I don't think I really have to tell you that the phrase "if you build it, they will come" is a lot of crap when it comes to building a successful online community. So let's look at some things you should do if you want to be successful.

I had the opportunity to talk to Cecilia Edwards, Senior VP of Client Services for Telligent -- provider of community software for enterprises  -- about some research Telligent did on world-class communities. Here are some of the key takeaways of that discussion.

First, Telligent's definition of community so we are clear:

The definition of community is regular interaction, a common objective, and relationships

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Social Ecosystem

9 Characteristics of World Class Communities

As an outcome of their survey Telligent identified 9 characteristics of successful communities. They focused on communities that were:

  1. Company-owned
  2. Relationship oriented
  3. Had an active membership
  4. Were built for the long-term impact and not a particular campaign

1. Identified Business Objectives

Successful communities drive long-term value and therefore need to be aligned to business objectives of the organization overall. There was a time when the focus was on the technology and everyone used (and sometimes still uses) the term "collaborate" on its own. But the big question really is "collaborate for what purpose?". You need to design your community to achieve your business objectives.

2. Being Personal

The focus is not on the brand or corporate message. You need to put a face in there to ensure a higher level of trust. The community manager is seen as the face of the brand, so that person needs to real, active and good at fostering participation.

3. Culture of Belonging

Relationships need to be encouraged. New users should be helped to get started and things like automatically friending of people who manage the community should be employed. According to Telligent, the relationship is the enabler, not the objective (as it is in social networks).

4. Relevant Content

Although the community will generate much of the content within it, the organization must also ensure that relevant content is provided. Much of the content within the community can't be found elsewhere and it's key for organizations to ensure the information community members have come to find is there.

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5. Leveraging the Wisdom of the Crowds

The organization doesn't always have to be the first to contribute content to the community. It must allow room for the community to contribute, and often before the organization does itself. Sometimes even the organization posts the questions for the community to answer.

6. Highlight Influential Members

Recognize your VIPs, those that contribute the most value to the community. You want to make it easier for them to contribute and be found by other community members.

7. Reward with Pixels

Offering promotions to join a community doesn't typically work -- people will pick up their reward and often move on. You need to reward participation with things like badges -- people who engage want to feel valued and appreciated, to feel like their opinion matters.

8. Establish & Enforce Guidelines

To ensure a sense a culture, you need to publish community guidelines and and publicly correct members. This does help get rid of trolls and bullies, but is not meant to get rid of constructive negative feedback to the organization. As the community develops it often become self-policing as well.

9. Membership Has its Privileges

Communities must offer something to members that they can't get anywhere else. There must be extra benefits that will encourage a sense of belonging. This in turn encourages a sense of commitment to the community and further drives participation.

Start with Basics and Go From There

There is a lot of advice on how to start and grow a community. But you can't do it all at once. Telligent recommends that you start with the basics. Also, you don't have to go big out of the gate. Know what you are ultimately trying to achieve and then start small to build your way there.

Make sure you are measuring the performance of your community and constantly evolving to make it a better place for your members.

And make sure you are engaging and staying visible. Successful communities are not to left to their own devices once they are set up.

ROI and Your Community

There are a lot of questions around how to determine ROI for your community. As Cecilia points out, the community is an enabler of ROI, it doesn't have its own ROI. If your community is based on clearly identified business objectives, then it should be easy to tie it back to ROI.

The challenge is to know what those business objectives are. It's also not completely about getting direct benefits, which makes it harder to quantify value. Telligent has identified three steps to getting to ROI:

  1. Plan and design the community so that it links to corporate objectives and is designed to meet business goals.
  2. Build the community by driving adoption and encouraging participation.
  3. Manage the community and measure your progress against your identified business goals, then calculate ROI.

It's important to understand that you can't expect a return when you launch a community. You start to see returns when the community is established and you have achieved the level of engagement that you want. As a result, the ongoing management of the community is critical and the community manager is key to that.

Planning the Second Visit

One of things Telligent talks about is "the second visit". Getting a person is come once is the easy part. Ensuring they come a second time is much harder and that's where you have to focus.

There's a lot more that Telligent offers in advice and guidance on building and maintaining a world class community. You can read more in their whitepaper: Strategies for Building World Class Communities.

We also did a tweetjam last month of the topic of communities. I encourage you to read the highlights and the archived discussion that came from a number of experts on the subject.