How to build a community?

(Graeme Stuart) #1


I have a very small discourse forum ( that I set up in January as part of an energy saving project in Leicester in the UK. The project is a collaboration between the City Council and my University and involves 25 public buildings around the city (a pool of thousands of potential users). The forum is intended as a tool for building a community of like-minded people who work in or with these buildings.

We have already gathered a small group. After nearly three months there are now about 20 users registered, including some key people such as the energy managers and people directly working in sustainability but also some early adopters from buildings where there is already strong awareness of energy issues. About half of the users are actually directly involved in the project and half have joined based on our efforts so far. I have spoken to some users who are very comfortable with the concept of a forum but others who were sceptical at first and had to be ‘encouraged’ to contribute (and are now posting independently).

What I want to know is, how do I build a community around this small core? How do I keep the existing users engaged in the forum whilst also attracting new users? How do I support the disparate individuals and groups scattered amongst the thousands of building users to coalesce into a community around the forum? Importantly, how do I reach out to building users who may not be used to the concept of an online forum? The target audience don’t know they need a forum yet (I am certain some of them do need one). Many potential users will never have used one before and those who have may have prejudices based on their experiences.

An empty site is not very interesting so its obvious that in these early stages I need to seed the site with as many interesting discussions as possible. I have done a bit of this but I had to slow down because the site was just me talking to myself. I think this was enough to demonstrate the functionality of the tools to my colleagues and it did start a few short conversations.

We are now at the stage where we have half a dozen users who regularly post and create topics. But, just as the earliest posts were all me, it is beginning to feel like everything is a conversation between the same individuals. This may mean we are talking about a very limited range of subjects and I am worried this may put new user off. We are mostly energy geeks and professionals, we want to attract normal people.

I think we need a critical mass of users if the forum is to become a valuable resource for a wider user base. Is there any target size I should be aiming for? I have a target of 50 active users in the next few months. I also think that attracting the right kind of users and the right mix of users is important. I want a range of perspectives from senior managers, financial people, energy experts (covered), security guards, cleaners, sceptics, obsessives and people who can link out via twitter or wherever to lots of potential users. People who are going to start good topics and have different opinions. This is difficult when the number of users is so small and becomes easier with more users.

Does anyone have any advice or want to share their experiences? Is meta the right place for this discussion? Its not the usual feature request or bug report.

How I'm building traffic and retaining users in a new forum
New Community Feedback Needed: Small Squall
How to make people register on your forum and stay longer?
(Hrishikesh Thakre) #2

From my experience:

  1. Create a Facebook page for your site and when you post a new topic on forum share it on Facebook. Invite the people to share it / like it. Most of my friends and colleagues came to my forum through Facebook. If twitter is more famous in your place try that out. Don;t use your personal twitter / Facebook page. If you can attract more experts from energy domin by being a part of twitter discussions nothing like it.

  2. Try to keep the first post in the topic as an Open ended questions or a as a puzzle and allow people to express their view. You can provide the answers or expert opinion may be a 5- 7 days latter.It still may be only you but people would at-least read it twice a puzzle and it’s answers. Also provide generous likes to respondents.

  3. Number of registered users or number of views of each topics are not always a right matrix for small and new forums. To give example on my forum I have 5-10 visitors a day but none of them are registered users.
    Also remember most of the users will read topics but they don’t have different point of view on the topics you are covering or no point of view on the subject at all.
    But your content may be still a high value content. (For all the content I developed I have 30K+ views on SlideShare but not even 1K on my site.)

  4. If you already have established product and you or your product is famous it is easy to attract users, else for a forum to become a product it takes time.

Edit: I just browsed through few topics on your forum, it seems it is really expert’s stuff. So you can think of better categories as “Geek / Expert Section” or something, and a separate groups for new and novice users. Also make generous use of images from energy dashboard to drive a discussion. Or videos if any.

And you have to do better followup with answers. I would be interested to know the answer to Electricity base load - smartspaces Leicester :slight_smile:

Where can I ask non-technical questions around here?
(Craig Oda) #3

I suggest a central page for the group that identified the problem the group solves, the goal of the group and mission.

Define the problem in more compelling detail.   Make the problem seem like you guys are banding together to change the world in some small way.  Energy conservation in public buildings is something that people can rally behind.   Define the waste and have some goals for the group.

People will rally behind a goal, the bigger, the better.  By big, I mean something like first establishing a program at your site, then using that to showcase what can be done to improve energy use in public buildings.

Look at the other promotional channels you have. For example, there may be a newsletter that is already sent out. Focus efforts on finding the person in charge of the content and then linking from the newsletter to the forum.

There may be a web site. Tap into that.

As these are physical buildings, there may be a physical bulletin board that you can post a flier on.

Tie it into a physical meeting. Get a speaker on a relevant topic and then host a 30 mtg, casual talk. Serve chips and soda, or nothing.

You need 35 people that are active to sustain the group.

Define the benefits of joining. Is it professional development, problem/solution, social, networking. Or, is it a chance to learn about energy conservation in the hope that you can change how people can improve the planet? Align with other groups involved in energy conservation and make people in your group feel they are contributing to a bigger cause. For example, contact a person outside of your building, possibly from the utilities company to come in and talk about what other people are doing for energy conservation.

I would also experiment with email notifications for people registered in the forum. I personally have no experience with that, but I know that mailing lists like mailman will send out a notice occassionally, maybe once a month. Discourse has some summary features.

(Brian Jordan) #4

Would any of you be interested in a community about building communities? Message me if so, I’d love to have a dedicated place to talk about community building.

(Craig Oda) #5

Let’s talk about it here. You could also tie it to the features of the platform.

(Michael Lapidakis) #6

I would love to talk about building communities and hear how others have been successful. I’m working hard, trying to build a community with no existing product or movement backing it. It’s very tough to gain traction.

I’d love to hear your feedback:

The community is Small Squall; it’s a productivity community for teams to exchange ideas, tools and processes that have helped improve productivity and get to work. I’ve created all of the relevant social media pages (Twitter, Facebook and Google+) and share some of the topics. Google doesn’t love me yet, but that fights always hard.

So what’s next? Do I throw money at the problem and advertise more? Should I spam reddit with links and topics, or find other semi-relevant forums and post links? I was thinking a giveaway may work, like a free year of Evernote Premium, but how embarrassing would it be if no one entered in to win it?


There are many components involved with building a community. As others have mentioned, defining the scope and purpose of the community is a critical first step. Through that branding process, you also identify your target audience(s). Then it’s marketing time, when you try to connect your audience with the forum. Marketing involves a strong understanding of your audience, what communication channels can reach them, and what benefits will appeal to them. And during every step, you’re always working to promote and manage a lively forum community. Since you have a scope and audience already, I’ll offer a few suggestions on the marketing component.

Everett Rogers was a sociologist who spent much of his career exploring how “innovations” spread through a community. His initial interest in the field was sparked by the example of hybrid corn seed, which offered massive advantages over existing seed. Rogers noted that the hybrid corn seed was only used by a few farmers at first. This struck Rogers as somewhat odd, and motivated him to develop the “Diffusion of Innovations” theory. Diffusion theory broadly examines and explains how new ideas spread through communities or entire societies. While this theory has many limitations, it has been empirically validated exhaustively and can offer much insight to the Discourse community. After all, we are both a disruptive communication platform and many of us are also budding forum managers!

That background noted, here are some practical tips from Diffusion theory. These tips won’t necessarily help you find the best communication channels, but they should help you refine your messaging. Rogers discussed five key characteristics of innovations that could influence someone’s decision to adopt or reject an idea:

  • Relative Advantage: What’s the benefit? What do users gain from your forum? When considering the benefits, also think about the competition. What your forum is competing against? In-person meetings? Conferences? E-mail? Make sure the forum’s advantage is clearly articulated. A bigger advantage is obviously better than an incremental one.
  • Compatibility: If people aren’t used to message boards, Discourse will be a harder sell. You’ll need to consider how compatible forum use is for people. I think social networking has generally increased the “compatibility” of message boards for a wide audience, but older folks may still be hesitant to jump into the Discourse world. Presenting something as familiar and relatable (while still being better than alternatives) can be very helpful. If you have an older target audience, this might mean that you emphasize the fantastic e-mail functionality of the Discourse platform.
  • Complexity or Simplicity: If the forum is perceived as complicated or difficult to use, it will be a tough sell. Fortunately, the Discourse team has made the platform very easy and intuitive to use. Make sure to emphasize that in your communications.
  • Trialability: Let people know they can try the platform very easily without any commitment. People might have a fleeting interest in your message board, but if they have to hop through lots of registration hoops, they’ll give up. Luckily, with all the cross-platform registration options, trying a Discourse board is so easy. Make sure people know that they can instantly login with other accounts to try the forum with no commitment.
  • Observability: we all know that there will be lurkers. Lurking is good, because it allows people to view the innovation before actually participating. Observability means that the innovation is easy to see. This means that people can lurk on the forums, but also means that you should be showcasing your board on as many platforms as possible. For example, posting blogs and using Discourse for comments helps people “observe” the beauty of discussions on the platform. Ultimately, an innovation that is more visible will drive communication among folks’ peers and networks, hopefully eliciting positive vibes and higher user adoption.

Hopefully these five characteristics will give you some inspiration when deliberating what you communicate about your board.

(Loren Baum) #8

You should pitch to existing organizations and groups, thats how I’m growing my forum, but it may be a unique case because there are physically available groups which I can talk to.

It is a labor-intensive process but they will thank you. Another key is to provide unique content which is available on the forum. Instead of, lets say, sharing a link to a video or document, share a link to the forum post.

(Jeff Atwood) #9

Some interesting replies here, which I’ll summarize thusly:

  1. What unique content does your discussion area provide that they can’t get anywhere else? Is it certain people? Certain posts? General overall quality and high signal to noise? Be a jerk to yourself. Look at your own site and say “who cares”, then answer: why should they care? Fix that first.

  2. How understandable is the content? If someone who had never seen this before clicked on it, would they understand what is going on, what it’s for, and why it is there?

  3. How easy / simple is it to join, jump in and actively contribute? Only a certain percentage of users will transition from readers to writers. Is there a clear call to action that invites people to reply with their expertise, opinions, or funny stories and pictures? How much work is it for them to make this initial transition; is it worth it?

You might think on #3 that you should reduce the barrier to participation so low that any anonymous users can just type words on the page and click “Submit”. Trust me, you don’t want this. You want a small, toddler-sized barrier – having no barrier to registration at all means the bored and lazy people will inevitably overwhelm your site because they vastly outnumber everyone else. :wink:

We also added an official blog post on building your community which is worth checking out, it’s linked from every new Discourse install.

How to set up a forum - guidance and instruction
(Craig Oda) #10

As these are communities anchored by a physical building and central government group, I think you should tie in physical meetings with the online discussions. In my experience, the physical meetings will lead to dicussions in person that are continued online. Since you have 25 public buildings in your group, can you hold an annual Leicester Smartspaces mtg that starts small and grows from there?

Also, can you get the larger pan-European smartspaces project to spread awareness of the Leicester Smartspaces group? There are a bunch of partner links here. Maybe your forum can serve as a way to exchange information between smartspaces groups?

If you can’t hold your own Leicester Smartspaces group meetup, can you hold an informal meeting that coincides with an existing Leicester public sector conference? I’m thinking of a type of SIG for smartspaces.

it’s a great project. I hope that the online group succeeds.

(Alessio Fattorini) #11

Here you can find a lot of stuff:

Particularly here:


I don’t like the “thanks for discoursehosting” banner every time that I see a post.
Is annoying.

(Alessio Fattorini) #14

It’s offer by discoursehosting, it’s a due ads :smiley:

(Tobias Eigen) #15

I wouldn’t mind seeing a small ad somewhere, but it is puzzling to have it flash like that between views.

Glad to come across your site - I’ve signed up.

(Valerie Bock) #17

To add to the excellent suggestions which have already been made, one of the most compelling reasons to log into “yet another” website is because there are people there with whom who one already wishes to be communicating with, or possibly, by whom one wishes to be seen looking smart, with whom it’s very difficult to interact otherwise in day-to-day life.

Is there an expert in the field you could line up to be part of an “event” – maybe a q and a session for a week or so? You could publicize that effort and grab some new folks that way…