Don’t be fooled into thinking that successful online commuities are those that continuously innovate, introduce new features on a regular basis and constantly redesign to keep up with current trends. The most successful online communities are those that are different from the outset, and stick with what works. If you want to forge a strong online community, you need to be resistant to change – your members certainly are.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it
Your online community should include the features you want from the outset. It should have the design you want from the outset and it should be seeded with the kind of content and members you want to have from the outset. The people that make up your community are more important than anything else. You would be surprised at just how easy your members are to please if you focus on your community rather than your site’s design and features. Your community is your priority – not installing a new AJAX interface or changing your forum software.
If your community includes passionate members that are interacting and engaging with your content, why risk upsetting them by changing things? Your members know that the community is the most important aspect of your site – it’s time you did, too. If your community is buzzing, don’t change anything.
At times, change may be impossible to avoid. Perhaps the software you used is no longer supported. In these cases, change is necessary. Just make sure you involve your members in the process.
Members of online communities need to feel empowered
Your members should feel a sense of shared ownership over your community. They invest a lot of time and effort into making your community successful and you need to recognise this by involving them in your decision making. If you feel that a site redesign is an absolute necessity, ask your members if they agree. Give them a link to a live example of any new software you are thinking of introducing and ask them for their opinion.
When you ask for feedback, don’t forget to listen. You may not agree with what some (or all) of your members are telling you, but you need to consider their opinions. Never forget that without your members, you don’t have an online community. Your members know best, all 99% of the time.
Get it right first time around
Although your site will never be perfect, from the start it should be pretty close. The content in your online community should reflect the quality you want your site to be known for. The posts should reflect the personality you want to develop for your site. The software you use should be scalable and flexible. Get the foundations right, from the start. Plan for the long term.
Humans are creatures of habit and routine. We get up at a similar time every day, have our cup of tea or coffee, walk the same route to/from work, meet friends in the same places and go to the same pubs and restaurants. How many times do you hear your friends say how nice that new building down the road is? How many times do you hear your friends tell you how much nicer the new $20 bills are compared to the old ones? Most people don’t like change. It can be frustrating and it can make you feel uncomfortable.
I have covered the wrong way to redesign an online community before, yet I see developers of online communities still making the same mistakes. Change is the worst thing you can introduce to an online community. Slow, gradual evolution can be positive – as long as you consult your members. Introduce radical change at your own peril. I am not just talking about design or functionality: if you decide to change your site’s rules, you may create friction and tension in your online community. If you suddenly bring in an army of moderators when there were none before, you will create a stir. If you suddenly spend thousands on an advertising campaign that brings in hundreds of new members in a few days you will upset the balance of your community.
Remember – baby steps. Easy does it. Change little. Focus solely on your members, not the website. If you must pursue change, make sure you involve your members.
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