Seven keys to building healthy online community

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. Share that vision and ask for help.

    In 2005 we launched 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Participate.

    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.

  7. 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.


Steve, love this post. Publishers/journalists must embrace tip #1 for the rest to happen. Your point that social interaction is a basic human need gets to the keys journalism has to unlock value creation for your consumers, formerly-known-as-advertisers, and you. Although folks like Paul Graham get a lot of exposure for the attitude that "No one will pay for content" , I believe folks like you are discovering a viable business model that starts with consumer value they'll pay for. You can add your thoughts to the others responding to Paul Graham at a separate location here: Katherine Warman Kern @comradity

I can understand that if the goal is community building, that it is desirable to associate commenters to some sort of identity, if only for the purpose of developing relationships with them. However, allowing anonymous commenting significantly reduces the barrier to entry and greatly increases your rate of community building. *IF* your goal in disallowing anonymity is simply creating identities, there are technical solutions that require little to no additional effort from end users, such as ip address/cookies/etc or making registering as simple as entering a name (or psuedonym) in a single field next to the comments.

Great ideas. I'm interested in your findings, "Social-networking and forum sites get seven times the traffic of newspaper sites in the United States." Can you pass along the source for this? Thanks.

The source of the traffic data is Hitwise. I'm not sure if it's in a public report or private report, or the timeframe (although it is recent data). The actual numbers are:

Social networking: 11.75% of web visits.
Search: 9.78%
Email sites: 7.72%
Portal sites: 5.84%
Newspaper sites: 1.69%

I previously discussed the various identity models in a post titled "Ano, pseudo ... what's the best 'nymity?" and in a paper written for Nieman Reports titled "Why Anonymity Exists and Works on Newspapers' Web Sites".

"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?" gave me a pause as I'm not sure we do really know why we've got forums. We lay out the welcome mat and say come in to users, but we're pretty neglectful hosts on the whole, usually because the management of a forum is an ad hoc arrangement to be squeezed in when someone in the community flags up a problem. Also, moderators appointed from within the forum community don't always get the support they need. Most newspapers tend to assume they do interaction and engagement very well, and it comes as a shock to learn that a Letters Page and occasional vox pop isn't really cutting it. I think a communities manager-type post is vital in a newsroom; someone who cares about and champions the forum users, commenters and bloggers can encourage journalists to get involved, because not many do so without prompting, and some need the value of doing so explained to them. However I fear the title looks like a luxury from an accountant's point of view. The value such a role brings can't easily be quantified, yet for all those who use a forum, the community manager is more likely to be viewed as the public face of the paper than the editor. Phew, I didn't mean to go on for so long. Really good post, given me lots to think about. Alison Gow

Like this concept. Struggling with idea of "then sell 'em on Ebay." Can you elaborate more on this? Create demand and visibility through key bloggers or peer group references and then auction future licenses every certain period x times a year? Looking forward to more thoughts, Jorge

My comment (on Twitter) was partially a joke and partially serious.

I have a Google Wave account. They're quite hard to get. There's a small number of people who are desperate to get Google Wave access, and earlier this week I saw a reference to Google Wave invitations being sold on Ebay.

Google Wave at this point is pretty low-value, sort of like an empty shopping mall. There's no content and unless your friends and coworkers are already on it, there's nothing to do. And yet there's that fanatic groups of Wave-wannabees who are willing to pay to get in.

Price is driven by scarcity. Trying to charge for something that isn't scarce is foolish, but you can charge for something foolish if it's scarce.