Building a new community can be a fraught process, and people are often nervous at the beginning of the project. I’ve worked on a variety of projects, some successful, some not, and there are always signs early on in a project that indicate whether it will succeed or fail.
The project has a clear purpose
Successful community projects always start with a clear goal in mind. Projects that start with “well everyone has a community” are doomed. If a client opens a conversation with “what do you think we should do with the community?” I know that there are going to be real problems coming up.
Community can do a lot of things well, but it’s important to decide which of those things you want to do and why.
The stakeholders are clear
Community has always existed in a strange place as far as interdepartmental politics are concerned. Sometimes they’re seen as marketing, sometimes PR, sometimes support. It’s only the lucky few who get a dedicated Community department staffed with experts. If every department in your company has an opinion on how things should be run, everyone will pull in different directions. The approval process for every decision becomes arduous, and everyone assumes that someone else is taking care of things. There’s a common koan in development “adding a second developer to a task doesn’t halve the amount of time it will take to complete, it doubles it”.
This should be one of the earliest things you decide on. Who are the important decision makers, and why? Who has ultimate responsibility? Who will be communicating with outside contractors or vendors? Who is individually responsible for delays?
The community building team is agile
Bullet number 3 is a natural next step of bullets 1 and 2. Without agility, everything takes too long. Projects become paralysed by indecision, doubt and politics. In extreme cases, I’ve seen simple forum projects delayed by years because the stakeholders aren’t convinced that things are perfect yet.
I have a simple barometer I use when contracting on community projects: if I’m asking for approval on a development, the time it takes to receive a response from the business is inversely proportionate to the project’s chance of success.
It isn’t difficult to make tweaks and changes to a community “in production”. In fact, this agility and willingness to adapt is the mark of a community manager who knows what they’re doing. It is almost always better to push ahead with a project and make changes as necessary than it is to waste months of time and resources umming and aahing.
A clear value to prospective members
The plan for a failed community project often goes something like this
- We build a community forum
The truth is that there’s no community so expertly built and well-thought out that it will work in isolation. Newly launched communities need to provide clear and obvious value to prospective members, and then need to display that value to them somewhere that they can see it.
Forums shouldn’t be used as traffic generators, that isn’t one of their strengths. They’re fantastic as traffic retainers and traffic multipliers. They can turn casual visitors into daily visitors, and can attract power users and advocates that will spend hours in your community. Play to this strength. The “Field Of Dreams” approach is a faulty one. If you build it and expect that to be the end of the story, they won’t come. Your visitors need to
- Know that the community is there
- Be given a compelling reason to visit
A positive sign of community success for a new project is whether I can easily tell why I would use it myself, and how I would find out about it. If I can’t figure that out (and quickly) I don’t expect people with no investment in the project to do so either.