In my travels over the past few months I have talked to a number of organizations that are experimenting with online communities. I’ve heard tales of success and tales of failure. Mostly, I’ve heard that building an online community is not a task that should be taken lightly. But take heart. Others have traveled this road before.
Recently, I talked with Thomas Kriese, who was executive producer of the Omidyar.net community for the Omidyar Network (ON) for nearly three years. Thomas, who now consults out of Redwood City, Calif., generously shared what he learned from that experience. I pulled the following lessons from that conversation (and Thomas fleshed things out a bit.)
Lesson 1: No need to restrict membership in the community. Many foundations might initially decide to limit membership to certain designated experts or focus attention on those experts. I’ve certainly heard those conversations among foundation executives. (How can we be comfortable handing off grant decisions to people who are not qualified experts?) ON had no such concerns. At its peak, the community had more than 19,000 registered members. They ranged from stay-at-home moms to entrepreneurs to renowned experts to potential grantees. With the self-moderation tools baked into the platform, the community policed itself. Kriese says some of the most passionate contributors came from among the people who were not professionals in the field. He also says many of those people were motivated by the chance to work side-by-side with the big-name experts.
Lesson 2: Make sure you provide some sort of light, top-down structure/guidance. Kriese came out of doing community work at AOL Time Warner, where rigid rules were in place for behavior in the network. Omidyar Network wanted to take a much more hands-off approach, and learned some lessons along the way. In an early experiment, Kriese says, ON decided to let the community decide how to distribute $25,000 in grant money – no other rules or guidelines attached. Although 12 organizations eventually received funding, the resulting bad feelings and discontent among the community led to some changes. The next time out, ON offered a little stronger guidance, and things went smoother. Hurricane Katrina had struck, so the organization chose three organizations poised to help and offered to match contributions made by community members. In a later experiment, Omidyar allowed the community to distribute $50,000 to worthy organizations. The community simply identified 10 organizations and gave each $5,000, choosing an “everyone wins” approach to distributing the money. In hindsight, the community agreed the money could have been better spent. ON wanted more deliberation to go into the decisions, so the next time it required that there be two rounds of voting before the distribution could be made, and the quality of the funding proposals rose dramatically with this competitive structure.
Lesson 3: Consider giving the community some distance from the foundation’s name and brand. If it is too closely connected, community members may be inhibited in their interactions. They may also be contributing solely in the hope that their work will lead to funding. Kriese says some early joiners were clearly there to court favor with the funders. He says those people eventually drifted away, and were replaced by people driven to contribute mostly out of passion for the issues. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is something to keep in mind during planning.
Lesson 4: Don’t get so big that you lose the sense of intimacy. At its peak population of less than 20,000, Kriese says, it was already becoming difficult to maintain the same sense of community that existed when the numbers were smaller. Had the community continued, he says he would have begun trying to break it into smaller groups around issues. Of course, this is one of those problems that you hope to have, but you have to remember: intimacy, and the trust that builds in intimate spaces, doesn’t scale.
Lesson 5: Make sure people are treated with respect. This is a good lesson for everyone, no matter what the venture, but has particular application in the world of online communities where criticism can fly freely and be rather harsh if not policed. A related lesson is to encourage open and honest feedback within the forums. Kriese says at one point a community member called ON out in the omidyar.net forums for not respecting some of the members in its funding process. Omidyar Network could have chosen to not respond or to take the offensive and criticize the critic. Instead, it publicly acknowledged that the man had been heard and promised to make changes. Setting that kind of example can do wonders for encouraging open conversation in a community.
Lesson 6: Commit the appropriate resources. Kriese had two full-time community managers and two-part time technical people to manage the online community. Don’t underestimate the effort involved in developing and managing a community. You are giving birth, and we all know that is just the beginning of a wonderful but time-consuming process. You reap what you sow.
The omidyar.net community ran from summer of 2004 to the end of 2007. In the end, Omidyar Network decided to take a different direction and closed the community. Ever respectful of the community and what it represented, Kriese posed the question to the community about where it wanted to move and involved the community in the shutting-down process. He didn’t want to lose the energy that had been created. As a result, pieces of the online community still live on in various forms around the Internet.
In addition to his online community and social media skills (you can follow him on twitter), Kriese is an expert on urban chickens. Check out his blog for everything you need to know about the movement to raise chickens in urban areas.
How about you? Any lessons to share from your experiences with communities so far?