How to Design an Online Community

A few days ago, a friend asked me: how do you design an online community? I thought about it for a few minutes and said, “the same way you design a university campus.”

Here’s the thing. Off and online communities really aren’t that different. Just like it’s true social media existed eons before Facebook, the best way to set up an online community is the way you’d set up an offline one. In order for an online community to operate like, well, a community, you first need a central place for people to go to, such as the student center. This is where people can go to get the latest information, get a campus map, can ask for help, and can meet a few people that can show them around. Once they know where the campus hub is, it’s a little easier to navigate to the other areas on campus, such as their dorm where they can stake out their own territory, or their classrooms, where they will learn, help others, and participate in conversations.

Do you see where I am going with this?

Here’s a picture of my alma mater campus to give you a nice visual.

Another interesting point to remember, is that just like college campuses evolve, so do communities. What should start off small, slow, and steady, might one day (although not necessary) become much larger and split off and propagate other mini-communities. When considering how to design your online community, it is crucial to take into account the lifecycle of a community so you build it on a platform that can accommodate evolution and change. Here’s a fantastic summary of what happens when your community grows up by Douglas Atkin (see image below as well).

The most important takeaway of my comparison of an online community to a college campus is the notion that when someone comes to an online community, they need to feel in a virtual way there is a place for them to perform different activities. There is a central place to see the latest information, meet new people, and ask questions. Also, it’s important for each person to have a place to go back to that operates as their own little space. This is why it is very important in online communities for members to have a profile page of their own, or at least an identity others can connect with and a safe way to interact. To me, the main differentiator between an online community and simply a social place (a Facebook fan page for example) is that in an online community, the main driver is for members to connect, learn from each other, and fuel the evolution of the community.

So, now that you have a visual about how an online community might be laid out, and the understanding of how online communities grow and evolve, what, specifically, do you build into an online community? Other than abstract metaphors such as dorms, a student center, a cafeteria, and classrooms.

Check out this other post by Douglas Atkin called What Are the Best Features for Community Making? He does an excellent job summarizing this. You can also simply check out a rocking community of 60,000+ members such as GovLoop to see a lot of the elements I discuss in action and make your own checklist.

A final point to consider is that a true online community certainly doesn’t exist just within the walls of its physical structure. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Your community extends much further than simply a blog post interaction that happens on your technical platform. A community — whether online or offline — is about engagement and interaction, and in this sense, defining a community or measuring the success of a community can be difficult, especially with its ever-evolving and growing nature.