If You Build It, Will They Come? Probably Not Without Some Groundwork

So you’ve heard about this new trend – indeed, some say, the new way of doing media – user-generated content – and decide that you need to ride that wave. Well, as anyone who’s ever tried surfing will tell you, there is a need to plan exactly where and how to catch the wave – by watching and anticipating and practicing. (And maybe getting a little wet and turned upside down and almost drowning!)

This week, I received an email from Hope Equity, a pretty innovative organization working to improve the lives of poor people around the world through what they call “Micro Endowments,” which allow people to contribute to and fundraise for the charities they select. The money is invested and the returns are given to your charity of choice. The email announced Hope Equity’s new “streamlined, user-friendly” Web site. After checking it out (and without going into some of the accessibility issues), I saw a link to a “member’s blog,” part of the Community Center section. I clicked on the link only to find a generic post about the blog being a space for members to let their “voice be heard.” Apparently, the creators of the site intended for the blog to be a place where their constituents can talk about projects or ideas. Unfortunately, even almost a week later, the only posts from readers are two generic comments in the vein of “good for you” and “Hope Equity is great!” Not exactly something that will keep many people coming back.

As I’ve learned the hard way myself, just throwing up a collaborative space is not going to magically get people to participate. You need to do some advance work (watching, anticipating and practicing). Some basic tips:

1. Identify key constituents/ volunteers who could be the seed group. In this case, if you can find people who have their own blog or are young enough to have used social networking sites, you’ll probably have better success with them. Those are the low-hanging fruit. If there is some celebrity or leader type in your midst, it would make it exciting for others to see them participating, but you should be careful to make certain they understand the time commitment and be open to interacting with your other supporters and, perhaps, critics.

2. Work with the seed group to identify stories. What projects or charities have they been involved in? What are some of the common questions you get from prospective supporters? Perhaps your supporters can talk about their own experience – in this case, why did they pick the charity they support?

3. Keep monitoring and participating in the space. You should identify a staff member who will do this. Again, it should probably be someone who already participates in social media. Beth’s Blog, which discusses how non-profits can use social media, lists the following qualities to look for in a community manager:

  • Someone who is on the Internet a lot
  • A risk taker
  • Someone who is tech savvy, or at least comfortable or self taught
  • Someone who has grown up using the sites and really enjoys it
  • Someone who takes a less regimented in communications – less formal – uses happy faces
  • Someone who has a good online persona and personality
  • Someone who enjoys it

If you get these aspects covered, people who receive your announcement won’t go to the community blog (or wiki, or social network) and see nothing. It may be a challenge to get them to return if they think there is nothing going on in that space. Of course, all is not lost – Hope Equity can still focus on and promote their “Community Center” on their Web site. It just would have been much better if they had done this groundwork before announcing their revamped, “user friendly” site.

Do you have any secrets to online community building to share? Examples, good and bad?


1 comment so far

  1. Julie Gomoll on

    Screen for drama queens. Online communities tend to be hotbeds for drama – you need a CM who won’t get drawn in, and who won’t be judgemental.

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