Growing a Community is like Surviving in the Wilderness
If you listen, especially in the DC area, people in and around the web refer to "community building" on a regular basis. There are all sorts of community building strategies they might talk about: adding widgets, giving away prizes, finding a cause around which to rally. This makes it seem like a community is like a house: you start with a foundation, and every piece of wood you buy gets you closer to achieving your goal. Toss enough money, and you'll end up with something that at least passively resembles a house.
Hopefully, most have learned better by now. Despite what people giving out the awards at the big political conferences might say, spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a viral video campaign, a Facebook app, or anything else that generates a few dozen entries is not a success. Yet the money spent by our government, our politicians, and our favorite non-profits often goes into efforts like these.
A successful community effort is, first of all, grown, not built. This isn't Field of Dreams. Instead, you need to lay the groundwork and then spend the time, effort, and attention necessary to help things catch on.
Kevin Vigneault and I have talked about this a few times, and we've settled on the analogy that growing a community is like starting a fire in the wilderness. It's the middle of nowhere, you don't have a flint or a lighter, and you need to get a fire going. What do you need to do?
Step One: Tinder
Without tinder, you have no real shot of getting the fire going. Good tinder isn't just anything you find in the woods. It has to be the right kind of material, such that a spark will allow it to ignite.
In an online community, the tinder is usually the combination of your idea and your platform or app. Without a great idea, you're nowhere. Are you addressing a need that no one else is addressing well? Do you have a better way to do it? Are you going to be respected by the eventual community?
As far as platform is concerned, is this a blog? Is it a forum of some sort? Is it a web app that gathers user generated content? You can't just grab whatever platform is most convenient, but instead you have to consider what kind of platform will best be ignited by the smallest spark. Hint: there's no one-size-fits-all social platform, and it doesn't need to cost you a bundle — if it's the right platform, a little can go a long way.
Step Two: Spark
When you think of building a fire, you probably think of this part. Rubbing sticks or something like that to get a spark to fly. It's the most memorable part because it's the most tedious part of the process. It should be the most obvious part of growing an online community, but since everything online is supposed to be easy, people seem to forget the work involved.
You've got your platform set up, you'll need to work. Hard. You'll need to be your own community's biggest fan, doing a ton of what you hope your users will end up doing. Whether it's making posts, commenting on others' content, taking photos, telling others about your community, or making sure everyone who joins is greeted by a personal introduction to the community, you need to put in the time and effort.
If you do it right, you might get a spark. It might be small, devoted group of users, or maybe a writeup on a major blog, or a mention in the mainstream media. If you're lucky enough to get this spark, and you have the right tinder, you might get a flame.
Step Three: Kindling
Once you've managed to get the spark to ignite the tinder, you need to build the fire up using kindling. The point here is to increase the temperature of the fire with easily combustible materials so that the fire can light less combustible materials.
In practice, the kindling could be anything, but it's typically an audience one step more attainable than your eventual target audience. In Flickr's case, think of their kindling as being professional and semi-professional photographers. Once these active photographers latched onto Flickr as the platform of choice, they were in a much better position to reach out to the true audience: everyone who uses a digital camera or likes photographs.
Step Four: Fuel
Your fuel is what keeps your fire going. It burns slowly and steadily, but requires a well-built fire if it's going to ignite at all. In the end, it still needs to be the right kind of fuel, too, since soggy wood won't catch fire.
Throughout the lifetime of your community, you'll need to work to add fuel to the fire and keep it burning. Maybe that means making improvements to address the needs of the community. Maybe it means marketing your community to another area of your potential audience. This is the work that keeps your community from being a flash in the pan.
It's All About Work
In the end, every stage requires real, legit work on your part to prepare your community to move to the next level. And sometimes, even if you put all the work in, it might just not happen if the timing and the idea aren't quite right. What, you thought that just because it was online, it would be easy?