The idea sounds so irresistible: Let’s build an online platform where our members and partners can share experiences, learn from each other and collaborate! In practice it can be a lot more difficult.

Building ISEAL‘s online community has been an incredible learning experience. When we started the process in January 2009, all we had was a list of required functionality (wiki! blogs! groups!) and a budget that needed to be spent by the end of March. The project evolved over time, finally resulting in a custom member-only Drupal platform that we supplemented with external solutions for webinars and mailing lists. Here are just some of the lessons we learned:

Lesson #1: First think benefits and interactions, then think tools.

After we contracted our first agency, they interviewed a subset of our users. While we were excited about the new possibilities, our users told us that they fear that online platforms are a waste of time and that they prefer to manage their interactions by email. While we were excited about user-generated content, they mainly used the web as a source of information.

Lesson #2: Forget about ‘build it and they will come’.

Though we had a working prototype according to specifications, hardly anyone used it for a while. Staff claimed it was additional work – and continued using the tried and true means of email to engage their micro-audiences. We also didn’t really have a good understanding of whom we wanted to engage with what. With a limited amount of content on offer and no model for user interactions, members had little incentive to participate.

Lesson #3: Mix and mash instead of building one site to rule them all.

To avoid password confusion, we initially aimed for one site to cover all needs. Some functions turned out to be more costly to implement than useful: Instead of multiple levels of group permissions, wikis and fancy automated email integration, we redirected resources towards an intuitive navigation around the heaps of existing content and supplemented that with external services for webinars, consultations, email updates and discussions. This way, we benefit from tried-and-true software solutions and use our own platform as a portal to all offers.

Lesson #4: Avoid technical solutions for people problems.

We took the conscious decision not to automate everything until we had more information about the actual use of the system and the needs of the users. There’s no automatic email to users, only few workflows and plenty of freedom to categorize new items. Instead, we opted for lovingly written updates, for personal assistance and hand-picked related items. This extra editorial care helps us to keep information relevant and personal – crucial ingredients if we want users to return.

Clearly, we could have thought about some of these questions earlier. But then: We didn’t know then what we know now 😉

What has helped you in engaging communities online?

Lessons Learned: Building an Online Community
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One thought on “Lessons Learned: Building an Online Community

  • 22 April 2011 at 14:03

    These are good lessons learned! It’s so true that technological solutions will only be as successful as end users perceive them to be useful tools and actually choose to use them – and linking to existing online tools/communities that people already use and are familiar with while providing a “hub” that fills in any gaps is probably the best way to go in a lot of cases. Thanks, I always enjoy reading your posts. – Biko


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