How Do You Build an Online Community

by francine Hardaway on February 28, 2008

Do you belong to any online communities, and if so, what are they and why do you find them useful? Online communities are not as easy to form as you would think, although we all hear about Facebook and MySpace and Twitter as if it took nothing to build one.

As part of Stealthmode’s mission, I’ve been helping some sites develop their online communities lately, and I’ve been studying the issue to try to find out what makes them work. The four sites are completely different. To give them all a little plug, they are:

Real Self, a beauty site on which users evaluate beauty products and treatments, mostly having to do with anti-aging. I love it because the users tell us “what’s worth it” and share their stories.

EmpowHer, a newly launched health information site for women, where women are encouraged to exchange information in the hope of receiving better treatment for conditions such as post-partum depression, heart disease, and thyroid disorders. I love this one because the founder started it to help other women avoid things such as unnecessary hysterectomy, which is still very prevalent in the US.

St. Lukes Health Initiatives, a foundation that is trying to help Arizona better its health care. I am part of a group blog at Arizona Health Futures.. You can become a blogger there too, if you have an interest. SLHI is also developing an online collaboration among the not-for-profits it funds. This one I love because it’s mission is capacity building for nonprofits and public health.

The fourth is, a national database of recycling sites that is fifteen years old and very successful, but has not had an online community before. We’re trying to launch a year of product stewardship information and idea exchange for small business as well as individuals.

Now a bit of history. For ten years, I’ve had a primitive online community at Yahoo Groups. It’s the Stealthmode Group, and it sends one email a week about what I’m doing to a group that now numbers close to 2000 people. About 1-2% of the recipients write me back, and therefore I call myself the community manager for this group, which cannot write to each other (I do that to hold down the number of emails). I would call this group successful, because people also pass around these emails to their friends.

Most of the recipients of these emails don’t read blogs and don’t understand RSS. They just think my life is interesting enough for a weekly email.

My business partner also runs an online community that’s nearly ten years old. Its called AZIPA (the Arizona Internet Professionals Association), and its core is a discussion list via which 3,000+ Internet Professionals help one another. There’s also a separate jobs list, events list, and a local tech newswire.

This list is also run through YahooGroups.

OK. Now to the buried lede.

Two of the sites I’m now helping are built on Drupal. They are loaded with features. The other two are built on WordPress. A little difficult to manipulate.

Conclusion: what makes a successful online community? A single, easy-to-use feature. Click here to participate. Do only this one thing. After you get your participants “addicted,” go ahead and add another thing. Most of us are too busy to learn how to use all the features of a full-featured online community. For me, an experienced software user, and a very transparent person, it’s still easiest to Twitter. It’s easy to Utter, but it’s not so easy to listen to the Utterz of others. Video adds an entire other layer, although Seesmic is about the simplest video I’ve found.

I’ve led you through this entire analysis to make you understand that it’s all about KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid). You can always add when the people are willing to learn because they see the value in the community.

Hat tip to Jeremiah Owyang and Guy Kawasaki for the tweets that helped me collate my thoughts this morning. The Dawn Patrol. These guys are always awake, always aware, always online.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Beth Kanter February 28, 2008 at 8:32 am

This is a very important insight. It reminds me of doing “shoulder to shoulder” training at community technology centers – with those on the other side of digital divide or when the Web first started. People got overwhelmed with the software and the site design — so you’d guide them to that one thing, help them establish a habit (holding their hand, rewarding, whatever), and then got them interested in more.

I used to teach powerpoint this way too – in the late 1990s – to art teachers and artists – who would flip out because there were so many options. So, when I taught the application would give them the bare steps of building the preso – zen like. Then, once they got comfortable with bare minimum, I’d show them or guide to other features they asked for — like, “I’d like to my titles bigger or different font or insert a picture.”

In contract, my son who is 8 – and computer geek – asked me to show him ppt. I used my typical adult method – show the barebones. I walked away – when i came back he discovered by himself many advanced techniques – and pumped with questions on how to do things that I haven’t even figured out!

so, guess my question is what, if anything, are the generational or technographics that you have to consider in this strategy? Or is it global?

Francine Hardaway February 28, 2008 at 9:02 am

There are definitely some generational technographics. Every three years, comfort with the online environment changes. Boomers can email. Gen X can buy online. Gen Y can text. And the millenials use avatars freely. But of course that’s a huge oversimplification.

William February 28, 2008 at 10:11 am

I’ve been working on an online community now since November. It is a social gaming site and currently has around 2000 members. My role is really the site design and community management. Let me just say, that is a full time job itself.

Day generally includes reading the new blog posts, responding to mail, greeting new members, teaching people how to blog, designing graphical banners to promote some of our best content, running contests and doing a daily audio show on Utterz.

Do you really need to do all of that? Probably not. You could technically put together a social network / community in 5 minutes using Ning (a great platform by the way). But you get out of your community what you put into it. I’d like to think that we have a really nice one.

The site by the way is:

BTW.. *waves*

John Trout February 28, 2008 at 10:22 am

Wow, this article is right on time.

I just started an Online Community called at , a revenue sharing, local blog community.

My main goal is to find one competent, consistent “Resident Blogger” for every city & town in the United States.

Maybe if you get the chance, you could pop on by and poke some holes in my business model.

Great post.


francine hardaway February 28, 2008 at 2:23 pm

So William, I follow you, so I know what you do. I believe that even putting up a social network on Ning requires marketing and community management, or no one will come and there will not really be a community.

John, I will take a look.

Esther Schindler February 28, 2008 at 2:49 pm

I’ve been doing online community since 1984 — I started with BBSes, then Plato Homelink, then CompuServe. By 1990 I was a sysop (forum moderator) on CompuServe, and I’ve been paid to run online communities since 1992. (It’s part of my editorial role at, where I’m responsible for the Advice & Opinion section.) So yeah. I have some knowledge in this area.

That’s not to say that I have a corner on brilliance here. Some of my communities have succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. But some have been utter failures.

There are several things that can make an online community succeed or fail — and the technology is only relevant to the degree that it gets in the way. That is, the technology can prevent a site from taking off, but it rarely makes one succeed. What matters more, arguably the ONLY thing that matters, is putting people and process in place to make the community a warm, welcoming home for people of like minds.

Some of the things that can help:

* Make it easy to contribute to the discussion.
* Make it a safe place to talk, particularly when the topics are personal (such as women’s health).
* Organize the content. That is, have a different section for C++ programming than you do for Java programming. But always have a Water Cooler section, to encourage people to bond on non-official subjects.
* Having someone in the role of Host/Hostess (that is, to write a “Hey, you’re new! We’re so glad to see you!” message when appropriate to the community); another role is bouncer, to deal with unavoidable conflicts, not to mention spam and other junk (these can be the same person).
* Have clearly stated rules of participation. Enforce them.
* Personality is important. That’s one reason a successful community has a moderator/hostess — but the really successful ones have several people who are personally involved and engaged.

One of these days, I _will_ write a book about this topic. The elements are so clear to me, and I’m always befuddled by the fact that they’re revelations to others.

eric : Real World Green February 29, 2008 at 9:21 am

after being overwhelmed by emails from viewers of and, I created The Greenhouse, a community site for viewers of the web video shows.

Its been great fun to see viewers take this idea and run with it. There are several people who post something almost every day.

Tom February 29, 2008 at 5:25 pm

Thanks for mentioning In the limited circles I travel (like William, busy these days wearing nearly every hat) I find it helpful to explain the difference I see between a user-generated site that’s focused on accomplishing a specific task (for us: important, occasional, beauty purchases) vs. one designed to connect people around common interests. That is, interests where it’s not about making a decision and then moving onto the next important thing in life.

Knowing what’s most important to your target customer –getting something done or getting connected– is often the difference between success and becoming just-another-website. This should guide the decision on which single feature a community builder concentrates on getting right (your point well taken).

That’s the secret to the very under reported success story of TripAdvisor. The early TripAdvisor team was focused solely on helping people report their satisfaction with hotels. They didn’t randomize themselves with an aimless mission of being a travel interest community. They made their hotel review feature work, and then leveraged the user content into one of the most-SEO wired sites on the web.

TA made a tough, but smart decision and left the general travel interest space open to community sites like lonelyplanet thorntree and igougo (ever hear of them? didn’t think so) which have a role on the web, but a much much smaller one.

Lloyd Duggan March 6, 2008 at 12:13 pm

Great advice. I work with small businesses and have suggested creating online communities of customers as a way to provide a forum for word of mouth. It’s also a way for them to provide a “value add” to their customers as well as get input and feedback on trends. The information you’ve shared here will enable me to give them more tangible “to do’s. I’m going to spread the word about your blog, bookmark your site and visit often for more insights. Thanks for being such an effective resource!

francine hardaway March 6, 2008 at 1:06 pm

Lloyd, your comment reminded me that Ed and I have been creating a community of our customers for the entire time we’ve been in business — it’s the Stealthmode Roundtables! I just never thought of those dinners that way until you wrote me. THanks.

John Clark March 9, 2008 at 12:20 pm

I think that a niche community is something definitely worth pursuing. Deciding how to narrow your focus without getting too narrow takes a lot of thought. My first foray into community sites is:

Prior to attempting I have only operated e-commerce sites. They have been successful for me but I wanted to try something a little more personal.

Eric Moore March 17, 2008 at 5:50 pm

As Executive VP and Co-Founder of a fairly new and innovative online community website,, I can only tell you from my personal experience how to build an online community website. First, you have to examine what the other mainstream community websites are doing, who they are marketing to, study their demographics, and understand their niche. You have to look at all of the features and benefits they offer to their members, then come up with your own niche and lay out your plan on who, what, when, where, how and why you want to start an online community website.

In the case of, we chose to focus on specific recreations and hobbies. We also chose to make the site simple enough for users to pick a recreation or hobby “world” and have all of the features dynamically change to give a consistent feel to the end user, no matter what “world” they are in. Features, benefits, and content are the keys, and giving people multiple outlets to express themselves, meet others who share in their passions, find resources, and giving them the ability to express themselves will keep them coming back and word of your community website will spread.

Darla April 8, 2008 at 11:51 am

Great Post – I know i got to it a little late… ;-)

I also go to two great sites that have online support groups. It’s and, both are helping me with my health problems.

Check them out!

francine hardaway April 8, 2008 at 12:15 pm

Never too late. I have heard the woman from Daily Strength speak, but MDJunction is new to me. If you like online support, also try It’s for women.

jj2000 August 5, 2008 at 5:17 pm

how do u create 1 of those on ning plz help?thanks!gr8ly!!

Hiba October 13, 2008 at 2:34 am

Hi, will you please visit our community and take a look there

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