Online communities tend to fail for the same few reasons:
Lack of focus and understanding – There’s often too much focus on features and technology (most of your potential members are not interested in these but for some reason they’re top of your priority list).
Failure to ask ‘how’ – How will you attract members and get them talking? You spend days/weeks/months building the community website rather than building community (they’re two different things). Talking to people and building relationships is more important than the website itself. A community website without members is an oxymoron.
Failure to ask ‘why’ – Why will people want to join your community? What’s in it for them? Is it fun?
In this article, I want to focus on the very last point; is your online community fun? If it isn’t, or if you decide to build a community around a topic most consider dull, you’ll struggle to succeed.
Is your subject interesting enough?
Let’s say you’re in the early stages of planning an online community. You run an online store that sells toner cartridges – you decide that adding a forum to your site will attract members and customers. Doubtful. How much is there to talk about when it comes to toner cartridges? Sure, there are different brands, sizes, and variations in quality and price. Once you’ve exhausted those subjects though, what is there to talk about?
People are lazy when they go online. Giving up their email address or joining a new community is similar in effort to painting a five bedroom house in the offline world. I doubt there are many people out there passionate enough about toner cartridges to want to join a toner cartridge community.
You need to think differently – in this case, don’t build a community that discusses toner cartridges. Instead, think of your target demographic. You’re probably targeting office buyers/managers/administrators. Why not build a community for them (not your product) instead? More interesting, more scope and definitely more to talk about (office gossip and politics, career progression, entrepreneurship, etc).
People rarely want to talk about you or your products (the only exception I can think of is Apple). They want to talk about themselves. Make sure you satisfy this basic demand – if you give people a place to talk about themselves (and the right people join your community), conversation about your products should come naturally.
How to build a fun online community
Many people reading this will already have an online community in one form or another. All online communities are different, but they should all have one thing in common – they should be fun. Make sure your community is fun by following the following points:
- Don’t wield your moderator powers unless you absolutely have to. It’s hard to have fun when ‘teacher is watching’.
- Don’t tell people off for going ‘off-topic’ on a discussion. This is actually a good thing.
- Don’t insist that people talk only about the subject matter of your community. The most vibrant sections of subject specific online communities are the off-topic areas – don’t fight this, embrace it.
- Be active in your own online community and influence the behaviour of your members by acting as you want them to behave.
- Invite the right people to join your online community – don’t invite everyone you come across just to get your numbers up. Be selective and invite people you think have the right personality to make your community fun, diverse and interesting.
The only online communities that work without being particularly fun are support forums – I’d hardly call the Verizon Forums a fun place to hang out in (others may disagree), but they serve their purpose well. I wouldn’t call Depression Forums a fun place, but that community has a lot to offer members and visitors alike.
If your community doesn’t encourage fun, it better be catering to the self-interests of your visitors. The best online communities, of course, do both.