7 Golden Rules for Virtual and Online Community Building


This short paper discusses the challenges in establishing a successful and thriving online or virtual community and suggests seven rules to help you avoid just creating yet another online ghost town!

The paper also introduces NLG (Network Leadership Game), a Business Simulation Game which allows leaders and teams to explore the challenges and dilemmas in trying to set up successful virtual communities.


Introduction: The Problem with Online Communities

Most online communities are simply online ghost towns. People register, get their login details, visit once, decide it is not for them and never return. This pattern is repeated over and over.

Maybe online communities are not for you? If you still want one - here are 7 rules to help you avoid the most obvious mistakes.

  1. There is no big bang
  2. Community Building takes time
  3. The community must have an engaging purpose
  4. Opportunism kills communities
  5. Protect your community
  6. Don't neglect place, face and voice
  7. Remember to build in some fun

Rule 1: There is no "Big Bang" way to Create an Instant Community

Real communities always start very small. "Big bang" communities are just crowds of the uncommitted - they might look like a group but they don't have what it takes. It is much better to have 5 or 6 really committed members than 50-60 members who are just there as spectators. If you have a solid group of 5 or 6 "founder members" you can grow your community to 10-12 if each member brings on board just one more and takes responsibility for inducting them and so on carefully adding members one at a time in waves.

Rule 2: Community Building Takes Time

Don't Start Unless you are Prepared to Commit to it for at Least 12 Months

Don't start a community and abandon it after a month - you will do your reputation no good whatsoever. Community building is like planting a garden - for a long time nothing seems to be happening then you get growth. Initially you must be prepared to plant the seeds (regular valuable posts) until you get engagement and find some other community leaders to share the burden with.

Rule 3: The Community must have an Engaging Purpose

If it is too Narrow or Boring then you are Doomed Before you Start

Think long and hard about this. For example, if you sell video conferencing services then the community focus might be everything to do with virtual engagement including good meeting practices. If you mention specific technology, then you should include a range of products not just one.

Rule 4: Opportunism Kills Communities

You Need Authentic Engagement

At some point, hopefully, you will have a valuable community developing nicely and the thought will enter your head "What harm would a little product update or promotional message do?" This is the devil talking - banish all such thoughts from your head. It takes a long time to build your community reputation (for authentic valuable knowledge) and just seconds to lose it!

Rule 5: Protect your Community

Don't let Spammers Destroy Your Hard Work

Once you get your community going the spammers will find you. There are two types to watch out for - external and internal. The external ones are easy to spot - typically they will post spam comments on public pages - you will filter a lot of these out simply by requiring login (as they are often spambots) but some will go to the trouble of logging in. When somebody does this once get rid of them and their contributions - they are not real members.

The second kind of spammers are those who join your community, lurk for a bit then start trying to take it over. You need to talk to them to see if they can become a leader in your community by working with you or whether you need to kick them out too. Be very vigilant here as competitors may join your community in disguise. HINT: A very important spam protection step is to carefully control a) who you allow to post messages and b) contact other members on a one-one basis (private message).

Rule 6: Don't Neglect Place, Face and Voice

Research shows that the strongest communities are those which have some element of connection around “place”. In many cases with geographically dispersed communities it is simply not possible. However, if you can see if there are ways that parts of your community can meet in person (best) or if not in person then virtually using video conferencing and audio conferencing. You really have no excuse for neglecting this aspect with great free and paid tools now so well established.

It is also a point proven by research that until somebody meets you or sees you on video then they are not totally convinced you are a real person and are likely to let you down. This is known as “free-riding” in communities.

Rule 7: Remember to Build in Some fun

Try and do somethings which are fun with your community - a community which has not laughed together is liable to fragment when the going gets tough.

Next Steps

Even if you faithfully follow these 7 rules community building is tricky and requires practice. Therein lies the problem – how do you practice community building in a safe environment?

This is why we created NLG, a Business Simulator which allows leaders and teams to explore the challenges and dilemmas in trying to set up successful online or virtual communities before they do it for live!

The Simulation allows you run a test community for 6 rounds covering 36 weeks in just 1-2 hours as a team. Each round you can test out different decisions, sequencing and options for virtual community building including:

NLG allows you to see your results on a visual dashboard which means you and your colleagues can review learning at end of each round. Even better you can play it as many times as you like so if you crash and burn it is not the end of the world!

If you really want an online community and you are doing it for the right reasons and you follow these seven rules and you take time to practice and prepare in advance of starting ... then you will not create another online ghost town!

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