AppsLab FAQ: How Do I Start a Community?

I’m sure Justin has tips on this one to add. Maybe he’ll chime in now that the Oracle blogs migration has ended; by the way, I’m really peeved that is clogged with reposts from Oracle blogs.

Not really, but it’s funny to me. Won’t someone please think of the children?

But I digress.

People frequently come to me wanting to start this or that community as a done deal, e.g. I want to start a social network like Mix for my own product. To me this feels backwards. Usually, the reasoning is fine; they want to share content (product or support related) with their users. Great.

However, they tend to jump past the fact that there is already a huge Oracle community, spread across several sites (Mix, Oracle Wiki, OTN Forums) that is bound to include most of the people they hope to reach.

So, why would you want to do all that development and maintenance work? Reinventing the wheel is wasted effort.

In reality, starting a community has nothing to do with software or Interwebs. Communities already exist IRL, so moving them online is a natural exension that benefits everyone.

By going online, you can bring the community closer together, across geographical barriers and draw in new members. Interwebs +1.

So building a community isn’t really the goal; it’s finding the community and attracting it to wherever it is you want it to be. This is beauty of the social network. People coalesce around affinity groups, and chances are they’re already out there talking about your product or brand or whatever. This gives you a logical place to start.

Again, don’t reinvent the wheel. Join an existing community; asking people to please come over to another community is work. Take the path of least resistance.

OK, so you found a network, but it’s too general. How can you stake your claim and get your users talking about your product? This is where social apps, deployed within a network rule; think Facebook’s F8 platform and OpenSocial.

You found where your users are, now build them a space within that network where than can talk about your product and, mostly importantly, where you can engage them to collect their thoughts and share your own. Create a group. Ask questions. Share insights. Talk to them.

Now comes the tough part, managing the community. Community manager is rapidly gaining acceptance as a real job. Starbucks and Dell both have dozens of community managers whose job it is to interact with people who submit ideas online.

Protip: People like to be heard. Bonus points for a quick response.

Many times when I get feedback about Mix or Connect, it’s a bug. I often feel badly when I have to tell the person sorry, but we can’t fix that right away. Bugs suck.

Oddly, at least to me, people tend to understand and are forgiving. Frequently, they thank me for getting back to them so quickly, even with bad news.

You can see the same behavior on blogs, which are micro-communities (some are macro, I guess). Commenters want to have a dialog. If you’re blogging and not replying to comments, you’re doing it wrong.

The community manager’s job is to make everyone feel welcome and heard and help them find answers. It’s like being a concierge or a Walmart greeter, and yes, it’s a full-time job.

So, the main points here are: 1) the Field of Dreams approach doesn’t work well enough, leverage an existing community and 2) manage and cultivate your community, listen and respond.

Yeah, I glossed over some stuff like promotion, moderation and content, but that stuff’s secondary IMHO. After all, it’s moot if no one shows up to your community.

What did I miss? I know a lot of good community managers who could chime in with points I’ve missed.

Update: Dawn Foster, a season veteran of community management who frequently speaks about this topic at conferences, has companion posts on Hiring a Community Manager and How to Get a Community Manager Job over at her blog. Required reading. Another Dawn update: She posted another good read about corporate policy dos and don’ts. Why haven’t you subscribed to her blog yet?

Another update: Ted over at badgerworks reminded me of a couple other key pieces of advice. Know your users and be patient. For example, although it’s obvious to me what the orange RSS icon means and how to use it, that’s not a given for everyone. Taking this for granted will put off your users; that’s where the patient part applies. No community was built overnight, even the biggest community took time to develop, e.g. MySpace took several year to grow to hundreds of millions of users.

So, be patient and know your users as much as possible. And be agile, because just like blogging, you can’t always predict what will be interesting or useful, even if you know your users. So, you’ll want to recognize and capitalize on what works quickly.




  1. I'm glad that you said to join an existing community if there is one. I have a problem with both Oracle Mix and Oracle Wiki – each has forums. That would be good, if not for the fact that OTN already had excellent and active forums.

    Say I want to ask a question, and get the advice of the best experts I know. Where should I ask it? On Mix? On the Wiki? On OTN? On all three? Asking the same question in more than one place is considered rude, almost spam-like. Say I am willing to answer questions. Which forums should I monitor? Answering questions is not my primary job – I do it because I want to help, and because I consider it a fair trade for all the questions that I've had answered. I cannot afford the time to read ALL the forums.

    I wish that you and Justin and whoever monitors the Wiki for Oracle would get together and create ONE set of forums, and share them.

  2. This is a valid point, and Mix was never meant to compete with OTN forums. Questions are Mix were never meant to be forums, i.e. they're not threaded, not organized by topic, not monitored by any official source.

    The initial audience for Mix was Apps users, who don't really have forums. However, we saw high uptake from technical users and hence the overlap.

    I would use OTN forums for asking/answering questions. Mix fills that gap for people who don't use forums.

    As I mention in the post, OpenSocial will help alleviate this a bit because we'll be able to bridge the communities, including Eddie's, to some extent. Stay tuned for that.

  3. You're on thin ice with the orana flood reference – I seem to remember a certain firestorm when a certain person started an '8 things' flood :0)

  4. Chill dude, I was joking, I was a drop in that flood .. just messin' wi ya!
    Not sure why only certain blogs seem to have flooded orana thou – you dont want mine :0)

  5. John

    I try to monitor comments on my blog, mix, a bunch of internal forums and OTN forums and twitter. OTN forums are more active, so I agree that's first choice.

    It would be nice if they could be merged iwth mix, at least if I could post on an OTN forum as a mix user. Would be good to connect on mix with people I interact with on the forums, but I have no idea who user21993205 really is.

  6. We're hoping this will be a area where people will build OpenSocial apps, e.g. Eddie could build one to tie his community to Mix and vice versa, since Ning supports OS too.

  7. I summarize it as this: “BEE Communities” – Building, Engaging, Empowering Communities.

    3-Step ^_^ Most companies only build. Some reaches the 2nd step: engage. But it ends there. Very few really empowers their communities. It's all about keeping them active and stuck to you.

    I strongly agree: …some stuff like promotion, moderation and content, but that stuff’s secondary IMHO. After all, it’s moot if no one shows up to your community. I hope some great minds and gurus realizes that 😉

  8. Empowering is tough, but awesome if you can get there. Lazy web rules. Empowered users do stuff without you, which nicely marginalizes your role. Community should run itself, ideally making the community manager just another user.

  9. Yep exactly. I always tell that to my boss (and past bosses), one way of measuring the success of the Community is if it's running by itself. If we are still or if we keep on spoon-feeding them, they will depend on us, and I wouldn't call it a Community at all, just “community” 😉

    And yes, it is tough, so tough. But sometimes it is just amazing how some Communities that's built get users who are already empowered, while some communities have members who just want to sit, no matter what you do they will just sit. ^_^

  10. The hard parts are: 1) engaging already empowered users and convincing them your community is worthwhile and 2) finding new users who want to be empowered.

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