FOWA: Building a Community
Matthew Haughey of Metafilter talked about the lessons he'd learned about looking after online communities through running the site since it was founded in 1999. The site started as a fairly simple, multi-user weblog where bloggers could trade links. Today, it has developed into a location with 4mn visitors a month, serving 12mn pages.
Websites tend to follow similar lifecycles at first. There's sharp growth at launch, followed by decline as people move on to the next new thing. Over time, though, there's recovery and growth as the site becomes better-known. This continues until the site reaches a critical point. At this point, one of three things can happen. It can continue to even greater and continued growth and popularity. It can plateau as the number of people leaving and arriving becomes the same. Or it can decline, normally because the founding members make mistakes or lose interest.
Haughey advised potential community developers to make their sites a "third place". That is to say, it isn't home or work: it's more akin to a sports club or a pub. It's important, of course, to have a compelling idea and to build the best application you can on the technical level. People now have considerable experience of using social software and buggy and under-functional software is no longer tolerated the way it used to be.
It's important that developers 'eat their own dog food'. Build something that you need for yourself and be your own best user of the software. This will not only provide you with a reason to keep improving and fixing the software, but also provide users with an example of behaviour. Users also find it very easy to detect and reject when service owners are only in it for the money.
Highlight the best contributions and best users in your community. You might have awards for the best contributions each week, for example. This helps readers or users see what they're supposed to be doing, and also to find the best stuff more easily.
Try to bring your best contributors on board as moderators. Metafilter tends to self-censor unsuitable posts through a strong community ethos and peer pressure. This can considerably reduce the amount of time that you or paid staff need to spend on moderation. Do not try to be too controlling of the community. Get out of the way and be prepared to follow their needs and interests rather than try to dictate them. This flexibility allows for unintended yet fruitful uses by the community, for example, the adoption of the '@' symbol for messaging on Twitter. Build out at the edges of behaviour to support these cases (Twitter now tracks @ messages in a separate pane). New features are best developed in collaboration with the community rather than 'under wraps', since sudden change is very often unwelcome to loyal members.
Haughey favours a softly-softly approach to running a community. He suggests that hosts provide guidelines rather than rules. Rules can put you into difficult positions as you may be forced to take a hard line on something no-one else in the community wants. Their existence also tempts some users to want to break or bend them. It's important to keep emotions out of any decisions in moderation. Tailor your guidelines to the norms of the community. New rules that come from nowhere can tend to outrage people. Running a web community is often a balancing act between chaos and happiness. It's also important to recognise ownership issues on community sites. If people have spent hours contributing to the site, then they are likely to feel some sense of ownership, and thus an entitlement to have some say in the progress and running of the community.
Customer Service will use up more and more of your time as your community grows, to the point where development work is on the back burner. Hire customer support people or recruit passionate users when this happen. Metrics can also help with customer service because you can easily see which areas of the site need attention and which can be left as they are.
However well you run your community, though, it's important to note that user happiness is ephemeral. You can kill the goodwill and support of loyal users overnight without even trying. Every community has a revolt of some sort, eventually, and knowing that can make it less painful when it happens. Disaster can be averted is you are extremely transparent. Conduct technical support in public forums. Explain (and over-explain) new features and changes to existing functionality. Also be prepared to acknowledge your mistakes - people will be far more forgiving if you do this.
We also met up with the people behind KickApps at the show, who pointed us towards their newly-released, free white paper 9 Steps to a Successful Online Community. This also seems like a good place to remind readers of Lizzie Jackson's Building Communities and Networks Online course in November, a must for community managers, moderators, web editors, hosts and social site managers.