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July 18, 2007

Building a Community Site – It’s About People, Not Technology

Sometimes in the online world when approaching a project people seem to classify the issues facing a website as a technology issue. It’s as if building a web site is this mysterious thing wrapped in so much technology it’s just too much handle. Just sitting in the office of a technology provider gets nerve wracking; hearing all the techno geeks spitting out acronym after acronym and having no idea what any of it means – html, Ajax, XML, HTTP, Java, ASP, .NET, Web services, Web 2.0, what all does it mean?!

I’m here to tell you not to worry about all those acronyms, phrases, and geeks telling you what to do, do what you know. Websites are nothing but a different way of doing your business; bricks and mortar are the traditional way, but they both have something in common and that’s people. In this article I’m going to discuss community sites since they’re a growing influence on the web and generating plenty of interest.

Community; what do you think of when you hear community? Think of community as your own home town. Anyone who’s played Sim City should have some concept of what it takes to build a community. If you remember from the game, you had some cash to build houses, roads, and services. Now let’s look at that on the web, you have some money to build a site, network connection to the Internet, and some functionality to the site. The site is your community and to build it, you need to provide some place for people to live.

In the beginning in order to grow your community you have to provide a place for your users to live. Granted a site that is mostly static is nice to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there (sound familiar?). You have to provide something on your site to encourage people to want to live there. There are the usual features like forums, weblogs, profile pages and the like, that’s a good start, it gives a person a place to live.

When you add these “living spaces” for your users, consider what they provide, at a minimum they should provide your user community with the ability to express themselves. As in any community whether offline or online people want to express themselves and distinguish themselves from others in the crowd. They build this identity by the clothes they wear, cars they drive, and people they associate with. Online they do something similar; they create avatars, profiles to help them connect with others that have similar interests. And just like in the physical communities people go to churches, community activities, and other places to develop relationships with people that have similar interests. They’ll do the same on your website, but you need to provide them with a means to do. So when shopping for interactive applications ensure that they will provide mechanisms for your users to build those relationships.

As a community grows it needs leadership and this is the same online. For example, if your site becomes popular and has forums, usually you’ll see a few of your posters become pretty prominate in their activity, posting frequently. By providing them with moderator privileges or some special designation you allow leaders to step up, and provide the community with people who appear to have some connection to the site and help build community and participation. You could extend the moderator concept to enable your users to host online chats, or even participate in podcasts or weblog posts.

As time goes by your site leaders will come and go, and it will be up to you to monitor activity within the site and find leaders. This further enhances the community aspect and allows your community to be dynamic.

Another thing to foster growth and participation is to have periodic contests, contests that allow for some user contributed content is ideal. For example some sites have users submit stories, graphics like humorous graphics, basically anything that builds content for your site, but still enables your population to contribute to the site. The cost is relatively low, and if you have the traffic you may be able to work relationships with sponsors to provide the spoils to the winner.

The main idea to take from this article is community sites are not about technology, they’re about people. Find out what people like and enable them to “own” your site. If you do this your site is sure to grow and prosper. Good luck!

Author:  Patrick Santry has been conducting web and eBusiness strategy for over 13 years. He has authored numerous books on web technologies, and is a sought after speaker on web topics. His current project is helping his daughter on which is a community for fans of the band The Jonas Brothers.