Attributes of Thriving Online Communities

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 11.19.39 AMI got my start building online communities in 1999 with the launch of We grew from a cold start of 0 to 2 Million members in less than 2 years before being acquired by Gartner – it was an insane ride.

I was first asked the question of (more or less) “What makes a thriving community” during the first few months of our growth, and frankly, I didn’t have a good answer at the time. I was primarily focused on designing the site, rolling out new features (like one of the first peer networks in the space), and tweaking architecture. One night when we were working on what was essentially a Social Q&A feature, I checked into our forums to look for inspiration and ideas around how people typically ask technical questions. What I stumbled into was an exchange in the forums about configuring Windows NT for a very specific enterprise environment. Probably 100 in the entire world were capable of having a meaningful conversation about this topic, and we had attracted 10 of this. For TechRepublic at that time, a thriving community meant attracting the most knowledgeable IT Pros in the world, and incentivizing them to share and participate.

I’ve asked myself the “what makes a thriving community” a lot over the years, especially when my practice takes me into a new domain. What worked at TechRepublic in ’99 and Autodesk in 2001 wasn’t necessarily the same criteria for the large NPO communities and collaboration spaces we did at Forum One, or even the range of communities we built and nurtured at Dell.

I was asked to think about the question again last week, and I put together the following list. Given where brands generally are with their social and community efforts, I feel like this is a good and succinct list – by no means comprehensive – but directionally correct.

Attributes of Thriving Communities

Attribute What it looks like to host: What it looks like to member:
Shared Value Business value in the form of answers, content, connection, expertise, & advocacy. Value in the form of answers, content, connection, expertise & access.
Shared Identity Members rally around, inhabit, and shape community brand. Helps birth and shape community brand.
Vibrant Participation Visible, regular and quality member participation and contribution. Regular Host presence, contribution and facilitation.
Community Leadership Defined rank and reputation model; extending management to members. Meaningful ranks and status; clear paths to achievement and privileges.
Quality Content Content base growing and evolving to most valuable state. Contribution, curation and feedback to evolve content quality.
Expertise Community attracts and develops SMEs. SMEs from host are regular community participants; opportunity to learn & develop.
Culture of Trust Culture of openness and civility. Members air grievances respectfully. Feel connected to host, part of governance & free to provide critical feedback.
Elegant Experience Mature community & social tools, fantastic UX, committed roadmap. Easy to participate and contribute, needs-driven features.
Growth & Responsiveness Base follows growth curve of brand / product. Base guides features & policy. Steady influx of new & quality members, participation in community governance.


What would you add?

17 responses to “Attributes of Thriving Online Communities”

    • Thanks Jeremiah – the thing I don’t think most don’t get about a thriving community is that value exchange is at the heart of the strategy… and that done properly, communities can actually be generative – more value created than consumed.

      • Totally agree. Could part of the problem be that the field is called “community management” rather than something more empowering such as “community stewardship”? We manage problems and steward renewable resources. Embedding this terminology right into the job description probably affects how they see their role, no?

  1. This is such an exhaustive list, thank you for sharing. I find Community Leadership is usually what I see lacking: hierarchies are hard to discern in a lot of communities and they do so much to engage members and build brand advocacy.

    • Carrie – agreed and thanks for the comment. Most communities are on autopilot with the leadership model… whatever the default rms settings are. Big area for improvement in the area of practice.

  2. So happy to see the Community Leadership area include “clear paths to achievement and privileges”. So many times it’s hard to understand how my participation is valued.

  3. It might be interesting to put together a follow-up to this list that breaks out business value, at least from the host side. I do think that often the folks funding the community efforts–and this is especially true for external communities–are looking to see relevant audience growth as a KPI. So business value is the generic bucket for this.

  4. I couldn’t be at the session, but I wonder how any for-profit corporation most all of which are established to sell something new, can embrace the shareable economy except in those rare cases where they are peddling a means to facilitate sharing like AirBnB.

  5. Tom – I’m not sure if you meant to comment on this post or if you were offering feedback about the Collaborative Economy event? Maybe you could elaborate on your question / idea via a blog post?

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