So You Want to Start an Online Community? Where to Begin?

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In thinking about interviews I've done in the past year or so, one that consistently comes to mind as a favorite was with Vida Killian, manager of Dell's IdeaStorm network. Vida was exceptionally generous with her time and insights, perhaps not too surprising for someone whose job is all about facilitating conversation.


Among the information about IdeaStorm she shared: It falls under the purview of a 40-person team called Communities and Conversations, with members from varied backgrounds including tech support, customer support, marketing, communications and engineering. Managing the flood of ideas generated on the site is Dell's biggest challenge. Dell doesn't demand a hard ROI for the site. Instead, Vida told me: "It's the right thing to do, we want to listen to our customers, so let's do it."


I also find the concept of customer communities endlessly fascinating. So I was quite taken with a post by Jeremiah Owyang on his Web Strategy blog, listing ways to jump start an online community. I especially like how he refers to it as "an ongoing list," since new best practices are emerging all the time. In fact, some readers chimed in with great ideas of their own in a lengthy message string following Jeremiah's post.


I won't try to reproduce all of the suggestions here, but I will highlight some of my faves. If you like these, you might want to go back and read my post from last August, with some similar terrific thoughts on communities from Dion Hinchcliffe, ZDNet blogger and founder of the Enterprise Web 2.0 advisory and consulting firm Hinchcliffe & Company.


From Jeremiah:

  • Invite community influencers and advocates to the community first. They can kick the tires on the community, offer suggestions for improvement and invite other folks to join. (This could be a problem if your initial group is too small or takes too long to test the system. I wonder if this is part of what is plaguing Research in Motion's MyBlackBerry network.)
  • Involve your online community in real-world events.
  • Reward top contributors, by publicly acknowledging them and/or offering them a premium service. But don't pay them with money. (I guess that would imply something skeevy was going on. Some folks are suspicious of social media promotions in which money changes hands.)


More from his readers:

  • Actually build your community into your product. (Jeremiah notes Intuit and Autodesk are among companies doing this.)
  • Promote your community with a visible and persistent presence on your Web site.
  • Keep the community structure focused at first. More topics aren't necessarily better.
  • Understand why you are building a community in the first place. (Making sure your Web 2.0 efforts have a clear purpose is one of my favorite topics. I just harped on it again yesterday.)
  • Recruit community members by communicating with customers on their favorite social channels.
  • Approach the community with the idea, "How can we help our customers?" and not "What can we tell our customers?"
  • Give customers the ability to add their own content, such as video and podcasts.