I was asked by the fellow who runs the wwwcoder.com site to tell him how to grow a community online, and while I gave him some tips via email I promised I’d be blogging about this very topic in the near future. So here it is.

 

You’ll hear a lot of debate around Microsoft and a lot of buzzwords in action around the word “community.” You’ll also hear a lot of debate about approach – do we just link out to other people’s Web sites, do we keep running sites like asp.net and Gotdotnet as focused community satellites, do we concentrate on the events and in-person appearances. Where do we spend our money? Yadda yadda yadda. (I heard “leverage the infrastructure” perhaps 9 times already this week and caught myself saying it once!)

 

In the end you can think about two ways to grow your community.

 

First, the content….create your community *place* - a Web forum, a list serv, a blog, a café. Fill it with the best things you can find – code samples, witty comments, articles, pictures, job listings, widgets and arcane science. Put out the party favors to welcome the guests.

 

Then, your cohorts. Invite your guests to the party. Use every means not illegal and not tacky. (Spam isn’t just illegal, it’s tacky, and we just can’t have tacky in a good community). Remember that karma happens. As host, you do a lot of work in the beginning, setting things up and being cheery and helpful to the folks that come in. You do a lot of introducing – people to new content, people to other people, people to yourself and how you think. Persona and personality play a part in being the community enabler, but if you have your members’ best interest in mind, it’s hard to go wrong with any even semi-functional personality.

 

When I started the Seattle chapter of Webgrrls, and the group wasn’t established yet, I’d rent a back room for $20/hour from the dearly-departed Speakeasy Café (it was a cafe AND ISP in the early days). I’d never know how many people would show up. But I had to fill that hour to the benefit of the 5 or 50 people that came. I had to keep the beat wondering I’d feel like a rejected dork because no one came. There’s a lot of dorkiness to starting a community, at least for people who are as honest with themselves about  their neuroses as I am. :D

 

And, it pains me to say this, but there’s quite a bit of similarity in the task of community building and marketing/sales efforts to reach the customer. The nice thing about community building is you aren’t coming by in order to take something from someone, but to give them something of yourself. Your passion for the technology, say, or your work with community leaders that they can use. 

 

You make your friends one at a time.

 

It’s really all the same playground stuff, except there are virtual identities and virtual communication channels to play with. There’s no magic bullet – you can spend more money to create golden trophy rewards, a better, faster Web page, or loud marketing campaigns but in the end it’s the quality of contact you insist on having with people and insist they have with each other.

  

Some books that have influenced me...(these link to Amazon) 

Peopleware: (it’s primarily about building software teams, but it’s also about community building if you think about it further)

 

The Tipping Point : Talks quite a bit about the people who are the social lynchpins.

 

Unleashing the Ideavirus: Quintessential Seth Godin.

 

Customers.com: Just a better way for doing business.

 

 

And finally on the topic of creativity:

 

Orbiting the Giant Hairball

 

 Edit: 7/15/2004 This post has been edited for better readabilty on MSDN.