Making an Online Community Work

Online communities allow large groups to get together to solve problems and share information. Whether you are building a community, selecting technology, or simply a participant, these tips from Joseph Cothrell, vice president research,, Chicago, Ill., can help you make the most of your online connection.

1. Define a business purpose and let the technology lead. Online communities work when you understand what they are there for. Whether you are participating or building one, ask yourself: What am I trying to achieve?

For example, Cisco Systems runs an online community with a defined business purpose. The company, which creates hardware and software to run computer networks, created an online community so that customers could help solve each other’s problems. Cisco had a great solution—connect technicians online to work out each other’s problems and post solutions. This community has a clear purpose; it is not just a chat room.

2. Understand the technology required. There is a wide range of technology available for every online community, from simple bulletin boards to sophisticated chat rooms. Some technology is designed for small groups that interact all the time; some is designed for live interaction, or for large groups that don’t interact all the time. If you are building or selecting an online community, you need to match the right technology with the right application.

3. Understand how the community relates to your business process. A community has to exist to solve a problem or fill a need. Where in your business process will this community make sense—to access information or solve problems?

Ace Hardware created a sourcing board for its 300 retailers who sell to industrial customers. Here, they can post sourcing questions to other Ace dealers. Retailers then have hundreds of eyes looking at their problem, reducing cycle time.

4. Know your users. Who are these people you are bringing together? Where are they? What are their capabilities in terms of participating in this network? If you are a global company, be aware that language barriers may be a problem.

5. Don’t forget about your mobile workforce. How do you include your mobile workforce in your online community if you need their knowledge to solve problems? A lot of these workers can receive e-mail in their trucks. Get them to respond by beeping them with information.

6. Measure results. Online communities create measurable results. You can watch responses to see what topics generate the most interest. You can also learn a lot by observing activity. If you are creating a community, you can measure your return on investment.

7. Use your community as a source of insight. People interacting online can be a great source for information. Suppose you were launching a corporate credit card. You spent money on the program and rolled it out. Within a week, you could start getting a response. Potential customers would go to your site to ask questions, giving you insight. If you can answer these early questions, you can facilitate a smoother rollout.

8. Get with a community that is properly managed. If you build it, make sure you manage it properly. Don’t just give people a tool and have them go at it.

9. Look for opportunities to build your community internally as well as externally. It’s easy to think about customers, but consider internal users—your logistics managers across the country. They may have information they want to share with one another. If you want to build a strong community, share best practices and information inside your company.

10. Take a look at other communities. You may already belong to communities you are not even aware of—trade organizations, for example. You can learn a lot by visiting their online sites.