Community Management, Brand Communities

6 Common Mistakes in Online Community Development

Many of the myths surrounding online community development are proliferated by common sense conclusions. Creating an online community has a basis in science—but best practices that seem clear-cut on the surface become much more complicated when you dig deeper.

Communities on the web function much like real-life communities; they unite around a specific focus and often pursue common goals. They fulfill the needs of your members by driving learning and networking that enriches the personal or professional lives of everyone involved.

Creating that value for your membership requires a deep understanding of your audience’s motivations and goals. Only then can you define the business goals of your community. It’s natural for community managers to make their goals the priority. But they can’t reach those goals without fulfilling their responsibilities to their membership.

Based on popular myths, here are six common mistakes that community managers make in online community development.

Myth #1: Your primary growth metric is the size of your membership.

What difference does it make how many members you have if no one is interacting? Perhaps the most common mistake in community development is considering how many members have signed up a measure of your community’s health.

Take for example community development professional Ben Brown. His first big hit came with Consumating, an alternative dating community. In 2005, CNET bought Consumating. Brown stayed on to manage the community—but his goals didn’t exactly align with CNET’s. The media giant wanted the next popular social networking website and immediately focused on ramping up the membership.

The community indeed grew—from 5,000 members to 60,000. It also suffered a backlash from prior members and a lack of interest from new members. In 2008, CNet shut the doors on Consumating for good.

Brown believes CNET’s focus on rapid growth sucked the air from the community. Consumating’s success was rooted in the fervor of the community itself—how often members contributed, how they interacted, how they connected—rather than its overall size.

Myth #2: Communities on the web always arise organically.

Some online community purists believe that communities sprout up on their own. Creating your own following a business plan is like trying to play God.

Lucky for us, this isn’t true. Plenty of marketers, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts are out there creating successful communities. Just ask the creators of LitReactor, a community for writers and literary enthusiasts.

LitReactor found a business opportunity and pursued it with an aggressive marketing strategy. Prior to launching the community, cofounders Kirk Clawes and Dennis Widmeyer seeded it with members and content. LitReactor is now a real community, with active forums; online classes that fill up; tons of editorial content; and a thriving space for writers to workshop their own material with other writers.

Myth #3: If the community you want to create already exists, you missed the boat.

That’s not the spirit of business, is it? Just like any business, competition between online communities breeds an evolving marketplace.

To create a better community, all it takes is a friendlier, fulfilling experience for your audience. Similar communities can even work together; finding a different spin on a shared topic or interest helps you foster a unique experience that can complement a community you may have seen as competition.

Myth #4: You know what’s best for your community.

You have some idea of where you want your online community website to end up. But your members may have other plans. My advice to you? Listen to them.

When you give members the means to interact in a public space, you empower them with a collective voice. Going against the desires of that collective voice is equivalent to sounding its death knell. If you jilt your members, expect them to leave you in their dust.

Myth #5: Moving forward means adding more features.

The primary value in creating an online community is handing your audience tools to interact with each other. Community is a bonding experience first and foremost, and communication, of course, is at the heart of bonding.

Why add features your community doesn’t need? There may be no sense in encouraging members to upload photo albums if your community’s focus is writing. Did your members overwhelmingly request a photo album feature? Does it make sense considering the group’s focus?

The growth of your community may include adding new features. But always ask yourself what value that feature adds to the community as a whole.

Myth #6: You must impose strict guidelines for interaction.

No one likes a negative contributor. And yes, your branding or community focus might find fault with someone using inflammatory language. Let them do the work.

It’s important to create guidelines for interaction. But once you’ve fostered an active community, you don’t need to spend time policing it; your members will do that for you. In fact, when members unite against a negative contributor, it builds a greater sense of shared identity and strengthens the bonds between members.

Feel free to exercise a heavy hand with spam, though. No one likes spam.

How do you encourage growth and foster success within your community?