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4 Pillars of Thriving Online Communities

Community and engagement are popular buzzwords that scatter the social web on almost a weekly basis. But until we sit down and define what it means to build a community, it will be difficult to do it as effectively as possible. In a recent conversation I had with venture capitalist Brad Feld, he talked me about the core principles of building what he refers to as a startup community. The principles are equally applicable to building any kind of online community.For a community to truly thrive,there are 4 pillars that must be in place.

1. A Leader/Entrepreneur

To start, somebody must assume responsibility for building the community. If you’re a blogger or the social media manager for a brand, you must take the lead. Every online community that has thrived has a clearly defined leader.

  •  Chris Guillebeau is the driving force behind The Art of Non-Conformity
  • Mike Stelzner is steering the ship at Social Media Examiner
  • Brian Clark is the first person that comes to mind when somebody mentions Copyblogger

It’s tempting to assume that somebody else will take the lead and you can follow, but if you want to see a community reach it’s full potential then look for the opportunity to be a leader. Take people on a journey and lead them to a destination they desire to reach.


2. Long Term Vision

While it can be psychologically and financially difficult to depart from the race toward conventional rewards after a lifetime working with one mind-set, doing so is imperative to succeeding in the long term. Otherwise, you will struggle to sustain your long-term projects amidst the desire to be validated in the near term – Scott Belsky, Making Ideas Happen

Cinderella stories like  twitter accounts turning into TV shows and companies getting acquired for billions of dollars in less than 24 months are the exception, not the norm. As they say it takes 10 years to become an overnight success. While some online communities seem to experience explosive growth, if you do a bit of digging, you’ll see that people leading them have brought years of experience from other fields to their efforts. If you’re expecting to build a thriving community in less than a year, it’s best if you don’t start. Far too often, I see bloggers quit after the first 90 days wondering why they aren’t seeing results for their efforts. Some of the most successful bloggers today spent years lingering in obscurity.

It takes years of work and a long term vision to bring a community to life.

3.  Be Inclusive of Everybody Who Wants to Participate

The blessing and curse of the social web is that every web site has an open door policy whether we want it or not. You’ll have people like Alan Bleiweiss who raise the quality of a community in a way we can’t quantify and you’ll have anonymous trolls who just cruise the web looking to make trouble. But to build a community you must be inclusive of those who want to participate.

In an online community a dynamic that I call the economics of social capital are in play.

The richest people are the ones who give the most. 

The balance can’t be measured. 

Those who keep score deplete their balance without realizing it. 

The value of social capital is intrinsic, not external. 

It’s an ecosystem and the more deposits that people make into the ecosystem the richer it becomes, and the richer everyone becomes as a byproduct. In the interview I did with Alan, he told me that his articles here on SEJ have resulted in 1000’s of dollars of personal value for him. But he  wrote those articles for free, and made sure they were the best they could be. The part you don’t want to overlook is that he didn’t do any of that for the external accolades. He did it because he wanted to contribute to the community. He understood how the economics of social capital work.   So as a leader or participant in a community, you have to ask yourself “what can I contribute?”

4. Ongoing Activity

Let’s say you walk into an apartment building to go to a friend’s party and the neighbor who you don’t know seems to have 100’s more people at his apartment.  Chances are your curiosity will be piqued. An online community works the same way. People want to be part of a community where there is a lot going on. Killer content is just a starting point for ongoing activity.

Here are just a few ongoing activities that can really raise the quality of an community:

Webinars/Teleseminars/Live Events:  Some of the most vibrant communities consistently hold events that keep people coming back. If you hold a webinar once a month it will do wonders for the engage ment in your community.

Physical Goods: While the world is becoming increasingly digital, physical goods are becoming the souvenirs and artifacts of our era. They are treasured in a way that digital goods are not.

  • Steve Kamb’s 6000 Person movement, Nerd Fitness has its own t-shirt  
  • One of the listeners of my podcast BlogcastFM, sent me shot glasses with our logo on them. 

While they are not activities physical goods cause conversation and draw people to your community

In Person Events/Conferences/Meetups: Despite the fact that technology has given us access to each other like never before, the conference business is booming. The online world is an incredibly competitive environment for somebody’s attention, and you can’t put a price on meeting people in person.

Building a thriving community takes a tremendous amount of work. But the rewards are absolutely worth it. Have you been a leader in or participated in a thriving community?  Are there additional things that make them thrive? Let me know in the comments below.

Srinivas Rao

Srinivas Rao is the host and cofounder of BlogcastFM where he’s interviewed over 300 bloggers, authors, and entrepreneurs. Pick up ...

4 Pillars of Thriving Online Communities

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