Where Business Meets the Blogroll

3 Keys To Starting an Online Community

Are You My Tribe?

I received an email last week asking me for advice about starting a new online community (thank you, ML).

I am thinking about starting my own social network. I have many questions. I was wondering do you think you could do a blog post about starting a social network? What do you think about the Ning platform? Which platform do you think would be best?

Even though I’ve formally studied online communities for nearly a decade, I found the question surprisingly difficult to answer. Nonetheless, here’s my summation of the 3 most important considerations for stating an online community.

1. Tribe or Guild?

At the most basic level, people are looking for one of two things in an online community:

  • Social: a place to hang out with friends, or
  • Information: a place to get answers to questions.

The best social networks provide both, but one or the other is the primary reason a group exists. (Tribes have guilds and guild members also form tribes.)

What can you provide? Do you have a particular talent for “throwing a good party”? In that case, you just might  pull off the exceeding difficult task of forging a tribe. People with common sensibilities are out there wandering the web, they are just really hard to find. (Hint: It helps if you can jump-start the process by co-opting an existing tribe.)

Or, are you more interested in hanging out with people who can share tips and tricks about a common interest? That’s the more typical route for an online community… guild members who swap stories, resources, and insights about an area of interest.

Pick one: tribe or guild. That’s your starting point for a clear vision.

2. Platforms Don’t Matter (Much), Only People Do

I can distinctly remember the first social network I was active in back in the late-1980’s … a bulletin-board like system for students, faculty, and staff of William & Mary (platform was Participate by Unison running on Primos). Green screens with 80 character columns.

Nothing fancy. No color. Not even bold or italics. Just text.

Yet, there was a strong sense of community. Countless hours to be wasted. It was great fun.

Now, the right platform can make it easier for people to find your community. It can make it easier to organize content, share responsibilities, and shape behaviors. But, the platform does not matter unless people want to be there.

Choosing the platform is one of the least important decisions. Identify a clear vision, create compelling value to members, and cultivate a bottomless reserve of patience and determination. That’s what will see your new community through.

3. The Big Secret

My most important advice for starting an online community is: don’t do it.

There are millions of online communities and social networks. If your interest is so obscure that no one is yet talking about it online, how will you ever attract enough interest to sustain a community?

Instead of forming a brand new online community, look hard and long for your existing tribe or your existing guild. Odds are good they will welcome your energy and enthusiasm. It’s not just the first follower, but also the second, third, fourth, and thousandth that make a community. You provide an invaluable service by channeling your energy and enthusiasm into an existing venture.

Your Turn

What do you think? Is there room on the world wide web for yet another social network? If you were starting an online community today, what platform would you recommend?

Image credit: Smithsonian Institution (no known copyright)

12 Responses to 3 Keys To Starting an Online Community

  • Thank you for this post Steven! I’m still thinking about it, but probably the best advice given here is not to do it in the first place. It always sounds like such a great idea, but the reality is a lot different. There are four major hurdles as I see it. One, is will you be able to generate enough interest in the site to create a viable community? This usually takes years to accomplish, and it usually takes a very long time to attract people. Two, can you find good people who are willing to be administrators? Someone needs to be available almost 24/7 to deal with problems, and it seems like problems always arise particularly conflicts with other members. Three, will you be prepared when people come to you with problems, and expect you to solve them? The idea of creating your own community sounds wonderful, but you have to keep in mind that while you will be able to take credit for any success, you will also be held responsible for any problems or failures that occur, and that’s definitely not any fun! Four, if you choose a site with the free plan, will you be willing to start making payments if that free plan is eliminated? It will take years until there will be enough traffic coming into the site to be able to monetize it with advertising. I met a woman on the Internet with the successful poetry community. However, she did indicate to me that she had to pay for the site herself for years, and it was becoming burdensome. A major consideration if you choose a paid platform is whether or not you are willing keep on putting money into the site.

    In light of all this, I’m still not sure if I want to start my own community or not. Currently, I’m checking with my lawyer to see if I need my own privacy policy, and terms of service. That is yet another issue that needs to be addressed. What legal documents does the community need to display, and what has to be in a terms of service document in order to keep from being sued? As you can see, starting your own community sounds like a lot of fun, but it’s fraught with all sorts of difficulties that most people don’t even think about when they’re considering to start such a venture. I think the conventional wisdom would be when in doubt, maybe would be better to start a blog, or a Facebook group, rather than starting your own community. As Steven points out, if your topic is something worth discussing, is probably already out there somewhere. Perhaps there is no need to start reinventing the wheel. On the other hand, I wish there were an alternative to Facebook. Zurker is an interesting site, but I don’t particularly care for the way that it is set up. If anyone knows of a good alternative Facebook other than Zurker, please let me know. Part of my interest in starting my own community was sparked by Facebook’s recent flagrant disregard for people’s privacy with their new search system, but I’m sure that you could write a whole other blog post about that. As I said, if anyone knows of a good alternative to Facebook, please let me know. I could go into what I don’t like about all the most obvious alternatives, but that would be long enough for a blog post, or possibly even the book. All that could certainly not be covered in one comment on a blog.

  • The platform that I’m thinking about using is called Spuz. I like it because it is very similar to Ning, but unlike Ning, they have a free of charge option where you can start your network for free. With Ning, all of their options are now paid. They used to have a free option, but it has been eliminated.

    Here is the link to my choice.


    If anyone knows of a better platform, please let me know.

  • Michael – Just curious, but why do you want to start a community? Maybe a better question, what audience are you aiming for? I’m simply just curious. I don’t have any answers.

  • wow I never really thought of this before, but your answers realy helped me better understand my social communities. thanks

  • I had the thought for several reasons.

    First, I have been hearing some dissatisfaction about Facebook’s privacy changes because of their graph search. I think a lot of people are upset about it. I think privacy is a very important issue, and I think that Facebook’s almost total disregard for people’s privacy actually leaves them pretty vulnerable to a competitor even if it were an almost total Facebook clone.

    Second, my sister allows my 12-year-old niece to be on Facebook even though the stated limit is 13 which is which is actually not high enough anyway. Facebook is terrible about safety. Facebook is filled with child pornography, and they refused to block it. I’ve tried to explain to my sister how dangerous Facebook is for children, but she won’t listen. I think that making a network that safe for people to use is very important. Once again, I think Facebook is very vulnerable on this issue. Anyone who creates a network similar to Facebook that respects peoples privacy and safety would in my opinion pose a big challenge for them since they disregard both of these things.

    Third, I’ve been looking for a way to make money online, and I thought starting a social network, and then making money by putting advertising on it would be a good thing to do. The model that Mark Zuckerberg has created works well for him, I see no reason why someone else could do the same thing, and at least make some kind of money with it.

    Fourth, it would be nice to have a private social network with just my friends in it, and I thought maybe other people feel the same way. For business, sometimes it’s great to be connected to people that you don’t know, but sometimes it can also be very irritating. I know it’s not a nice thing to say but it would be nice to have a social network where you could just keep the bad people out, and yes I know I’m making a judgment, but we make judgments every day, and I say sometimes it’s good to judge people! Some people say change the world. I say I would rather make my own world, and have it just the way I want it! It’s kind of antisocial, but if you ask me, it’s also the American Way!

  • I was thinking about starting a poetry social network, but the problem is that I have that I know a lot of people were not that interested in poetry, so just limiting it to poetry does not really achieve what I’m interested in, even though it sounds like the consensus is that trying to create a general social network is probably not realistic, but that is what I would like to do.

  • Hey all, interesting article. I do not fully agree with the platform being totally impartial to the success of your community. I have been developing and building http://www.doccler.com to foster communication and think it does a good job. The actual art of building relationships and gathering people together is similar to the real world counterpart. It’s very tricky.

  • thanks for nice instruction about starting-an-online-community, i agree with you tropics, thanks for sharing

  • excellent post buddy, lovely information, really i like this type of post , right now online community is very important build up our knowledge, thanks

  • We are building a community of travelers and writers at We Said Go Travel. Our 2nd travel writing contest had 187 writers from 33 communities. If you build it, they will come!
    We Said Go Travel

  • Interesting article thanks for this post . i also search this type of information for joining online community that can be very useful for your business. while now day’s million of people connect through social sites.

  • Well, I did make my own social network. I guess Steven was right. It was probably best not to do it because I’m really having a hard time getting people to join, but since I went ahead and made it, I thought why not post a link here just in case anyone is interested.


    Please do not join, and post spam! If you do, I will delete your account immediately, so don’t even think about it!