I have a very small discourse forum (forum.smartspaces.dmu.ac.uk) 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.