Levitt, Popkin and Hatch, in their article "Building Online Communities for High Profile Internet Sites" wrote, "Communities are organic in nature and site owners can't make them successful or force them to grow. A site owner can only provide the fertile ground on which a community may grow, and then provide some gentle guidance to help the group thrive. Much of the challenge in fostering an online community is social, rather than technical."
It is important to have a purpose for being online before building your community. Ask yourself these questions when designing your online community:
Why interact online?
- Is this space your only interaction or will it be blended with face-to-face meetings?
- What do you want to accomplish with your online community?
- Is that goal motivating or important enough so that people will overcome time and technical barriers to participate?
- Do potential participants understand how participating in the online community will benefit them?
- Have the participants shared in developing the purpose and goals of the online community?
- How will you know when your community has succeeded?
Consider the following as you build your community:
- Welcome new people with a personal note.
- Asking each participant to create a personal profile gives everyone in the community a tool to get to know other members. Encouraging members to view others' profiles, and keeping their own profiles up to date, helps build a sense of community.
- Create topics that encourage engagement.
- Find resources or content to share often. Member-generated resources (projects, images, websites, and even tips) builds community.
- Respond to members’ questions in a timely manner.
- Provide suggestions and offer support for members needing help.
- Pace yourself so you don't try to do too much too fast.
- Start with one to three words for your post.
- Put in directions on how you want people to share and reply to each other.
- Regularly start conversations using forums or blogs.
- Encourage people to post to blogs.
Going online is new to many and takes time for some to get used to. For a more detailed information on facilitation skills, go to Nancy White's article on “Facilitating and Hosting a Virtual Community”.
Read what happened to someone in their first online facilitation experience, at “Online Facilitation Skills” — note: be wary of the many distracting advertising links surrounding the text here.
Here is more on facilitation skills from Northwest Vista College faculty, at “Teaching Online: Online Facilitation Skills.”
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