Successful online communities don’t develop overnight

by Martin Reed on 17 December 2008 in Articles

Development time for online communities

You can’t develop a strong online community overnight. Online communities need time to develop – behind every username is a real person. People don’t build strong relationships with others at first sight – it takes time. Just as real world relationships take time to develop, so do those that form online – and arguably they take even longer.

Online community is a more challenging communication medium

Most of our communication takes place visually. Even when we are involved in a deep conversation with someone, we get more information from their behaviour, expressions and body language that we do from their voice. The challenge with online communities is that this huge communication medium is eliminated – we can only communicate through text (and some rudimentary images or text styling).

People online are pretty much anonymous. This is both a benefit and a curse. When it comes to online communities, it can allow people to be truly honest and open. But it can also allow people to be abusive and offensive with little fear of any repercussions. Your members will probably have experienced at least one of these types of members, if not on your community then on someone else’s. If not, they would have heard of them. Depending on their previous experience and perception, members take different amounts of time to come out of their shell and really open up and get involved in the community.

Those that have only ever experienced open, honest members in an online community will open up much faster, will engage more frequently and create more content. Don’t forget about your quieter members, though. Indeed – you should think about focusing most of your efforts in getting them involved. They may have had a bad experience in the past and aren’t yet ready to trust your community or its members. You can improve the situation by running a professional online community. Develop and enforce rules and guidelines. Act professionally at all times. Have moderators that are the very best representatives of you and your community. Over time, even the most hesitant member will begin letting their guard down and will get involved as they feel more comfortable (as long as you don’t forget about them).

All online communities are should be unique

Some subjects are more sensitive than others. Expect these communities to take longer to develop.

Some online communities may make being anonymous more difficult. Members may therefore be hesitant to post or ‘make mistakes’.

Some online communities are pretty hard to use. Those that prefer style over substance may find their members take a while before they get involved because the learning curve is too steep.

How to develop online communities faster

1. Share personal information about yourself. Be human. Don’t be anonymous, and make sure you lead by example.

2. Build relationships with your members. Remember their birthdays. Remember when they are going for job promotions. Network with them away from your community – are they on Twitter? Follow them.

3. As I touched upon earlier, make your online community easy to use. Don’t ask for too much personal information when members register.

4. Post questions – get people talking. Create posts that mention specific members. Thank your members for their contribution.

5. Get your best members involved in the development of your community. The more cheerleaders you have, the better.

6. Create a safe, secure community environment. Ensure you have community guidelines and that you enforce them professionally, impartially and consistently.

7. Earn the trust of your members. Don’t harass them or spam them. Be professional, tolerant and approachable.

8. Don’t bring in too many new members too quickly. A sudden rush of members will damage your online community. Slowly does it.

9. Encourage and thank members when they contribute. First time posters and contributors will be worried they may have said or done something wrong. Reassure them.

10. Create a buddy system. For every new member that joins, one of your trusted members becomes their buddy. They introduce themselves, make that member feel welcome, offer support and encourage them to get involved.

Never rush an online community

Rushed online communities are those that throw huge resources towards getting huge traffic and huge member counts. These aren’t strong online communities – there aren’t any relationships involved. As soon as you forget that online communities are built on human relationships, you’ll lose focus and your online community will suffer. Relationships take time to develop. Therefore, so do online communities.

Your thoughts

Do you think it is possible to rush the development of an online community but still develop strong member relationships? What are your tips for speeding up online community development without neglecting relationship building? Perhaps you think strong online communities can be developed overnight. Whatever your opinion, please share it by leaving a comment below.

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Merle December 18, 2008 at 4:13 am

“Most of our communication takes place visually. Even when we are involved in a deep conversation with someone, we get more information from their behaviour, expressions and body language that we do from their voice. The challenge with online communities is that this huge communication medium is eliminated – we can only communicate through text (and some rudimentary images or text styling).”

I just had to laugh. Although this must be true for 99.99% of the communities online, is a support site for Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism and 99% of our community can’t read body language or facial expressions. We just LOVE forcing everyone to have just words to express themselves with!

I know we are the exception, but we have so little in common with building or maintaining a community ( there are few other communities for us, for starters and we are a small part of the general population for another.) Thank you for your insightful articles!


Greg December 18, 2008 at 12:35 pm

I have to say the advice on is not just excellent but totally genuine and without hype – and this article is once again a perfect example of the philosophy here. Every single article is not just a pleasant read but packed with a wealth of information not found on any other blog or forum I have seen up until now.

The title “Successful online communities donít develop overnight” is the exact secret to a real successful online community and goes hand in hand with another article I recently read here:

My community has enjoyed a steady (and very strong growth) in the last two months. I am obviously still very small compared to most other forums in my niche but can already see how the quality of my members and their posts already far outrun the competition. And with a 50% active member base I have already tripled what other competing communities achieve.

Amish December 18, 2008 at 2:02 pm

We can rush for all we want, but the response will be at its pace. This is my personal experience and there is nothing that I can do about it.

jennifer December 22, 2008 at 1:07 am

I especially like 9 and 10. I often feel insecure when posting the first few times, especially if it’s followed by crickets. I think that 9 and 10 alleviate that feeling and are great ways to encourage further posting.

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 22, 2008 at 6:38 pm

Merle – Even though your target audience happens to be those with Aspergerís Syndrome and Autism, you still need the same fundamental ingredients to have a successful online community. Your members are still restricted to communicating through words on a screen – the only difference is, they may be better versed in the skill!

Greg – Thanks for your kind comment. I am glad to hear of the success you are enjoying with your online community – keep up the good work :)

Paul December 25, 2008 at 10:20 am

Some useful tips here. Bookmarked this and will test out some of the strategies later.

Matt December 31, 2008 at 12:09 pm

Yes, i had no idea how hard it was to make a community site until I started…its fun, rewarding, and hardwork at the same time.

Manuel January 5, 2009 at 8:25 am

“2. Build relationships with your members. Remember their birthdays. Remember when they are going for job promotions. Network with them away from your community – are they on Twitter? Follow them.”

That is one of the best tipps. The members on my forum are even happy when they get an automated birthday mail – and its also a good way to remember people about your forum.

nit January 5, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Networking is hard… and take a lot of time but totally worth it. Use something like linkedin to create a community can be very interesting for you. OF course you network can help if you’re looking for a jobs, or new opportunities. But remember, if you want something you have to give something… so be human.

James January 7, 2009 at 7:29 am

I have a website about investing, and I started a forum. As a beginner, I was thinking that this online community will be moving fast. But it takes time for people to be a part of a new community. Thanks for the tips.

Chris Altesino April 13, 2009 at 3:52 pm

I think you need to first post information then ask questions. People usually are first seeking information and then once they no its a place of information they next will be willing to share. But I agree its a slow process.

Jason May 6, 2009 at 9:30 pm

It is never easy. The time, effort and money that you have to invest. It’s just like any other business or investment.

Shug July 26, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Good points, I look at online communities like pubs, theres all sorts there and it takes time to fit in. Just like pubs, communities evolve but it always takes an interested owner and staff to run a good pub

Steve August 3, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Some interesting stuff there, I guess it just comes down to the actual people themselves, if you have a forum full of naturally out-spoken chatty people then it’ll be much easier to get conversations flowing.

Natalie September 23, 2009 at 11:57 pm

It’s a labor of love really. You get what you put into it…people just want instant gratification most of the time and don’t realize that community building is a constant ongoing process..

Matt October 8, 2009 at 12:58 am

I agree. A community that is more focused in nature (serving a narrow niche) will develop more slowly. (Of course, the potential payoff is that this same uniqueness also presents higher rewards for accessing this demographic.) It’s important to expect the slow growth, and not try to boost it prematurely by going after new members that dilute the community instead of enhance it. In fits of passion, it’s easy to start widening the focus to draw more people, losing sight that a trade-off is being made in terms of community value for existing AND new members.

Paul November 19, 2009 at 1:12 pm

There is an online community in every niche basically so being unique is difficult. More form software is the same too, making it difficult to have a unique looking site.

I suppose you should tap into your creativity and try and make it better somehow.

Daryl Wilkes November 25, 2009 at 9:06 am

It takes time, do not rush……..
Probably the most important piece of advise I have had!
I started this with the feeling that I had to get out there & get as many members as possible, get them all talking at the same time & hit the ground not just running but at full sprint. I have come to realise with your posts that this will just cause me to trip up & fail…!
Slowly, slowly is the watchword I will abide by!

many thanks for such great advise.

Daryl Wilkes

Sean March 1, 2010 at 3:42 pm

I really like idea 10. It makes sense, use a cheerleader to win someone over… I just never thought of it. This blog is just great.

Christina March 12, 2010 at 5:43 pm

Building the community slowly makes perfect sense but is sometimes difficult to remember. Slow progress oftentimes makes it feel like no progress. In reality, doing something slowly and correctly is the best approach. It’s especially difficult for me but the change I have made for myself is to accomplish very small goals, one at a time, so I still feel successful.

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