June 17, 2009

The Zen of Community

“Sometimes the key to finding something is not searching for it”
- me, pretending to be a zen master

The basic premise is simple, if a bit counter-intuitive: how do you create a successful online community? You create one by not trying to create it or, to be more specific, you take care of basic fundamental elements necessary for an online community's success, and the rest takes care of itself. The corollary might sound equally absurd--by trying to create a successful online community, the very ambition detracts from and possibly ruins your chances of actually doing it.

This concept is not without precedent: take happiness, for example. If you spend all your time looking for it, will you ever actually find it? Or does, as a Zen Buddhist might say, the search for happiness ruin your chances of actually finding it? Perhaps a better approach is to take care of the important things in life--family, health, career, and spiritual growth, and then happiness becomes a nice by-product of all of the above.

So what are the practical ramifications of this? I have written before about the roles of inspiration and perspiration in an online community. Specifically, I asked how does one inspire a community--is your community management all about measurements, i.e., perspiration, or is it about fostering a personal and emotional connection to your community, i.e., inspiration. After all, only so much of community dynamics may be measured directly. But we are still left with the question, "How do you create a healthy, dynamic, community?" If my premise is correct, the way forward is much the same as with the search for happiness: take care of the community building blocks, like your choice of web platform, community governance principles, interesting conversations, and a sense of purpose, and the rest will take care of itself.

The problem is classic--a company seeks something (growing, dynamic community) as an end in itself in the hopes that growing community == more sales opportunities. This is akin to the insecure high schooler actively seeking out new friends to expand their "cool" base. Sounds lame, eh? Well, so does a community that takes the same approach.

The same lessons for all social interactions also apply to community networks. Those who attract a dynamic group of friends and acquaintances do so through a combination of force of personality and, frankly, laissez faire. This ability to trust their immediate circle helps build a bi-directional personal bond.

Community != Sales

Community building is not the same as classic sales. The transactions are different in that the currency exchanged and expectations are both radically different. Whereas a sale has a logical beginning, middle and end (at least the initial transaction) with a tangible payoff, building a community can have a logical beginning, a muddled expansive middle, and sometimes never ends. To use an extreme example, it would be the difference between prostitution and trying to attract someone for mutual love.

This all sounds so touchy feely and emo. That's because it is! In the brave new world of online community building, this is what business has come to. Congratulations, you have won the privilege of trading in the currency of human emotions, and all of the logical inconsistencies that this implies. Trying to push a sales model for community building misses the point--while you might convince many people to join your community, are they going to enjoy the experience? Are they joining only because you require them to? And finally, have you laid the groundwork for a mutually beneficial relationship? (yes, I groaned, too) The key point here is that good community is good business, and that means learning a whole different acquisition process than the traditional sales model. Deal with it.

If you only measure your community's success by the number of signups and downloads, you might be missing a wide array of metrics that would give you a more complete picture. For example, how many friendships developed between your community members? How many between your internal staff and your community members? How many of your community members "pimp" your products online for free?

Keys to Not Building Vibrant Communities

(...because if you're still trying to build a vibrant community, you're missing the point)

Let's assume you are now convinced that a holistic approach is best. How do you resolve this dilemma of community building? Here are some basic building blocks of vibrant communities:

Your community is built in, not bolted on--this means that community participation is baked into the job descriptions and annual reviews of all of your staff. When evaluating your staff, do you measure their community contributions?

  • Nobody worries about community "freeloaders." Freeloaders are part and parcel of the modern online community. This becomes less of an obstacle once you are aware of the dynamic at play. For one thing, freeloaders help to add "activity" and "center of gravity" to your community, neither of which are easily measured nor quantifiable. Furthermore, it's important to realize that freeloaders can easily take their "business" and thus, their activity metrics, elsewhere. Realizing that freeloaders are important partners to cultivate is often the first step towards a better community.
  • You offer something compelling that others want. This one is obvious and is probably the easiest for others to understand, but it bears repeating anyway. Without something of interest and a rabid group of devotees, there is no there there. Sounds simple, right? But, there's a catch--you have to offer something compelling that pulls people in... and is also free of charge (perhaps for a nominal fee, but free is better).
  • Don't force potential community members to give up their identity. There is much disagreement over this, as many companies have built relatively successful communities and still required members to fill out information in order to actually do anything. It's not that you can't be successful doing this, it's that it misses the point. Would you rather sacrifice long-term affinity for short term sales leads? My experience tells me that those who are interested in future product transactions will make themselves available. Remember, the trick is to start off the relationship such that the other party wants to give you something willingly. If the point is to build a dynamic, bi-directional community that will want to reward it's sponsoring company, which is the best approach? My vote is for giving your members many opportunities to sign up but not forcing them to, unless there are mitigating circumstances, i.e., a forum spam problem that you cannot resolve without disallowing anonymous posts. I always tell people to trust their communities, and I believe that forcing signups is not a good first step.


By focusing more on delivering value to your community and remembering that participation is a two-way street, you'll be well on your way to experiencing the happy by-product of a growing, healthy community. Feel free to disagree with any of these in the comments below. What other community building blocks have I missed?

John Mark Walker has been a Free Software agitator and contributor for over a decade. He is currently freelancing as a community consultant and is available for interesting projects.

You can follow his random musings at twitter.com/johnmark, see his Linkedin profile at http://www.linkedin.com/in/johnmarkwalker, or check out his "There is no Open Source Community" blog at http://tinosc.blogspot.com/.