I've been running successful online communities since the mid-1980s when I first got a modem, discovered bulletin boards, and wound up running one. Over the years I've discovered a few things about how to do it right. Here are seven keys to the kingdom:
- Make it a priority.
Quit whining that it's so much trouble to deal with commenting and community interaction. That's why they call it work. Be glad you have a chance to do it.
Community interaction should not be a marginal part of your online effort. Social interaction is a powerful basic human need.
The Internet is a social medium. Social-networking and forum sites get seven times the traffic of newspaper sites in the United States -- and more than any other type of site, including all search engines.
This is your opportunity to play a role at the center instead of the fringes of the online experience.
Have a clear community mission.
Why are you doing any of this? Why is any of this of any value at all to the community? Can you explain it in just a few sentences?
If your goal is just cheap pageviews that you can convert into revenue, then you pretty much deserve all the abuse you're going to collect.
Your mission shouldn't be about your site. Your site should be about your mission, and your mission should be about your community. What value are you trying to create?
- Share that vision and ask for help.
In 2005 we launched BlufftonToday.com in a town that was growing so rapidly that it was in danger of losing its center, its identity.
We did it with this language:
This is a new kind of community website that joins with the Bluffton Today newspaper in a mission of helping Bluffton come together as a community.
With your help, we will provide a friendly, safe, easy to use place on the Web for everyone in Bluffton to post news items, create a unified community calendar, and share photos, recipes, opinions.
This is a place where you take the lead in telling your own story. ....
In return, we ask that you meet this character challenge: be a good citizen and exhibit community leadership qualities. It's a simple and golden rule. Act as you would like your neighbors to act.
- Follow up with tight moderation.
You've made a promise: a friendly, safe place. Keep it. This means a zero-tolerance policy toward personal abuse and intimidation. Stop bullies before they start.
You may have heard that you shouldn't moderate user postings. That's absolutely not correct. In the United States at least, you may be legally wise not to edit or even prescreen user-posted content, but you should always remove content that is abusive, obscene, spam, scam or otherwise detrimental to the community goals you have set forth.
It's important to be consistent and thorough about this.
- Require registration with real information.
Don't allow anonymous commenting. Pseudonyms are another matter. Protecting commenters' personal privacy may be a good thing, but you should know who your users are.
Registration -- especially when coupled with a persistent personal profile -- is a powerful tool for moderating behavior.
The single biggest mistake you can make is to fail to show up at the party where you're supposed to be the host.
Your presence is important and valued by your users.
This isn't just a place for your "community interaction expert" or "social media editor."
This is a place for reporters and senior editors, too.
You will bring much to the party, but you'll also get much from the party.
Participation gives you a new window into the soul of your community -- what people think, what they value, what they know. You'll come away with ideas, leads, new directions.
And recognize this: As a journalist, your mission is not just to report the news. It's to help people discover and understand the truth. When you see misinformation in blogs or comments, don't ignore it. In a calm and nonconfrontational way, you should correct errors and misapprehensions. Point to authoritative material.
We no longer live in a world where it's good enough to gather, order and present information.
The story arc has been extended through community conversation, and journalists have an important role to play in the tail of the process.
- Give power to your users.
Recognize, in both words and action, that your site belongs to its user community as much as it belongs to you.
If you only "allow" commenting on news stories, you're not quite getting it.
Provide ways for your users to set the agenda. This might take any number of forms, but obvious ones are community-driven blogs and forums.
And provide tools for you users to help maintain the quality of the site. Your users will gladly help monitor your site for abuse if you provide tools to flag bad behavior.
If you do these things consistently, you'll be well down the road to maintaining that shared sense of purpose that is the ultimate key to a healthy online community.