wants to make a career change. She enjoys developing new business strategies
and wants to pursue a career in business development. But where should
she start? She doesn’t think she has the experience to get a job in the
field today. Should she get an MBA? Take an entry-level job in marketing?
She decides to do some research online.
she goes to a popular web site for finding jobs. She looks at the job
descriptions for business development directors and notes the qualifications.
She searches for other materials and finds a couple of articles on making
job changes and a message board, but nothing specifically on business
development. She leaves a message on the board describing her experience
and interests. When she returns two days later, the response to her question
from the moderator does not offer her any new insights. Sara doesn’t return
to the site. A week later, a community member has the answers and resources
Sara was looking for. Sara is not notified.
what Sara wants to do. It’s what all of us want to do regardless of the
content we are looking for or the type of web sites we visit: We want
to find the answer to our question. The answer we are looking for
may very well be on the site or in the head of one of the site’s community
members, but if we can’t find it when we need it in the context we expect,
the site becomes useless to us. Sara came to the site with a purpose,
but she did not have her needs met. She did not find a purposeful application.
What’s a purposeful application?
this scenario instead...
decides to try a web site that a friend recommended to help her with her
career questions. On the home page, she easily finds two categories of
interest: changing careers and business development. She explores both
of these finding articles, job openings, and other resources. As she explores
the content, she finds message boards on the topics of interest. She also
finds experts and mentors whom she can contact. She clicks on the profile
of the mentor who is a VP of business development at a well-known technology
company. She finds it easy to learn this mentor's availability, to read
feedback on his mentoring abilities from others in the mentoring community,
and to contact him without either of them revealing their email addresses.
Sara sends him an email through the mentoring application.
next day the mentor responds to her inquiry via email, answering her questions
and letting her know how he might be able to help. Based on this exchange,
she clicks on a link in the email that returns her to the web site so
she can sign up with this mentor.
in the first scenario were separate things: a message board for communicating
with other members and a search engine for finding articles and job descriptions.
In the second scenario, the mentoring application combined several communication
technologies with content and community members’ experience to provide
a meaningful context for Sara to find the answers to her questions.
the question is: What technologies do I need for my web site? The questions
should focus on the members of the community and their needs: How can
I attract a specific community to my web site? What do the members of
this community need? How can I make the members of the community available
to each other in a meaningful way? The answers to these questions lie
in real world, face-to-face communities.
The 12 Principles
it exists online, a web community is primarily a human association. To
best identify the necessary elements for building such community, it’s
vital to look to the study of human interaction. The 12 Principles developed
by RealCommunities, Inc., are based on sociological principles and offer
a framework for creating and sustaining vibrant web communities. These
principles are also a tool to help community producers remain rooted in
their community vision while making strategic or tactical decisions. Once
we’ve established the underlying human qualities that drive our coming
together online, the 12 Principles give us a unifying view from which
to design and implement technologies to support and enable such online
communities. And finally, they provide a methodology for figuring out
community functionality priorities.
principles are ordered in two groups: The first six relate to the underlying
human needs and expectations inherent in any community, while the final
six focus on the framework and structures that must exist to ensure a
group’s viability and success. None of these principles exists in a vacuum;
each relates to and depends on the other factors. For instance, without
identity and trust, there can be no reputation. In many cases, each principle
stems from the previous principles. Thus, identity grows out of shared
purpose, trust flows from identity and reputation builds from trust.
We have a shared goal or interest.
We know who’s who.
We recognize and build status based on our actions.
We regulate and moderate behavior according to shared
We have ways to share information and ideas.
We can relate to each other in smaller numbers.
We interact in a shared space that is appropriate to our goals.
We know who belongs and who doesn’t.
We know with whom we’re dealing and that it’s safe to do so.
Exchange: We have a system of exchange or barter and can
knowledge, support, goods, services,
Expression: We have a group identity and know what other
are doing. We can easily indicate our
preferences and opinions.
History: We can look back over our history and track our
Moving up the pyramid from foundation (history) to high-individual
(purpose) illustrates both the relationship between principles and their
tools can facilitate each of the 12 Principles in online communities if
the tools are designed and implemented to help community members answer
their questions. We will look at examples from sites that have effectively
expressed one or more of these principles.
First Principle: Purpose
performs a necessary and useful function for its members.
community needs a purpose. According to Cliff Figallo, author of Hosting
Web Communities, a “community should be a practical and useful thing
for people to join.” An online community must have a purpose to exist.
There should be a specific and identified core interest that draws people
to an online group; sharing a common purpose is the best first step to
building a loyal community of members. An online community will fail if
there is not a compelling reason for people to come together.
how do communities implement purpose online? Because they exist in digital
space, web communities must rely on a broad range of tools and applications
to help members accomplish goals. These tools can include member-generated
content from others who have been in similar situations; communication
tools like chat or discussion boards; functionality such as calculators
or group calendars; and applications that provide mentoring, recommendations,
expert advice, or opinions. Whether the goal is to become a more knowledgeable
individual investor, share gardening experiences with others, or tap into
the power of community to lose weight, the tools should support the community’s
truly enable members to accomplish their goals, we need to tie the communication
and tracking tools together. An application of purpose—one that helps
members accomplish goals—is an integrated approach to providing user functionality
that combines many of the elements that make a community into a community.
For instance, a weight loss community might feature an application of
purpose that does a variety of things, such as:
Provide a body mass index (BMI) calculator
and other tools.
Offer a dynamically-generated journal function
for tracking progress.
Provide context sensitive means to form relationships
with other members who have knowledge or experience in losing weight.
provides users with a clear purpose: help others resolve relationship
issues or find
others to help with relationship questions. www.thirdage.com
The Second Principle: Identity
can identify each other and build relationships
any community, we want to know who’s who. But since web-based communities
rely on words on a screen, traditional sensory cues are missing. For example,
we can’t look at the person and see his body language. The only way for
a community to thrive online is if it has ways to identify its members
to each other. The challenge is to present a useful picture of each member
that’s consistent, current, and complete. Every participant must have
a persistent, yet dynamic identity, often in the form of a unique member
profile. In most cases, such identities are permission-based and dynamically
generated and updated according to the member’s behavior on the site.
This makes it clear to everyone who is responsible for any posts or actions.
While members don’t need to reveal their true off-line names or addresses,
they can adopt a consistent and recognizable identity in the community.
do you want to know about the members of your online community? Who they
are in relationship to your site’s purpose. The key elements to building
a member’s online identity include:
Dynamic, self-generated member identity—the
member typically creates an identity with core information such as username
and an email address. Each member leaves a signature trail left by the
member linking each contribution or action—so others in a community can
know members by what they say and do.
q Context-sensitive views of the member—so different members can access different views of a member’s profile,
depending on permission level, their relationship to that member, or what
part of the site they’re accessing.
q Ability to browse and search for members based on various criteria—members
can look for other members who share characteristics. This ability is
key to enabling members to share knowledge, build relationships, collaborate,
and do things together.
Fool’s Personal Profiles give users access to helpful information about
other users. www.thefools.com
have a reputation based on their activity and the expressed opinions of
in communities need ways to know how reliable or useful another member
is. This allows them to act on advice with some expectation of its quality
without the community producer acting as a reviewer or the police. Reputation
lies at the juncture between identity and trust and it influences behavior
in several ways. Reputation gives members a way to evaluate each other,
so they know whom to trust, or whom not to trust. Reputation helps people
form the best alliances to get the desired information. And the desire
to have a good reputation discourages bad behavior and encourages members
to request feedback from others to build their reputation.
where you—and those with whom you are dealing—stand is important in any
community. Online, visual cues often alert members about the hierarchy
and ratings of other members, allowing visitors a way to sort high quality
member-generated content, such as discussion board posts or product reviews,
from less useful contributions. These cues also help community producers
determine who and what the community likes and dislikes.
member should be able to gain status through expertise and appropriate
behavior, as defined by the community vision. Reputation can be based
on many things, from transaction volume, amount of contribution, or quality
of contribution. This encourages repeat visits and good participation,
as well as ensuring that appropriate behavior occurs over time, every
time. Some of the main ways that status can be granted and seen within
a community include:
q Icons that show how well thought of a member is—such an icon would appear
anywhere the member’s name appears.
q Status based on the feedback of others—such as the number of other members
who recommend a member.
q How many messages posted or actions performed on the website—often, status
and popularity are reflected through making many well-received contributions.
transaction community, users rely on the reputation of buyers and sellers
with whom they should trade. www.ebay.com
and members help manage the community, allowing it to grow
of every community need a clear sense of what they can and cannot do,
and who is in charge. Communities need to have tools that fit with the
level and type of governance they want. For instance, if users are in
charge, then they need the tools that let them be in charge.
the web, community governance is really about self-governance. Given the
scale of large and popular web communities, it is important that members
take responsibility for their own behavior and have the administrative
tools to self-govern in different situations. Self-governance is more
efficient, scaleable, and community-friendly than reporting infractions
to the community producer who then acts as a community police. Obviously,
there is a key link between reputation and governance: the better your
reputation, the more say you have in how the community runs.
of the key elements of online governance include:
q Community standards posted and enforced.
q Clearly stated rules for communication.
q Self-governing features, such as allowing members to silence or expel
q Hosted message boards and chat sessions, where the moderator acts to maintain
q Feedback and interaction mechanisms.
style of each community drives the type of governance it has. A closed
and hierarchical community might feature a greater degree of centralized
control than a free-spirited forum for an anything-goes debate.
Producers Workbench enables the facilitators of the community to monitor
individual members and the community’s
overall activity, as well as manage the look and feel of the site for
Fifth Principle: Communication
must be able to interact with each other
order for a community to exist, members must be able to communicate. One
of the key factors in the success of an online community is the richness
of possible communication vehicles and choices for members. On the web
various tools enable both synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous communication.
These tools include:
q Discussion groups/message boards
q Instant Messaging
q Data/image file sharing
q Product or service opinions and recommendations
all tools are effective on every site. They depend on the context of the
site and the audience it hopes to attract. Often asynchronous methods,
such as message boards or discussion groups, work best with organized
and archived information. Synchronous methods, like chat, can be good
for casual conversation. Chat may be popular on a teen site, but not as
appropriate for a site targeting corporate CEOs. There, discussion boards
may be more useful. Instead of providing maximum variety in communication
tools, it’s usually best to offer a couple of appropriate ones that work
really well and are easily accessible from all areas of the site.
Fool’s message boards enable users to find relevant topics and to communicate
with other members.
members can segment themselves according to specific interests or tasks
in communities belong to groups. Forming groups is a necessary and organic
process—it’s what humans do. All communities have groups within them that
focus on some subset of the community’s purpose or otherwise segment the
membership of the community. It’s how we get things done, whether off-
an online community this tendency to group and re-group must be respected
and facilitated. Technology that enables individuals to create, join,
and participate in purpose-oriented groups is key to making the website
more useful, hence more sticky. Web-based communities must enable groups
of members to have a group identity, a group place with clear privileges,
a way to administer group rules, and access to tools to implement joint
supports the formation of groups, such as Women Only (Sorry Guys!), and
communication between the group members. www.golfweb.com
The Seventh Principle: Environment
environment helps members achieve their purpose
an online community does not share geographical meeting space, it does
happen in a digital environment, and just like in the real world, that
environment affects each member’s experience. All web communities exist
within the framework of an online environment. To be effective, that environment—the
cyber town hall or recreation center—must be well-thought out and integrated
so the way it looks and navigates, and the types of content, commerce,
and functionality it offers, reflects the community and its goals and
community is different and functions best in an appropriate environment,
tailored to its specific needs and style. But, just as real-world meeting
spaces share certain characteristics that make them more welcoming and
useful—clearly marked entrances and exits, access to parking and transportation,
enough room for everyone—successful web sites must provide a relevant
and consistent experience for their users. Some of the key elements of
a successful, synergistic online environment include:
q Seamless and intuitive navigation throughout the site—both within the
community and between the community and non-community areas of the site.
q An easy-to-use and consistent interface across all areas—including welcome
pages, communication tools, applications, and pages of member-generated
q A cohesive and recognizable style—that crosses all areas, including the
design and layout, the types of content and commerce offered, and the
user functionality provided.
q Lots of relevant content, commerce, and applications linked in context—and
easy to access, search, navigate, and use.
q Controls in place to uphold environmental standards—such as an appropriate
profanity filter or restrictions on HTML and member-generated content.
q An appropriate business model that fits within the community’s purpose.
what you are buying on Amazon, the Amazon look, feel, tools, and content
site cohesive. www.amazon.com
The Eighth Principle:
The community knows why
it exists and who is outside and inside
community needs a clear definition of who can be a member, as well as
an understanding of who isn't or can't be a member. Without clearly drawn
boundaries, there is no incentive to become a member and no ability to
control access based on membership.
aren't just in place between members and non-members: Some sites reward
long-time active members with special privileges. Boundaries are also
important in creating and managing groups and sub-groups. For example,
if a group of people creates a specific weight loss group they have the
right to decide who can join, how they can join, and the mechanisms used
to administer these boundaries.
of the chief elements of boundaries in an online community include:
Registration to participateso that members can have
an online identity.
policy regarding non-member participationtypically, sites offer
read-only access to non-members, or make only certain parts of the site
available to them.
to who can be a memberthese could be as simple as anyone who registers,
or as complex as those with offline contractual relationships.
of member-generated content.
semi-private, and private areaswith clearly posted boundaries, depending
on what type of area it is. For instance, in a semi-public area, non-members
may be able to view content, but not post.
Wall Street Journal entices non-members with free content, but reserves
its prestigious content for its
member. Users must pass the login gate to access this content. www.wsj.com
The Ninth Principle: Trust
Members must be able to
build trust over time with other members and with community facilitators
trust, a community cannot function. Sociologists have extensively researched
trust in communities. They have identified that multiple positive interactions,
comprehensive understanding of the individual’s identity, and concurring
opinions of other trustworthy members are key to gaining trust in other
trust increases group efficiency and enables conflict resolution. As Cliff
Figallo states, “Trust is the social lubricant that makes community possible.”
Two kinds of trust exist in a web community: trust between members and
the site and trust between the members themselves. Software mechanisms
must be built in so members can reveal themselves to others incrementally,
as trust is earned. And since most people do not want to reveal more about
themselves than another is willing to reveal to them, tools that enable
“reciprocal disclosure” are necessary.
grows out of identity and is the basis for reputation. Key elements of
online trust include:
q Let members build trust over time.
q Online Actions policy
q Different levels of privacy—so members can reveal more about themselves
as they get to know each other.
q Certification and detailed profiles of certified experts—so that members
are able to trust that “experts” have the qualifications they say they
q Member verification of profiles
q Community management style and trustworthiness—Hands-off management garners
more trust and encourages greater self-governance than interfering or
a web of trust allows Epinions users to develop a reliable, personal resource
The Tenth Principle: Exchange
recognizes an exchange of value, from knowledge and ideas, to goods and
people join communities because they hope to exchange something they have,
whether it’s expertise, experiences, or services, for something that other
members have. These exchanges can be:
as when someone mentors you and you give feedback that improves her reputation
in the community or make a donation to his favorite charity.
instance, you run an online seminar on investing strategies you have used.
are three major benefits to these types of online exchanges:
A marketplace of members who share a common purpose and who might therefore
reasonably be expected to place similar values on things.
vehicle for checking the reputation and trustworthiness of those with
whom you are considering an exchange.
“currency” based on a member’s standing within the community, allowing
members to exchange positive feedback and reviews for goods and services.
users, identified as experts, exchange answers for payment and increased
status as technology experts.
has a recognizable character and community; members are aware of what
other members are doing
as each individual member has an identity, every community has a shared
sense of self. This “soul” or “personality” is an essential part of the
community, and can be seen through the ways that members communicate and
how they express themselves. If the concept of environment is how things
work within a community, then expression is how things feel. If identity
is how we know the individual, then expression is how we understand the
the principle of environment refers to more permanent things, such as
the style and tone of the community, expression is current, immediate,
and forever changing. A successful community expresses itself by:
q Profiling popular or currently “hot” users so other members know what
q Reflecting user opinion throughout site—what the community as a whole
thinks is currently important.
q Polling the community.
q Posting the most recent contributions to demonstrate activity.
q Posting chat schedules and current activity levels.
displays the top individual performers in a category that highlights both
community members and what the community
remembers what has happened and reacts and changes in response
sense of history is vital for an evolving online community. To get the
full value of a growing community, that community needs ways to remember,
as well as ways to forget. An archive of member-generated content adds
value, increasing the pool of available information and guiding further
development. While member-generated content should be eternal, since it
represents the collective wisdom of the group, individual transgressions
should have a statute of limitations.
should be able to redeem themselves, because a successful community learns
from its mistakes and from its members. A community also remembers its
members, even if they drift out of contact.
elements of online history include:
q An archive of old contributions, with the best member-generated content
highlighted or excerpted.
q Member profiles indicate what a member has done as well as when it was
histories on eBay provide information
about both products and community members who buy and sell these products.
12 Principles provide a framework for understanding how many sites have
answered for themselves the questions that we started with:
How can I attract a specific community to my web site and
keep them coming back?
What do the members of this community need?
How can I make the members of the community available to
each other in a meaningful way?
your turn to use this framework to answer these questions for your own
online community. Remember to listen, watch, and learn from your community
members as you go. You can probably think of several applications of purpose
that would help your community members communicate with you as well as
with each other.
Koch is Senior Product Marketing Manager at RealCommunities where she
leads the development of purpose applications. She has been working with
online learning communities for more than seven years. You can reach her
or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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