Looking to build an online community from scratch? Use this model to build a solid foundation based on theory, data, and research.
Online communities are not just about engagement , but also about providing information to people on several different levels. Before you can you understand why people create content or contribute to your community, it is important to you understand why they are there and what needs it fulfils.
Communication theory will not only help guide you to better understanding your community, but all online communities in particular. Further, if you combine past research and theory that specifically relates to computer mediated communication you will also find a model that allows you to generate a solid foundation for any online community. More specifically something called the Self-sustaining online community ecosystem model or SSOCEM (pronounced Sock-um).
While there are numerous computer mediated communication theories that apply, SSOCEM focuses on three specific ones and runs parallel to a psychological theory.
Creating a Foundation
When it comes time to build your online community there is one primary question you must ask: What will it be about?
Once the theme has been identified you must do some research to ensure there are no other communities like it that are active, and if there are you must be able to provide something unique enough that people will utilize it. Another aspect to note that the more specific and unique the community, the greater the likelihood of there being less people that would utilize it. In other words be unique, but don’t be so specific that it excludes a majority of the related users. Additionally you uniqueness can also come in the form of a better offering (better tools, access to better information or experts, etc.)
Now that you have a theme and identified that there is a need for the online community to exist it is time to take a look at how you will research who will likely benefit from it, and what their needs are.
Communication Theory and the Self-Sustaining Online Community Ecosystem Model
Phase 1: New Member Discovery
When building your foundation you must place yourself in the shoes of your directed audience. The community is about the users, not the brand that it represents. The more that your community can provide them, the more you and your brand can get from it (whether it be customer service focused, social, professional, or even political).
Lurkers and content consumers will make up the majority of any online communities user base, and because all users initially start at this level it is important to fulfil their most basic of needs, and based on their level of motivation they will progress and evolved through your ecosystem.
Based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs a person will seek to fulfill their safety needs after they have their physiological needs provided. If we compare this to a new user seeking information that will assist them in fulfilling this need, and your community houses that information they are likely to find it. Whether it’s because one of your members already asked it or you had the content seeded for further discussion, a community is a library of information from many collective minds.
If it’s easy enough to navigate and use, this could also increase the chances that the user will want to share their own thoughts or expand on what has been said; however, based on statistics alone this person will remain a Lurker.
Details on what roles members play – Session 1 recap.
Phase 2: The Adaptive Structuration Theory – Why your users are not engaging
The Adaptive Structuration Theory (AST) acts as the first barrier between a member being a Lurker or an engaged user. If a person can use the community tools properly or adapt to it, combined with a motivation that falls after the Saftey need based on the Hierarchy of Needs, they will likely want to engage rather than simply consume or share content.
Further, as the community interacts more and more with the tools associated with it they do expect a certain amount of change to occur based on their feedback (For further details on AST seek the theory’s founders, DeSanctis and Poole, research Capturing the Complexity in Advanced Technology Use:Adaptive Structuration Theory).
Details on community tools and understanding engagement – Session 2 recap.
Phase 3: Communication Accommodation Theory – Finding your engaged users
As members begin to engage with one another and the tools are evolving based on their needs there are still other roadblocks that prevent them from advancing. Based on past research and my own independent study users frequently noted that they would observe how other members were interacting before engaging with them. Simply put they learn about the social norms of a community before attempting to belong.
For a person to want to belong (the third attribute in The Hierarchy of Needs) to a community means they must adapt to it, fit in, and converge with them. The second communication theory that acts as a barrier is that of the Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) that states a person will either converge (to belong) or diverge (purposefully or lazily not align with social norms). If they converge with the member base they will not only belong, but potentially even be motivated to increase their esteem needs (fourth attribute of The Hierarchy of Needs). As someone who now belongs to the community they may receive positive praise or reinforcement that fulfills their esteem needs.
Details on creating policies to increase engagement and protect your members – Session 3 recap.
Phase 4: The Spiral of Silence and Your Power Users – Where your most engaged users are or will be
Power Users are your communities 1%. They create the most content, are frequent contributors, and many of your users are familiar with them (either based on their name or username). The Spiral of Silence works both as a barrier and as a tool for members though. The difference between an advanced member who contributes frequently, and that of the Power User is based on both their motivation and ability to have others converge to their methods.
Someone who wants to appear as an expert in their field (or the community’s theme) will be seeking self-actualization (based on the final tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Simply put a Power User not only belongs to the community, but wields the power that comes from surpassing the barriers found in the three prior communication theories.
Details and insights from a Community Manager, Reddit’s General Manager Erik Martin.
Feel free to use this model as you please, but if you repost it or alter it let me know. Communication is ever changing, and it should always be improved upon regardless of the author.
How to use this model: During each phase there are questions you should incorporate into your strategy and planning. If you can properly answer the questions, and ensure you can motivate different aspects of your community to fulfill their role in the ecosystem you will have not only built a solid foundation, but potentially a successful online community.
Understand that each member type plays a vital role in your community. Whether it is the Active Lurker sharing your content and helping you grow, or the members engaging and creating content so that lurkers can share it. Online communities are self-sustaining only if you allow members to fall into their own categories. Don’t try to add gimmicks like badges to get a lurker to engage, when it may in fact result in a failure to communicate and a complete turn-off from the community all together.
[Image via The Mudflats]