My participation in virtual communities – or online forums – goes back some fifteen years. Like many people, I stumbled upon the communities or forum sites in the results page of the search engines, then hung around to read and learn. After a while I found I could answer a question or two. Soon my expertise and experience grew, and I became a regular contributor.
In all these years I’ve seen a lot of online forum sites and been an active member on quite a few. I’ve learned a lot about what makes or breaks a virtual community. This article highlights a few key elements that I find important.
What makes a community?
This may sound a bit trite, but no community can exist without people. A healthy and vibrant online community needs lots of participants to stay alive. There are different kinds of participants, and very often active participants will go through all the stages.
Just passing by – This is probably the majority of people in any tech community. These casual visitors have arrived at the community through a web search. They find what they are looking for (or don’t), and then move on. They probably only return if another web search points them back to the site.
Silent lurkers – These participants have bookmarked the forum or maybe even registered as a user, but they have never actively participated. They will still use search engines, but when the search result lists a familiar community, they will go there first.
Askers – They haven’t found the answer to their question on the web, so these people are brave (or desperate) enough to register with the site and start a new question. If they find prompt help, they will most likely return with more questions.
Answerers – They have different names in different communities, but they all do one thing: volunteer their knowledge to help answer questions asked by others.
Any community needs all these participants and they all contribute to the dynamics of a community. The equation goes something like this: Bigger community = more questions asked = more questions answered = more visibility in the search engine results = more visitors = bigger community.
Askers are by far the most important group in a community, though. Without new questions, any online forum will soon have stale, aged content. Experts who answer questions are often active in several communities and will go where the questions are.
Good tools for askers
Askers can only ask questions if they know how to do that. The user interface of an online community should make it super easy for people to ask a new question. See, these folks are already stressed because of a technical problem in their environment that they can’t solve under their own steam. In addition, people may not be very tech-savvy. Now they found the community, but before they can even ask a question, they first have to go through the registration process that sometimes involves verification emails. That’s another step between them and the solution to their problem.
Make it easy to ask questions. “I couldn’t find how to ask a new question, so I’m writing this here.” – If people then can’t find where to click to ask a new question, they often simply reply to an existing question and write their problem into the reply. If this happens all the time, it’s a clear indicator that the user interface is not sufficiently intuitive for askers.
Make it easy to provide details. “How do I attach a file?” – Some forums allow file attachments, others don’t. While this may be an intentional limitation to encourage verbal description of the problem, it’s often a lot easier to explain an issue with a screenshot or a sample file. Allow file attachments and show a large, friendly button for that instead of hiding it behind five clicks and two dialogs.
Keep people informed. “I couldn’t find my previous question.” – Some helpful tools for Askers include an easy-to-find list of the Asker’s questions, the option to keep an eye on other questions of interest, and notifications when questions get replied to.
Tools for answerers
People who answer a lot of questions have different requirements to the user interface than people who occasionally ask a question. For Answerers, a good interface needs tools to
- Scan and read new questions quickly
- Post demo files and screenshots easily
- Post code snippets
- Filter the list questions by different criteria (e.g. questions with no replies, solved, topic tags)
- List all questions the Answerer has participated in and sort/filter that list by different criteria
As an Answerer, I don’t need fancy graphics or flashy icons. My main concern is speed, because any time spent waiting for a new page to render is taking time away that I could use to answer someone’s question. The more modern forums often have rather slow browser interfaces, built more for the casual visitor than the dedicated Answerer.
Some Answerers enjoy the gamification of community participation. Being able to collect badges, reputation, kudos, and points will spur a little competition among experts and keep the fun in things.
A place to just hang out and shoot the breeze is also a very important part of a community. These non-technical areas of a site attract the social animals and help people get to know each other.
Mutual respect is the foundation of a successful community.
Experts need to respect newbies and remember that everybody is at a different stage of the learning curve. Don’t belittle or patronise anyone for not knowing something that you know. Although it is sometimes tempting to vent and ask someone if they still have the box that their computer came in (so they can return it to the shop) – please don’t. Step away from the keyboard and cool off.
Askers should respect that Answerers offer their time voluntarily. Provide sufficient detail to illustrate the problem and be aware that nobody can read your mind. Explain acronyms and jargon and don’t assume that everybody knows what you know.
The forum management should respect the needs of the community participants and be responsive to their feedback. Unresponsive management can be a great source of frustration for engaged forum participants. All feedback about the site should be acknowledged by forum management. Participants who report bugs or have suggestions for improving the user interface, help make the site a better place and will result in a happier user base with more returning customers.
What breaks a community
Too much policing
Each online community has its own set of rules and behavioural guidelines. In some forums a lot of effort goes into monitoring rules and moderators have a lot of work correcting posts or advising forum users. In my forum experience, some of the rules and their enforcement were taken so seriously that new and existing users were turned off. Too many rules lead to too many rules being broken. I find that communities with fewer rules are much more pleasant places to be.
For example, one site had strict rules about meaningful question titles. A question titled “Help!” would get moderator attention immediately and the asker would be prompted to change the question title. Answerers were told to hold off with their answer until the title was corrected and if they didn’t comply, they would be disciplined. That caused a lot of anger in the community. In another site, no such rule exists. Anybody can edit anyone else’s question and there is peer supervision for new users. Within minutes of a “Help!” question being posted, someone will correct the title to something more meaningful and nobody gets upset.
There is one rule, though, that seems to have high priority in all forums, and it should be enforced without exception: Zero tolerance for spam.
Hosting online communities is not a cheap undertaking. Some forums were started by enthusiasts who put a lot of heart blood into their site, nurtured it and grew it to a thriving community. Then they sold the forum to a new owner and things turned. When a forum changes hands, the new management may not share the same enthusiasm and may not be aware of the dynamics of a virtual community.
A community is always changing, never static, and requires tweaks and adjustments as the requirements of the participants evolve. What worked well a few years ago may no longer be sufficient.
Successful forum management will have a feedback channel for the participants and follow up on requests and suggestions. Forum owners need to keep in mind that these requests and suggestions are made by the people who keep the forum alive. Ignoring improvement requests will turn off regular visitors and forum participation will decline.
Most Askers expect that asking questions and receiving answers on the web is free. Many sites use advertising as a means to cover cost and maybe even generate profit. Sites that charge for answers are the exception. Answers behind paywalls are not very popular with search engines, and sites have been known to drop the paywall to prevent losing out on visitors. Some free sites have premium offers for special services like one-on-one tutoring or micro jobs.
So, having to pay for answers is not popular, but some sites pull it off. Getting paid for providing answers, however, can totally change the face of a forum.
A while ago, a popular Microsoft community introduced a new model where people can register with a third party service and then receive compensation for their posts. This soon resulted in a multitude of very uninformed people providing replies that are clearly based on search results on the keywords of the question rather than an understanding of the issue. The quality of answers has declined dramatically. Experienced and seasoned Answerers, including many MVPs, were disappointed by these new proceedings and turned away from this community.
Too many bells and whistles
Remember the most important forum participant? Correct. It’s the Asker of new questions. If a forum interface is just too hard for them to understand, they will move on and find somewhere else to ask their question. The forum management will never learn that they were even there.
So, for Askers, the site needs to be as simple as possible. My experience has shown that too many features, bells, and whistles only make things unnecessarily complicated.
People who have a pressing technical issue just want to fire off their question. They don’t always take the time to ensure it is in the right sub-forum or tagged with the correct term. In one community, even as a seasoned participant, where I mostly answer questions, I never manage to post a question in the first try. The site requires that each question is tagged, but the reminder to do that has scrolled off-screen and is not visible. My end user experience is that the “Post” button is not working, because nothing seems to happen after I click it.
After a question has been asked and has received an answer, even if it solves their problem, many Askers may not even acknowledge that answer or give feedback. Let alone marking a question as solved, selecting an answer, giving kudos or clicking a rating or a “like”, or whatever that particular site requires. They have their answer and they move on. And that’s fine.
Every forum takes time to get used to, work out how things are done. It’s not fair to put pressure on first time visitors to get these things right.
I find that in sites that allow peer editing and use peer review as the main moderation tool, Askers have a much easier way into the community than in sites that have rigid structures and minimum requirements.
Building and maintaining a vibrant virtual community involves much more than just providing a web site with a bit of forum software. The combination of human behaviour and technology has many variables. Attracting and maintaining a large user base will only be successful if the participants identify with the site and become part of the culture.