This is something that I am asked somewhat regularly, when I’m doing an interview or someone is looking to start a community.
Of course, that is a really generic, vague question and it lends itself to a generic, vague answer. There is so much one could say. It’s a big topic. Yes, I have a million tips. How much time do we have?
We don’t usually have much, so I try to talk about a few foundational concepts that I feel would apply to most people. Here are some of the things that I usually mention.
Commit to the Long Term
You shouldn’t launch an online community if you’ll close it when it is slow in 3 to 6 months. Online communities can take a long time to get going. It can take years for businesses to become profitable – if they ever do, many simply don’t. The same is basically true for online communities.
You might become active quickly or it might take awhile to get to where you want. It could take more than a year. It might never happen. Starting an online community doesn’t guarantee success. Deciding you’ll give up after a few months certainly guarantees the opposite.
Commit yourself to working on it over a long period of time. Specifically, it’s about slow growth and building. Online communities grow one person at a time. You can’t get around that.
Focus on Your Audience
Online communities for everyone are not for everyone because not everyone wants that. If you try to cater to everyone, you hurt your chances of success. Instead, carefully consider who you are trying to appeal to, who you want to appeal to and then go after them.
This can be specific, but doesn’t have to be too specific. For example, your community guidelines (more on that in a moment) will dictate, in many ways, who you will appeal to. KarateForums.com is a friendly, respectful, work appropriate and (mostly) family appropriate martial arts community. If you want that, then you might like it. If you want to use profanity or call people names, you won’t.
The point is: I’m not changing that focus for you. Instead, if that is not what you want, you should continue to a community that offers you what you want. If I was to change that focus, I’d simply alienate the people who love what we stand for.
Launch with People
Before you open your doors to the public, you should invite some people you know to participate in the forum pre-launch, privately. If you are starting a community around a topic, chances are you know some people interested in that topic. Those are the people that you can ask to help you get it started. Family, friends, acquaintances.
This will allow you to launch with activity from multiple people, which will be a great help as you try to get things off the ground. It makes your community much more attractive to potential members.
Have Guidelines and Be Ready to Moderate
Even if you don’t have guidelines, you have guidelines. You have things that you know you don’t want on the community, behaviors that would be damaging or harmful. If you don’t have publicly posted guidelines, that doesn’t mean you don’t have any, it just means you aren’t sharing them with your members.
Guidelines serve as a type of vision statement for your community. They tell people what to expect and how they should participate. They help everyone to be on the same page because, even if you don’t agree with them, at least you know what they are. To help you get started, take a look at these example guidelines.
Plan for the inevitable occurrence of content that you will have to remove. What is the workflow? A two forum or section system for documentation and removed content is a good way to go. This is a workflow you’ll be repeating over and over again. Having a plan allows you to deal with it in a calm and measured manner as you get comfortable with that role.
Be the Bad Guy
Have you ever watched “Kitchen Nightmares” or “Restaurant: Impossible” or “Bar Rescue” or “Hotel Impossible” or any similar show where a successful consultant tries to help a failing hospitality business? Many times, when the consultant gets there, what you find is an owner who is not qualified to manage people because they are scared of confrontation or simply want to be everyone’s friend. That doesn’t work, for a community manager. That’s how things go sour.
Not everyone is meant to hold some authority, not everyone is meant to keep people on the same page. It can be stressful and it definitely is not for people who hate confrontation. I don’t enjoy confrontation, but I recognize it as an essential part of my job. When I see you doing something inappropriate on my community, I must stop you. I will do it in a polite and respectful manner, but it must be done because if I don’t do it, who will?
You have to be comfortable with having to be the bad guy and being viewed by people in that light, sometimes. People will be mean and, often, that is a sign that you are doing your job. If no one is ever mad at you, you aren’t performing at a high level.
If You Want Ads, Start with Ads
A lot of people will tell you that you should start your community without any advertisements and once you have traffic, that’s the time to add them. I think that is a fine strategy and it’ll work for many. I used to do it myself. But, through years of experience, I have learned that people don’t like change. And they like it even less when it has to do with the introduction of advertising.
For this reason, if you ever plan to have ads, I recommend you start with them. Just a few ads on the page. Use Google AdSense or just advertise internal features of the community itself. Having the placements on the page creates the expectation that they will be there so when you go to seriously monetize them when you have more traffic, you won’t have to deal with the possible outcry regarding new ads, change, you selling out, etc. It sets the right expectation from the jump.
As I said at the start of this article, there are a lot of things that I could say, but hopefully these thoughts will help people who are at the starting stages and just looking for some nudges in the right direction. Best of luck.