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Best practices for online community growth

By True Ventures, February 15, 2011

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Building successful online communities requires a clear vision, a passionate audience, and a leadership team obsessed with community development and content curation. At Sponge, we focus on providing community managers with the best tools to build, manage, and promote online communities right out of the box. We’ve identified several best practices that influence long-term success. Here we’ll cover our top 5 best practices for launching, growing, and sustaining an online community.

1. Plan ahead

It is important to have a well defined purpose for your community. This will help you identify the key members, topic categories, and software features needed to build a successful community. Start by defining your target audience and reach out to 10-15 existing experts and influencers in your industry. Ask them what their ideal community would look like and together determine the topics and platform everyone is most comfortable with. At launch give these members special recognition and invite them to ask other experts to join conversations. This process can take a week or even a month, but its important that each of these initial members stays engaged.

2. Start simple, incorporate features as your community grows

In the conception and adolescence phases of your community, it is important to concentrate activity on core features. The more features you give to a small community, the more their actions and experiences will differ. It is important to define your core community experience and establish behavior patterns with your early members; this will make it easier for new members to join with very little friction. As your community grows you can slowly introduce new features and actions such as badges, image/video support, and direct messaging.

3. Segment your users and reward influencers

Your users will naturally segment themselves based on their usage patterns. The “1% Rule” states that 90% of a community’s membership will not participate; 9% will contribute only occasionally; and 1% will participate frequently, contributing the vast majority of content. For instance, more than 99% of Wikipedia’s users are “lurkers,” or people who read but rarely if ever post.  Only 0.2% of its members are active participants.  Wikipedia’s one-thousand most active members – a mere .003% of its total user base – contribute fully to two thirds of the site’s content.

It is important that community managers identify and reward their most active visitors. Many managers do so by incorporating a point/reputation system into their community design. Creating a hierarchy of users can be a powerful motivator for participation. For new or inactive users, incorporate features that offer low barriers to participation. Rating videos on YouTube, “Liking” posts and comments on Facebook, or retweeting on Twitter all provide a simple but interactive way for peripheral members to become invested in the community.

4. Give users a reason to come back

On the first visit it is easy to sign up a new user and introduce them to your community. However, getting them to come back is the challenge that most new communities don’t anticipate. One of the easiest ways to encourage a user to come back is by having them perform an action that will result in responses or opinions from other community members that will alert them to revisit. This is what makes question and answer communities so engaging and easy to join. Notify users of new comments/feedback/answers that encourage them to come back to the community. Email is the most powerful medium for bringing users back to your site; let users know when relevant content has been added to a discussion they took part in.

5. Utilize social networks to spread your message

Many community managers fear that social sites like Facebook and Twitter will decrease activity on their community. Facebook and Twitter are actually a great way to find new members for your community and update them with the latest activity. Facebook and Twitter are already a place where people go to share their interests and thoughts with their network and friends. Encouraging members to connect their Facebook and Twitter profiles to their community accounts will enable them to quickly share their content and accomplishments with their closest friends who are likely to share similar interests and join a community like yours.


Offline, we commonly organize around beliefs or topics that we closely identify with. This is common online as well, where niche communities typically consist of a small, but loyal membership. Growing an online community requires a deep understanding of your members’ behavior and motivation. Ultimately, growth will be driven by your membership base. Recognize and reward your most active contributors and make it easy for new users to “graduate” to higher levels of participation.

Just remember:

  • communities are hard to build
  • successful communities grow organically, not exponentially
  • understand user motivations
  • start simple give your community room to grow
  • recognize and reward member contribution
  • leverage the power of social sites to which your members belong

This post was written by Krutal Desai, founder of Sponge, a True Ventures Portfolio Company.