What follows is a list of social motivators, action items and design alternatives, based on social sciences research, that can help community designers as they start new online communities. The claims are organized by the challenges a community designer faces when starting a new community. This information is drawn from Bob Kraut and Paul Resnick's book:
Resnick, P, Konstan, J & Chen, Y. Starting new online communities. In Kraut, R. E. & Resnick, P. (eds.) Building successful online communities: Evidence-based social design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (In press). [PDF]
Many online communities fail despite the efforts of a committed leader. Outlined below are concrete actions that can help leaders effectively deal with the four major challenges in starting a new community:
1. Defining the community scope.
2. Setting up the community space.
3. Dealing with competition.
4. Gaining critical mass.
Defining the community scope
1. A mixed-topic scope (putting together multiple independent topics) reduces the expected value of engaging in the community. An ambiguous scope for an interaction space reduces the expected value of engaging in the community.
2. Activities that bridge interests in different topics increase value of engaging in spaces with mixed-topic scope.
3. A transcendent or bridging topical identity increases the value of engaging in communities with mixed-topic scope.
4. Ambiguity of scope for the community creates opportunities for adjustment and member ownership. Fighting against what the members want, by trying to stick to the original vision, can alienate them. On the other hand, the activity of negotiating the scope, can be a rewarding activity for some members, leading them to feel “ownership” of the community, and thus commitment to it.
5. A larger community leads to lower individual value of engaging in bond-based communities, since interpersonal bonds depend on repeated exposure to the same people.
Setting up the community space
1. Personalized collections of “most related content” enhance an individual’s value of engaging in the community, but reduce shared context among members.
2. Subdividing spaces after they become active creates more net benefits for participants than having lots of inactive spaces.
3. In communities with lots of interaction spaces, navigation aids that highlight more active spaces will increase the net benefits members experience.
4. In communities with lots of interaction spaces, recommender systems that help people navigate to spaces that best suit them will increase the net benefits people experience.
5. In synchronous spaces that are not always active, a schedule of “expected active times” can coordinate visitors and become a self-fulfilling expectation.
Dealing with competition.
1. Differentiated user interface elements in the competitor community create startup costs and thus favor the incumbent community in any competition over members.
2. Non-shared user IDs and profiles between incumbent and competitor communities creates startup costs and thus favors the incumbent community in any competition over members.
3. Content sharing between competing communities raises awareness of the exporting community and the value of posting there, but raises the value of consuming content in the importing community.
4. Conveying a succinct unique selling proposition will attract members.
5. Advertising and celebrity endorsements can help to create awareness of a community and thus make it a focal point in a competition between communities.
Gaining critical mass
(A) Increase pre-critical mass value of community to attract early members.
1. Single-user and small-group productivity, entertainment, or commerce tools can attract people to an online space before the community features are successful.
2. Providing access to professionally generated content can help attract people to an online space before the community features are successful.
3. Providing access to syndicated data can help attract people to an online space before the community features are successful, if the syndicated data is not otherwise easily accessible or if it is presented in a novel way that adds value.
4. Participation by professional staff can help attract people to an online space before the community features are successful.
5. Starting with a limited scope and expanding later allows focusing of staff resources toward getting to critical mass in the limited scope.
6. If professional staff act as contributors of last resort (e.g., give members a chance to answer questions), they will be needed less and less as the community achieves critical mass.
7. Bots that simulate other participants can help attract people to an online space before the community features are successful.
(B) Offer early adopter benefits.
1. Promising permanent discounts to early adopters can attract early adopters to the community.
2. Promoting the status or benefits of being early to an online community can attract early adopters to the community.
3. Promoting a site as cool but undiscovered can attract early adopters.
4. Creating scarce, claimable resources can induce prospective members to join earlier.
5. Contribution minima for maintaining scarce status can lead to greater contribution by status-holding members.
(C) Leverage early members to get more members.
1. Incentives for early members (e.g., discounts or free services) to generate content can increase bootstrapping.
2. User-generated primary content (e.g., blog entries, forum posts and responses, audio, video, and text documents) will do more to bootstrap additional membership than will user-generated metadata (e.g., tags, ratings, commentary about primary content), in the community startup stage.
3. Services that enable displays of membership that are visible to non-members will lead to bootstrapping.
4. Services that make members' actions in the community visible to their acquaintances outside the community will lead early participants to attract later participants.
5. Services that allow members to forward content from the community to their acquaintances outside the community will lead early participants to attract later participants.
6. Services that allow members to invite acquaintances outside the community to join will lead early participants to attract later participants.
(D) Set expectations that the community will succeed.
1. Professional site design increases expectations about the probability of success.
2. Visible expenditures can be a credible signal of commitment to future investment in a community, and thus help to increase expectations about the probability that the community will eventually succeed.
3. Images of members will convey the presence of other people, and thus expectations of future success.
4. Prominent display of user-contributed content will convey activity, and thus expectations of future success, as long as there is new user-contributed content.
5. Indicators of participation levels will convey activity, and thus expectations of future success, as long as there actually is activity.
6. Indicators of membership and content growth signal a higher probability that the community will eventually reach critical mass, provided there really is growth.
7. When a community is small and slow growing, acknowledging each new member or contribution creates a more favorable signal of growth than showing total numbers or percentage change.
8. When a community is small and fast growing, displaying percentage growth creates a more favorable signal of growth than displaying absolute numbers.
9. When a community has reached critical mass, displaying absolute numbers conveys a signal that the community is already successful.
10. Conditional participation commitments can draw people to join communities that they would not join if they had to do so without knowledge that others were also joining. With this approach, potential members can commit to joining (or to taking certain actions), but only if enough other people also commit to membership or actions that will cause the community to succeed.
11. Drawing analogies to successful communities can raise expectations that a new community will be similarly successful.
12. Drawing attention to external publicity and endorsements can raise expectations about future success.