One thing is for sure -- just because you launch an online community doesnt mean people will use it. Since community software has been around for a long time, most people think its a no-brainer. But nine times out of ten, people underestimate what it really takes to build something great -- be it internal or external. Much like e-commerce, companies think that its something you can just "turn on." Some even attempt to write their own software.

 

Whatever you decide, save yourself some pain and keep the following things in mind:

 

*1. *Take the time to be smart

 

It takes anywhere from 2-6 weeks of planning on the front end of launching or re-launching an online community depending on your scope. Make sure you budget for it. Have an outline of what your plan should include. Set benchmarks -- who else is doing a good job? Why? Be sure to check out the landscape.

 

2. Draft clear blueprints

 

Sounds simple, but like anything else, it takes focus and your team's alignment about what you're building and its business value. There is not always agreement on your target audience, why they care, and how you'll measure success. Be sure to identify your internal executors and their precise dependencies -- otherwise what should be last steps can stretch to miles. And be clear about what youll do with your communitys output and what technology is the best for your goals  switching technology later inevitably frustrates your members.

 

3. Work to emulate "real life"

 

An online community has the same rules as a real-life community. Prospective and long-time members need to feel like it's built for them, and all the right ingredients are there. That means it should 1) resonate with the members, 2) be easy to connect to others and to helpful answers, 3) have a sense of member status, and 4) the interactions should create value. If it's not intuitive to do these things, people leave.

 

4. Reward people and content

 

Active community participants care deeply about their status in the community. Most companies greatly underestimate this and dont have a solid plan for how to reward members to motivate the right kind of contribution (and more people to contribute). If reward is not tightly tied to community-perceived value, then the system can be easily abused and the community can get upset. As well, make it easy for the community to create content, reward the content thats most valuable and have the power to expose that content to other members.

 

5. Make it ok to not be ok

 

For a community to thrive, everyone should feel like they can speak up. If the content is too hot or too cold, people wont add value. No one wants to be flamed. No one wants to join something lifeless. You have to provide a place that members can be opinionated and honest. Be sure you think through what you will and wont allow so you can provide an environment that feels true for everyone. And if you plan to have a corporate voice within the community, make sure it's "of the community" and not perceived as heavy-handed.

 

6. Easy does it

 

You knew this one would be on the list, didnt you? No one wants to learn how to participate, how to find answers or how to connect with the right people. These should be effortless and intuitive. Otherwise people give up or try other channels. While a lot has to do with software selection, a big part is how you stage the community and plan for growth. A short "how-to" can help, as long as it's simple and straightforward.

 

7. Stock the shelves

 

Think of content like groceries. Theres a shelf life, a value, people have to find it and it needs to be well merchandised. Not to mention that when you start one from scratch the shelves need to be stocked when you cut the ribbon. So, seed high-value content in the beginning. Do what you can to make sure that content is easily recognized as from you or from other community members (or both). And make sure that youre working the produce long after opening day.

 

8. Manage the store

 

Someone (emphasis on one) has to manage the store. They have to be in charge of the community. Make them accountable for being the companys ambassador to the community and being the voice of the community to the company. Like anything else, if theres not a clear leader things turn to mud.

 

9. Fearlessly listen and respond

 

Early warning can make a big difference. The more your company listens and responds to your members, the more members will stick with you. Look for a system that can notify you (and others) even if you're not in the community. Empower your community manager -- they should have an internal audience so they can surface whats happening in the community and get the right people involved. The manager should be able to offer community members quick resolutions when they need help. Build in automatic escalation, so if a question goes unanswered, an internal resource will make sure it gets closed. Sending members some cool t-shirts or other perks always works, too.

 

10. Make it you

 

Lastly, your community should reflect who you are. Get your company involved. Make sure its exposed and promoted heavily. Engage your brand owners to help ensure that the way it looks and feels rings true to your community. Be sure to find something you can customize and then take the time to do it. Design it as an extension of who you are as a company -- your community members will repay you tenfold.