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The 5 Rules for Building a Community on the Internet

I found a piece by Guy Kawasaki which really got me thinking. It perfectly illustrates the disjunct we find between the allure of social networks (and my new obsession - niche business networks) and the practice of implementing them.

Many companies think that building a virtual community is as simple as throwing up a cool Web site that compels people to visit every day. Dream on. These sites are commercials, not communities. If you want to build a virtual community, here are the principles to implement:

Community before commerce. In the words of John Hagel III and Arthur G. Armstrong (authors of Net.Gain), "put community before commerce." That is, the purpose of these efforts is to build a community, not sell more stuff, so cool it on the commercialism. The community exists for its own benefit, not yours.

Communication comes next.
Build in the capability for people to communicate with each other via message boards and Internet mail lists. Peer-to-peer communication is more important than being able to communicate with the company. You're hosting the event, but it's a cocktail party, not a lecture.

Place the community's interests above your own.
The big picture is that a vibrant community will help you, but getting to this place means sacrificing short-term interests. For example, people should be able to freely discuss and endorse competitive products.

Tolerate criticism.
Not only should peple feel free to plug competitive products, they should be able to criticize your own. This freedom produces two desirable results: first, good public relations because tolerating criticism on a company-sponsored site is unheard of; second, free and voluminous customer feedback.

Encourage "personalities." Remember how one of the keys to the success of MTV was veejays with an attitude? The same is true of a Web site, so encourage your employees to develop online personalities to show that corporate thought police don't control your site.
These five rules get me excited me about the potential of the industry we’re in. Implementing these concepts — managing communities if you will — is not easy. It requires a subtle blend of youthful enthusiasm and know-how with some sage communication skills. As other TechLeader bloggers have been saying, new media and new web is merely the next arm in a marketer’s arsenal. If not applied strategically… well, it’ll ruin the fun for everyone.

Convincing a company to put community before commercial? Not an easy task. But when you witness corporate engagement (or customer engagement) on a scale only possible using social networking methodologies… a worthwhile one.

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