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How Do You Build an Online Community

Do you belong to any online communities, and if so, what are they and why do you find them useful? Online communities are not as easy to form as you would think, although we all hear about Facebook and MySpace and Twitter as if it took nothing to build one.

As part of Stealthmode's mission, I've been helping some sites develop their online communities lately, and I've been studying the issue to try to find out what makes them work. The four sites are completely different. To give them all a little plug, they are:

Real Self, a beauty site on which users evaluate beauty products and treatments, mostly having to do with anti-aging. I love it because the users tell us "what's worth it" and share their stories.

EmpowHer, a newly launched health information site for women, where women are encouraged to exchange information in the hope of receiving better treatment for conditions such as post-partum depression, heart disease, and thyroid disorders. I love this one because the founder started it to help other women avoid things such as unnecessary hysterectomy, which is still very prevalent in the US.

St. Lukes Health Initiatives, a foundation that is trying to help Arizona better its health care. I am part of a group blog at Arizona Health Futures.. You can become a blogger there too, if you have an interest. SLHI is also developing an online collaboration among the not-for-profits it funds. This one I love because it's mission is capacity building for nonprofits and public health.

The fourth is, a national database of recycling sites that is fifteen years old and very successful, but has not had an online community before. We're trying to launch a year of product stewardship information and idea exchange for small business as well as individuals.

Now a bit of history. For ten years, I've had a primitive online community at Yahoo Groups. It's the Stealthmode Group, and it sends one email a week about what I'm doing to a group that now numbers close to 2000 people. About 1-2% of the recipients write me back, and therefore I call myself the community manager for this group, which cannot write to each other (I do that to hold down the number of emails). I would call this group successful, because people also pass around these emails to their friends.

Most of the recipients of these emails don't read blogs and don't understand RSS. They just think my life is interesting enough for a weekly email.

My business partner also runs an online community that's ten years old. Its called The AZIPA List, and it consists of an announcement list for Arizona Internet Professionals Association and related events in the community, and a discussion list in which people can ask for help with technology problems. There's a separate jobs list, and a separate local tech newswire.

This list is also run through YahooGroups.

OK. Now to the buried lede.

Two of the sites I'm now helping are built on Drupal. They are loaded with features. The other two are built on Wordpress. A little difficult to manipulate.

Conclusion: what makes a successful online community? A single, easy-to-use feature. Click here to participate. Do only this one thing. After you get your participants "addicted," go ahead and add another thing. Most of us are too busy to learn how to use all the features of a full-featured online community. For me, an experienced software user, and a very transparent person, it's still easiest to Twitter. It's easy to Utter, but it's not so easy to listen to the Utterz of others. Video adds an entire other layer, although Seesmic is about the simplest video I've found.

I've led you through this entire analysis to make you understand that it's all about KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid). You can always add when the people are willing to learn because they see the value in the community.

Hat tip to Jeremiah Owyang and Guy Kawasaki for the tweets that helped me collate my thoughts this morning. The Dawn Patrol. These guys are always awake, always aware, always online.