelines so the growth of the community is organic, well-managed and focused.
There are many software solutions you can use for hosting an online forum or community. I'll cover those in a future show.
Bottom Line: Hosting an online forum or community takes a commitment of both time and attention. Lulls in conversation can kill a community so if you don't think you can keep up with the demand or can't find others to help you manage your community, then hosting an online community just might not be the right tactic for you.
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1. Facebook - http://www.facebook.com
2. Ning - http://www.ning.com
Online Community image courtesy of Shutterstock