95 things I have learnt in 9 years of community building

by Martin Reed on 28 April 2009 in Articles

community building experience

I have been a community builder for over nine years. In this time I have learnt a lot, and I am still learning. Here are 95 things I have learnt so far:

1. You need to know why you want an online community.

2. A strong community cannot be built quickly.

3. You need to have specific goals and targets.

4. Technology doesn’t matter.

5. Planning a community should take longer than the design and coding stage.

6. Starting an online community is the most exciting stage of community building.

7. Developing and managing a successful online community is the most rewarding part of community building.

8. Dormant online communities can be turned around.

9. Ads shouldn’t distract from your content and they should never have more prominence than the community.

10. Never hide your community – it doesn’t belong behind a ‘community’ tab.

11. Make sure members are able to invite friends to your community easily.

12. Poaching members from other online communities rarely works.

13. Social bookmarking traffic is next to worthless. Don’t bother chasing it.

14. Search engine rankings do help and they do matter. Don’t get obsessed, though.

15. Paid advertising won’t always get you the right members for your community.

16. Google is fickle.

17. You will deal with more spam than you ever thought possible.

18. You need to watch what your competitors are doing.

19. Competitors will try to steal your members.

20. There is nothing wrong with stealing ideas as long as you don’t copy them.

21. Befriending your competitors is a good idea.

22. Keep your community as open as possible.

23. Don’t be fooled into thinking members will use features even if they requested those features.

24. Keep features down to a minimum.

25. Your reputation is important. Defend it.

26. Expand your community slowly.

27. Change your community rarely.

28. You don’t need expensive software.

29. You don’t need a flashy design.

30. Your community needs to be easy to use.

31. You need to go and find new members – they won’t always come to you.

32. A lot of people won’t understand what you do for a living.

33. If you don’t regularly backup, you’ll be punished.

34. One day, you will need to ban someone from your community.

35. You will be called names, and you will face abuse.

36. All online communities need to have visible (and enforced) guidelines and rules.

37. You have a responsibility to educate your members about staying safe when online.

38. You need to highlight the best content and give strong calls to action.

39. You don’t need money to build a successful online community.

40. You need to know what your visitors are doing when on your site.

41. You need to know how visitors are finding your site.

42. You need to know how visitors are interacting with your site.

43. You need to install something at least as good as Google Analytics.

44. Link exchanges can still provide some value, but don’t spend too much time on them.

45. If you encourage abuse and arguments, your community will be a hive of negativity.

46. Controversy and suspense encourages activity, but see point 45.

47. Asking questions is the single most effective way of generating activity in an online community.

48. You need to share information about yourself.

49. You need to be approachable.

50. You need to be consistent.

51. You need to be personable.

52. You need to be visible.

53. You need to be proactive.

54. You need to be involved in the community.

55. You will make mistakes.

56. Sometimes you will need to say sorry.

57. Your successes will tempt you to forget about your mistakes. Don’t.

58. Sometimes your community will disappoint you.

59. Sometimes your community will overwhelm you.

60. Sometimes your community will make you proud.

61. Sometimes you’ll feel as though your entire community is against you.

62. Never give cash to your members.

63. Competitions need to be thought out very carefully. They are rarely effective.

64. You need to act as a matchmaker by introducing members to other members.

65. Sometimes you’ll just get lucky. There’s no shame in that.

66. Sometimes you’ll be unlucky – you’ll need to work even harder.

67. You’ll make friends.

68. You’ll make enemies.

69. Sometimes you’ll want to quit.

70. Sometimes you’ll want to work 24 hours every day.

71. You need to cater to your members – not your own wants or needs.

72. Trust is critical.

73. You need to give out a lot of ego strokes and compliments.

74. You should always try to say yes.

75. Sometimes you will need to say no.

76. You can’t please everyone.

77. Some members will always complain.

78. You will feel humbled by your online community.

79. Your members will not always say things you want to hear.

80. Do not edit or delete negative comments about your brand. Respond to them openly.

81. The more you moderate or intervene, the less active your community will be.

82. You need to delegate some tasks to trusted members.

83. You should give trusted members additional responsibilities and powers.

84. Your moderators need to know exactly what is expected of them.

85. Don’t focus solely on your power members.

86. You need to work hard to get dormant members active and involved.

87. You can’t predict the future.

88. You can’t be afraid to experiment.

89. You need to be original and come up with new ideas.

90. Your community needs to be different.

91. It can be easy to forget that a real person sits behind every member name.

92. You need to be passionate about your online community.

93. A community cannot be declared a success based on member count alone.

94. Online communities need a dedicated community manager.

95. Being a community manager is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world.

I deliberately stopped short of 100. Having 100 points could imply that this list is comprehensive and covers everything. It may also suggest I have nothing more to learn. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

What have you learnt in your time as a community builder?

Share this community building advice


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Marc Sirkin April 28, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Thanks for this post – totally love the list and wish I had something to add to it, but you’ve done an amazing job. #94 is my personal favorite, although #1 is pretty strong as well :)

Mr Woc April 28, 2009 at 5:10 pm

Hi there

Nice list I might have a go at doing something like that myself, some good ones in there dont agree with some of them mind lol.

I think I would have added dont be afraid to experiament and change things !


Martin Reed - Blog Author April 28, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Mr Woc – What points don’t you agree with? Please don’t be afraid to disagree – I would love to know where and how your opinion differs. Differences of opinion force us to think harder and become better at what we do.

Re “I think I would have added dont be afraid to experiament and change things !” – I agree. See point #88 – You canít be afraid to experiment. ;)

P Tangney April 28, 2009 at 5:33 pm

I’ve learned to rely on community spark for guidance.

Tyler Conlee April 28, 2009 at 8:01 pm

You’ve got some really good points there. I’m not sure if you remember me from an earlier post. I was working on the website “Gunn3r Games”. For various reasons, (like the fact that I needed to move to a new webhost, and I wanted to have a brand that wasn’t so focused on MY specific games, but rather a generic name which anyone could be a part of), I switched hosts and names to Molten Byte Design. I’m currently planning out a community using your wonderful site, while it’s being coded by the programmer on our “staff”. I was very pleased with the success of Gunn3r Games, up until it died out and the moderators and I were the only ones on the site for about a month. This time around, I will start my community based off of your website, and these points. Hopefully it’ll produce a better result than the last one.

(And I recently added you on Twitter, hence the MoltenByte)

Randy Brown April 28, 2009 at 10:22 pm

#96: long lists are really hard to read

Bob Sloan April 29, 2009 at 6:33 am

Great list! U seem to have thought of it all, and as the list shows, not an easy job to run a community. I ran into a lot of problems running a forum, but maybe following your list will help.

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 29, 2009 at 8:24 am

Randy – Ouch! Was it so hard that the only thing you got from the article was frustration? I would love to know how to make long lists more readable – any suggestions?

Olivier Biot April 29, 2009 at 8:42 am

I recognized most of the items in this list.

One that I don’t see covered yet is managing your expectations w.r.t. the possible level of commitment of your members to participate actively on the community. This is particularly difficult to achieve in communities where you want the members to participate during their paid office time.

Nicole Price April 30, 2009 at 9:46 am

I am still learning. This list in many ways is frightening that there could be so many things that can go wrong!

Jason April 30, 2009 at 11:32 am

Nicole, the thing with community building is that many problems can be fixed as you go along. This list is really good to know what to look out for but you don’t exactly need to check all of these all of your list before you start a community :)

Randy Brown April 30, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Hey Martin; I was just giving you a hard time.. Lot’s of good info in there – just took a while to read.

Ray May 1, 2009 at 8:45 am

Just when I thought Community Spark couldn’t get any better, it just did! Fantastic list.

Another tip – think about what you call your forum and what domain name you use. People tend to remember the ‘.com’ version of your forum name and will frequently type in your forum name followed by ‘.com’ almost automatically. This is important if you use a domain other than a .com. Same goes with hyphenated domains – some people forget about the hyphen altogether! Having said that, there are plenty of examples of very successful communities that break all these rules!

Justin May 2, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Yes #17 about getting more spam than I ever wanted. Its amazing how crazy spammers get in trying to autocomment on blogs making it so obvious its spam!

Nicole Price May 5, 2009 at 9:58 am

Jason, that is reassuring. I have had some bad experiences as a member of a couple of communities about which I have commented earlier too. It would be nice if one could look at it from the point of view of members with first hand experience of what not to do before starting of a community.

Nicole Price May 5, 2009 at 10:01 am

Justin, even for individual blogs, spammers are getting to be too much of a pain, particularly with a lot of them in Russian. So, I am not surprised that even communities are targeted.

Jeremy May 9, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Great list Martin. This is a must read for anyone looking to start an online community. So many people jump into starting a community without the slightest clue of what is actually involved.

Chris May 9, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Thankfully blogs have great plugins that automatically block spam without you even knowing. Forums are a bit more work.

Steve May 12, 2009 at 12:03 am

Hi Martin,

Thanks for this detailed list about your experience over nine years of community building. Regarding “13. Social bookmarking traffic is next to worthless. Donít bother chasing it.” I have been trying to get on the front page of Digg for awhile now, without success. In recent months I have gave up on social bookmarking besides using it for building backlinks. Thank you again for this in-depth ,very well written and easy to read list.

Martin I want you to know that I really like that you actively participate in your comments and reply to comments on your blog. Most blogs do not take the time to do this, and it is very appreciated.

Joseph Bennett June 2, 2009 at 12:56 am

Great list Martin, I agree with Chris, thank goodness that Wordpress and other kinds of blogs have software and plugins too block all the spam we get daily.

Robert Brown June 13, 2009 at 3:24 am

Some really great points here Martin. One of the hardest things for us to do is “Befriending your competitors” because most of us think of them as our enemies ( or competition of course ). I have made friends with my competitors and they have helped me a lot over the years, and my community was better off for it.

Shawn July 2, 2009 at 9:54 am

Awesome list; I’ve found that 12 and 13 can work though. Often times there’s a small network of people who have a community, but they’re lacking either content, sufficient activity, or are just unsatisfied with the community that they are at. One of my recent communities actually got most of its initial members (and still active 1.5 years later!) from another community when they did not approve of a change that went on. This obviously won’t happen in every circumstance, and we were a “victim” of great timing, but it has worked well for us.

gaus surahman July 5, 2009 at 6:28 pm

I have built and prepared a local community site since 2007. A lot of useful features that mimick 60% of what facebook has. Last month I got stuck on the fact that I had to quit my formal job. I had to discontinue the project and shut down two sites of mine until I am ready with the finance. What I am learning here is, even when you are well prepared for the back and front end of the site, you are not totally ready to go with no cash available :) I hope I never wasted my two years time, as I can spread what I have learned through any tutorial on my personal site for other people’s highest good instead.

Thanks for great list of community building. Bookmarked for deeper study :)

Dylan Purdy September 27, 2009 at 8:42 am

Great list Martin, Thanks for the heads up… Not sure I agree with number 4 though… maybe a few years ago.

Al Williams September 30, 2009 at 8:12 am

This has to be the most comprehensive list I have ever seen on Online Communities. Couldn’t you have just thought of 5 more though! ;) the bloosphere loves their round numbers!

Gouri November 7, 2009 at 11:30 am

Same as Randy.. Long list but then lot of useful info..

And this one was funny: A lot of people wonít understand what you do for a living :-)

Paul November 14, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Wow simply amazing list. 9 years of community building experience is amazing.

Thanks for sharing this wealth of information.

Jen November 17, 2009 at 6:30 pm

Definitely agree with #55 (you’ll make mistakes.) You definitely need to be willing to try things as a community builder. Mistakes are unavoidable

Richard December 4, 2009 at 11:57 am

Shortcut for all this, find an offline community that doesn’t have web presence yet. You have to somewhat like their theme though. (certain type of car club, bike, walking group etc)

You can steer them into your theme later on. Tricky but work

Dale C December 10, 2009 at 1:07 pm

So what free forum software do people reccomend to avoid getting too many spam posts? I’m using SMF 1.1.1 at the moment and I’m getting too much spam and cant seem to get the anti spam tools to work.

Martin Reed - Community Manager December 15, 2009 at 11:30 am

Dale – The software has little to do with it; you need to just use the tools the software provides, as well as your own dedication and observation.

Phil January 2, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Dear Martin
Thanks for sharing this very useful list that will help with our community.
I manage some kind of local community website and I found most of the list very correct.
I have some doubts with #39 which says we donít need money to build a successful online community. In my opinion you cant ignore the cost of the time that we invest in our community. neither the alternative income which we lose while handling it.

Andy Jones January 6, 2010 at 7:33 am

Thanks for sharing this list. I’ve tried to build an online community before, but just didnt have the patience to moderate all the comments, a lot of which was spam. Maybe patience shoudl be added as requirement no. 96!

Billy January 6, 2010 at 7:37 am

51. May be a little hard if you grow a little too big to handle all the personal interaction… Surely you get to the point where things are more automated

Martin Reed - Community Manager January 6, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Billy – Size doesn’t really matter; you can still reach out to individuals every now and then. You don’t need to have individual conversations with every single member of your community in order to be personable.

feamor January 16, 2010 at 9:22 am

Wow, thanks for the great list Martin.

I am developing my first forum now and I I think these points will be very helpfull for me while i am deciding what to do and facing with problems.

#80. Do not edit or delete negative comments about your brand. Respond to them openly.

I think, this one is very important. In many communities, mostly in arguements, i saw that all the replies under a post can become unclear or people can misjudge because author of the first post deleted or edited his/her post after a long list of replies.

In my opinion, if you wrote something, you should stand behind your ideas and your post. You shouldn’t edit it because of the negative replies or if you see some mistake. If you want to edit something or change your idea, you should have the courage to say that you made a mistake and you can send another post saying; “edit: in my first post…”.

Because of these reasons, i will disable editing and deleting posts ability. Maybe, many of people will complain about it but i think, this is the way that it should be. Also, i think, deleting the posts can cause broken links which will damage your search engine ranking.

Paw Hellegaard February 12, 2010 at 6:03 am

Damn what a list! Thanks for sharing it… I have about 10 communitys there will be facelifted now :-)

Sarah Harris February 23, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Thank you so much for the amazing list. I think people want instant gratification and community building is certainly a process. I am happy that you stressed that over and over. When people don’t succeed right off the bat they tend to give up but time and patience are a huge part of community building.

Holly February 26, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Great list! A bit overwhelming, but I will come back periodically and take in a few more points :)

Just curious…you say that you should bring on new members slowly. I let my facebook group members know about the forum a couple of weeks ago, but haven’t linked the forum to my website yet. How long should I wait to let my web visitors in on it? Not sure how active it needs to be first?

Sean March 1, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Wow…. what a list. I built two community sites that proved modest success … covered all costs by the time I left the companies. If I had this list I would of not made twenty of the previous mistakes I did.

Martin Reed - Community Manager March 5, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Holly – Are those Facebook group members active in the group? If so pick a small number of the most active (around 10) and give them advance membership to the forum. Explain that they’re the first in, why you chose them, and that you’re depending on them to help the community succeed.

Don’t open the forum up to the masses until you have a good amount of content and strong relationships are already in place.

feamor March 5, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Holly- i think we are nearly in the same situation. But my advise for you is “start your forum a.s.a.p

I created a computer forum about computers, hardwares, softwares and programming. I graduated from an universities’ Software Engineering department so i have a lot of friends who are working on these subjects. Also, i have free advertising opportunity and when we published an gif ad, linking to a topic that i wrote, it takes 5000 clicks in 2days. But nobody replies or even becomes member.

I created a facebook group like you. in 3days, i have nearly 300members. But without speaking eachone personally, nobody becomes member to my forum, although most of them are my friends. First, i waited like you and make 10 of my friends member and want them to open some subjects. But most of them didn’t.

I builded up my forum and all its categories 2months ago. I created topics, give some information about some subjects and at the end, ask them questions. But although i have been trying to make everyone member to my forum in last 10days (when i decide to open my forum to public) i can only make 25 members more. Also, most of them haven’t sent a post yet.

So in conclusion, when you decide, your forum is ready to open to public, nobody rush on your forum like you expected. I am always ready to reply to questions and waiting to solve people’s problems but when nobody is asking questions, it makes no sense :) My suggestion is Don’t wait any more, Try to make everyone heard about your forum. They will become members slowly and starts to write more slowly :) Without members, although you try to add content everyday, it is never enough. The important thing is having members that likes to add contents.

I created 50 informative topics and in the end of my message, always asked related questions to make people reply. I have 50 members and total topic count is 100 :) I think, this can show how long does it take and why you should start a.s.a.p :)

Randall March 26, 2010 at 9:51 am

Thanks for this excellent reference, nice to find you. Am just getting started on a new community project and fighting the temptation to rush things along. Will focus on the process.

Clayton Shumway April 2, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Great observations here. Love #6…it’s like starting a business. Once you’re done with the ‘honeymoon’ phase…stick with it even though it’s not as exciting!

Ed Burgess April 15, 2010 at 3:26 am

Too true! Great list.

Numbers 67-70 are particularly pithy, encapsulating the ups and down of dealing with people.

I reckon that most of all you need 92 – the passion – to see you through this.

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