Don’t build a boring online community

by Martin Reed on 31 March 2010 in Articles

boring online communities

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.

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{ 31 comments }

Mr Woc April 1, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Hi there

Its quite difficult to build an interesting site as the first months of my community sites were really quite boring, mainly down to the lack of numbers though.

There is a good point to be made here though, that webmasters need to focus on user quality, as some users really contribute and want to help your site, this people are the ones you want.

These kind of people help keep things interesting, its important to try to introduce a sense of humour into most proceedings too.

Woc

Sue Bailey April 1, 2010 at 8:05 pm

I’d add one thing to your list, Martin –
don’t build your community on what it isn’t.

I’ve seen a LOT of online communities founded off the back of heavy-handed moderation on other sites. The idea is “it’ll be ours, we can say what we like, there won’t be stupid rules like xxxxx”, and almost all of them have failed – because “we’ll be xxx without the moderators” just isn’t enough. You have to bring something more, something positive to the table.

Nicole Price April 2, 2010 at 11:04 am

I think that the key advise is about making it fun for the members. If it is not ‘fun’, or shall we say, interesting enough to want to come back and participate, the forum will not get built.

Another pitfall that I find is the clutter of advertising messages that distracts attention. When there are too many of them, members tend to migrate. A balance needs to be achieved.

Mathew Davies April 3, 2010 at 4:11 pm

> – Don’t tell people off for going ‘off-topic’ on a discussion. This is actually a good thing.

This doesn’t make much sense to me. I recently came into a situation where a discussion was hi-jacked by a political debate. Good points were made, but the discussion author felt a bit annoyed that I allowed it to overshadow his topic.

I think the better scenario would be to split the discussion into a new topic so they can operate as normal.

Tom April 5, 2010 at 12:16 pm

“Failure to ask ‘how’ – How will you attract members and get them talking? ”

I have been following your site for some time. However, the above article and specifically the above point cuts to the chase.

I have to admit, my subject is not exactly “sexy” and it may border on “boredom.” But I think the site serves a need.

People come to my site, they read, but except for certain posts that pertain to poor service from Big Box Home Improvement Sites or poor products where they feel they have been ripped off, they seldom talk to each other in comments or forums. I have thought of instituting Groups to faciliate converations, but I am not sure that will work.

Perhaps u have written a post on How to Get Members Talking to each other” already. I’ll look., but it not please consider addressing this in a future post. Many thanks.

Sharon April 8, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Too often, people think they can throw together a forum and it’ll work. But the “how” question is so important: how will you engage them? By being involved, providing discussable content regularly, etc. All of that requires participation. If *you’re* too bored to participate, of course your members are. :o)

David April 9, 2010 at 8:26 am

I think one important thing is to be up to date on the niche being targetted. The latest happenings and their repercussions are an important part of your communities need to know. These can get interesting discussions going.

Ivy April 12, 2010 at 11:17 pm

@Sharon agreed there. In this day and age it is so easy to set up a website, blog, forum or anything else online for a few bucks.

the questions to ask are:

why? Why do you want to do this,
what? what is the purpose of this and what message are you trying to deliver ot discus
how? how will you attract people and effect them

all need to be laid out in a plan…

Christian April 16, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Im having a hard time getting people to comment on my blog. I think I’ll try to read some more of your posts. Hope to find something to help get people to start writting:)

Thanx

Chris Guthrie April 16, 2010 at 4:36 pm

I have steered clear of online communities and more towards blogs because I like the improved control but I am looking at opening another forum. Good advice for helping to keep it from being boring.

Mick St James April 18, 2010 at 9:11 am

Forums and online communities can really become an extended “sales force” for a product line.

Charles Richey April 18, 2010 at 11:23 pm

@Mick you make a good point that I’ve been *trying* to impress on my friend. He has a site that sells bathroom parts, accessories, etc. I keep telling him to incorporate a blog and start posting about do it yourself projects that products he sells.

Noah Rainey April 19, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I disagree on one of your points. You said, “Don’t tell people off for going ‘off-topic’ on a discussion. This is actually a good thing.” This isn’t a good thing when you have a blog focussed around a certain niche, or a forum/website. This would lead to poor search engine rankings etc.

Mark April 27, 2010 at 5:59 am

Having just recently gone live with a gardening site I see the online community aspect as a great melting pot of ideas for your customers. It also adds another depth to your website and its something I want to add to my site as it develops. Great article

Jeremy April 27, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Great advice. These are all things I like to think I “know” to do, yet somehow I fail to do many of them. It’s nice to be reminded!

Martin Reed - Community Manager April 30, 2010 at 11:01 am

Noah – I stand by my original statement. I’d rather build a website for people, not the search engines. A forum with good search engine rankings but no real conversations or relationships is a failure. Focus on people, not Google.

Dan Waggoner May 3, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Everything always seems to work fine if you keep the visitor’s interest in mind first and the search engine second.

Jason Acidre May 4, 2010 at 1:39 am

Great tips. Fun and interaction should always be the priorities of a good online community. I usually enjoy in participating on forums when they have areas for sharing of facts and games (even it’s not relevant to the theme of the community), such as “A-Z movies or whatever that’s under the sun topics”.

I also agree with Martin, regarding the pro-google or pro-people forum. There’s no point in building your site to rank high in search engines if the content is poor (this actually relates to the people/members of your community). The main point is to have your members actively participate for them to stay longer with your community. Rankings are changeable but traffic should always be consistent or much better constantly increasing.

jeevis May 5, 2010 at 11:04 pm

I think building an online community is a really great way to communicate with your targeted audience. However like you stated it does take a lot of effort to ensure that you keep them engaged at all times. I can speak from my experience that my facebook group page that I created. I was able to build up the members but I was able to keep them engage with fresh content to stimulate their minds :).

John Paul May 12, 2010 at 9:55 am

Have always wanted to start a forum on my blog.. to share more info and grow that community. But have looked at it as a lot of work and possibly not worth it?

Your tips seem to help see it may not be as hard as I thought.

mike May 20, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Makes sense you will always struggle to build an online community if it is boring. Just like you will struggle to sell a boring book or movie. But then with such a broad range of interests across the internet there is probably always some people enjoy the more mundane things in life.

Julianne Keith May 26, 2010 at 5:00 am

At Atkins we’ve got an active international community, for users heavily involved in dieting on the Atkins programme.

Besides that we have an national forum (as on uk.atkins.com). It is required to register, but the posts can be viewed without doing so. We found an separate forum a useful solution for a more accessible part of the community, while heavy users often follow through to the international community (much more than just a simple forum).

Of course dieting is a broad subject, with a lot of potential discussion. But I think the method in itself contributes to a succesfull and accessible community. Any opinions on that?

Justin Ledvina June 3, 2010 at 4:12 am

I’m a member of a few popular marketing/business forums and they seem to go hot and cold all the time. Sadly the hot times are usually based around people bickering and the cold is when people are agreeing.

I know I won’t post something unless I disagree with something someone said most of the time. No need to throw in my “ya I agree with you” post as it seems pointless.

Some of the most discussed topics in these business/marketing forums have nothing to do with either but religion and or politics.

Victor June 6, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Building a community is hard if you start from 0. The best way is to have a site with traffic and then build a community with some of all that traffic. If you have 1000 users a day it is easier to get 3 or 4 registrations a day.

The problem right now is that there are a lot of communities and you have to offer something different. I liked this post, insteresting point of view.

jim July 12, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Online communities is like any community, it’s about the people involved. I go down to my local pub more often than I go to the fancy places downtown not because I love wobbly stools and poor liquor selection, I go for the guys I know will be there. Same with every forum I am signed up too.

Mardah Beatz July 20, 2010 at 1:40 pm

omgeee, I’ve been to sooo many boring communities, it’s like people just build them just to have a site and don’t even care what kind of content they post BORINGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG

Steve Marino July 22, 2010 at 7:01 am

A nice read; the “why” aspect is generally the most difficult aspect of maintaining an online community. Even if you have a base community to start with, attracting new blood into your project is the very difficult part especially when there is a shift in the forum make-up which the original people don’t particularly like.

Andrew August 11, 2010 at 6:46 am

I’ve been trying to build my facebook group for my business for a while putting out what I hope is good content and I guess I always wonder if I’m doing the right thing as I don’t get many people leaving replies – however i think I’m following most of the points you’ve made so perhaps I am on the right track:)

Don September 4, 2010 at 4:28 pm

i attempted a forum on one of my pc reapair sites while back, had the hardest time with it. had polls, surveys, and unique content and info, but it just never took off at all. comments and info here is very helpful and informative, thanx!

Brenda October 16, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Thanks for the insight. I am a Realtor and when I send out my newsletter it says very little about real estate (they already know what I do). If you can’t capture their attention, and hold it, what’s the point. thanks again, good job.

Dotti Driver November 10, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Keeping it fun and informative for your target group is necessary for it’s survival. I’ve seen some successful online communities, but it seems like there are far more unsuccessful ones than successful ones out there.

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