Community Building Success Factors

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what establishes the foundation for communities?  What matters most?  Which things are the building blocks for all other activities that go on?  I’ve identified what I believe to be the four most important building blocks for community: Leadership and vision, trusted converstations, infrastructure and simplicity. In this post we’ll look at each of these building blocks.

1. Leadership and Vision

I recently wrote a post about leadership and its significance to open source projects.  Leadership may be the single most important factor in your community’s success simply due to the fact that people want to belong and believe in something.  In essence people want to follow an inspiring message.  Some want to lead, but most want to be led towards a vision of the future that they believe in.  Well functioning communities lead their members towards an objective that solves real problems and is well defined.  Open source projects need well defined objectives like “enabling productive meetings” or “facilitating project communication”.  These are well defined goals that developers AND users can understand.  There is a poignant quote I recently read from Moving Mountains by Henry Boettinger that sums this up …

“confusion of objectives is the most frequent cause of failure to convince others of a good idea.”
–Henry Boettinger

Remember this simple set of rules when defining your community …

  • Solving important well defined problems leads to passionate users
  • Passion users create excitement for your movement
  • Excitement elicits action from your community

2. Trusted Conversations

If leadership is the most important component of success, trusted conversations is a strong second.  If you think about what communities are and what forms their nucleus, it’s conversation.  The reasons are simple.  The interaction between any two individuals is a conversation, an exchange of information, values, and beliefs.  Get lots of individuals together and there must be conversations at their boundaries in order for them to communicate and share information.

The other necessary component in these conversations is trust.  Communication must be authentic or else trust cannot form between parties.  For instance, if your community’s leaders always talk but rarely listen and are not particularly interested in community concerns, you’ll quickly lose the trust of your users.  Users will notice that your communication is not a conversation but a one-way flow of messages and that their needs are not being considered.  Communication in your community must flow both ways with the leadership of the project careful to listen to criticism and advice from the community and allow the community to help shape project decisions.  Once you begin to communicate with your community in a truly open fashion you’ll begin to see the benefit of an open and honest dialogue and feel it’s impact on your product’s roadmap and community’s growth.

3.  Infrastructure

Just like physical communities need infrastructure to thrive so to does virtual communities.  Physical communities have the town hall, soccer fields, sidewalks, and porches that allow neighbors to meet and converse.  Virtual communities rely primarily on technology to help their members communicate.  Ensuring that the communication infrastructure for your community provides necessary and appropriate tools for communication is critical to its growth.

Make sure you’ve developed an infrastructure strategy that “makes sense”.  Don’t implement every communication technology you can find, that will only make it harder for your members to find and participate in conversations.  Communication tools should help your members to communicate not distract them with choices.  You should ask a single question when analyzing your community’s tool choices…  Will this technology facilitate human interactions?  Always remember communities are about people not technology.

While we’re on the subject of human interactions let’s not forget that your community needs more than just electronic interactions.   If you’re managing a community make sure you don’t overlook the necessity of meeting someone in the real world.  Meeting someone face-to-face creates a different type of relationship with that person, a more human one.  Be sure your humanizing your community.

4. Simplicity

“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler” –Albert Einstein

If leadership is the most important factor in your project’s success, simplicity may be the hardest to achieve.  As odd as that sounds it’s true.  Henry David Thoreau once said, “Our life is frittered away by detail. simplify, simplify”.  He wasn’t talking about online communities but he was expressing a concern with the complexity of modern life (at the time) and encouraging people to strip away the unnecessary and to focus on the important.  His concern is one I share.  Communities sometimes forget that they have to present themselves in pure and simple terms in order to grow.  The message must be simple.  The ability to communicate should be simple.  The tools must be simple.  This is not because humans can’t grok (understand) complexity.  It’s that they don’t have time to.  In order to grow your community you must concentrate on the most important elements that have an impact.  This means simplifying as many things as possible to get to what truly makes your community unique and beneficial.