Warren Sukernek has asked me to describe my "top ten rules" of designing social networks or communities. This is a question I have not considered in isolation so I really thought about what I would recommend. My first inclination was to look back over the research I've conducted over the last few years. In 2006 I co-authored the Northeastern University and Backbone Media Blogging Success study with Dr. Walter Carl, where we interviewed 20 corporate bloggers, and found 19 success factors for their blogs. Across the twenty bloggers five success factors stood out. Although the five success factors were developed with blogging in mind, as blogging is all about community, I think each is a good starting point for developing a community or social network in general.
Here then are my first five rules for designing a social network or community borrowed from the blogging success study:
1) Make Sure You Have The Right Culture - A company must leave the community alone to express its own opinions. The company might sometimes disagree, but there must be no consequences for dissent, otherwise the community members will be disappointed and leave.
Robert Scoble is widely known in the technology community for having established a higher level of credibility for Microsoft after its court case debacle. Robert Scoble and Microsoft achieved this by Robert disagreeing with Microsoft, and the company allowing the dissent, but sometimes agreeing to disagree with their employee. Robert Scoble and thousands of Microsoft employees who use social media and blogs have helped to demonstrate that the culture at Microsoft is open, dynamic and innovative. Real people talking about their jobs, they're passion for software and how Microsoft has helped the company move negative perceptions about the company to neutral or positive since the company first started encouraging the use of social media.
When using a forum, there are typically a list of frequently asked questions and guidelines on how to act within a forum set by the moderator. Within blogging communities there are no self appointed moderators, however the whole community influences what is generally accepted. Therefore, when working within a community it is important to understand the social conventions and its culture.
2) Be Transparent - Set expectations about your intentions, and also provide a framework for the community to police itself.
As the example of Microsoft and Robert Scoble indicates, transparency about your intentions will help to build trust and credibility within a community. Transparency is not just for you, it is also for the community. Community members should expect to be transparent about their intentions, and if they are using the community for self-promotion or to promote their partners, such self-interest needs to be revealed. Allow the community to set rules, standards and places for self-promotion.
3) Understand The Time It Takes To Develop Community - It takes a lot of time to run a blog, forum, or social networking website. In fact when giving advice to companies about which social media technology to pick among the many available I advise that blogs actually take less time to manage than other forms of social media, especially forums. A company therefore has to ensure that they have the resources, and the people available to manage a social network.
To a certain extent a successful community will manage itself, however, to make sure that rules are adhered to, or to encourage participation companies need to participate within the community regularly.
It is also important to understand that community members who participate also give a big time commitment to the community, therefore it is important to recognize that time commitment and credit active community members for their participation.
4) Understand The Importance Of Dialogue - A two-way conversation means that you talk, and you listen to community members, and in turn community members participate but also listen to the community.
Dialogue is probably the most important factor in social media. Conduct a dialogue with your community, but go one step beyond this and encourage dialogue between the communities, become the resource for the community. Set up the Collaborative software wiki as a resource for the entire community. Update wikipedia with information that's not just about your own products. Give leaders in the industry a place to talk and communicate. If you conduct a dialogue you will succeed with your own product, but if you encourage dialogue you will help to found the industry.
One of my criticisms of both Ford and General Motors in their use of social media over the last few years has been that while both companies can be lauded for participating within social media, how dialogue was engaged between each company and readers was limited. On the General Motors Fast lane blog in particular I saw that hundreds of comments were left unanswered, while in talking with several GM Fastlane readers, those readers stated they expected to receive a reply and were disappointed for not getting one. Now things are changing at General Motors, my recent article on Christopher Barger's report at the Society of New Communications Research demonstrates this. Critical for any company is to understand that the big reason for using social media is to engage your customers on your web 2.0 website and their site.
5) The Importance Of An Entertaining Writing Style And Personalization - Having someone who can write, see the funny side of life and demonstrate their passions for a subject is just as important as writing content within a community.
Here are my last five rules for designing a community and social network:
6) Research Your Community's Place In Social Media - If you are planning on connecting with a particular community it is important to understand that each community is different, and therefore it is important to research whether your community already uses existing social media technologies.
During the process of researching my book, "Strategies and Tools for Corporate Blogging," I discovered that many of the bloggers in the automobile community were either professional bloggers sustained by advertising; journalists, or vendors. There are only a few ordinary citizens who blog about cars and automobiles. The size of the auto blogging community was small because the automobile community has been heavily involved with using the Internet to communicate for many years. Many members of the community use a lot of existing social media technologies such as forums to keep in touch with their community.
You have to complete an assessment of your audience online community across each social media tool. In my book I provided an outline of how to develop an assessment of a blogging community, that same template can be used for each social media tools and websites. The assessment of how your company's audience uses each social media tool and website will determine the resources you commit to each tool and community, and your own company's capabilities in reaching your audience effectively using the social media tool.
7) Be Altruistic And Encourage Altruism - Giving back to the community is the best way to build community. Altruism builds your standing in a community, you gain credibility and trust, plus, you inspire the rest of the community to give back as well.
8) Use Social Interaction Design - Adrian Chan coined the phrase social interaction design, here is his definition. "Social interaction design is the design of social media. It encompasses Web 2.0 design practices and tools as well as a kind of social practices-oriented approach to user experience and interaction design. Social interaction design is the design of user and social engagement with social technologies."
Social Interaction Design is important for the design of community because the design of web technologies underpins what happens within the community, social interaction design requires an understanding of user interface design, plus how the process of social engagement can be facilitated using web 2.0 website technologies. A good creative look is important, but even more important when designing a member-to-member website is the ability to analyze each step in the process of social interaction between members. If you are going to moderate threads or comments, you have to understand the importance of respecting each party involved in the moderation process.
9) Encourage User Participation - This is not just about building the best product, though that's important, but it's also about turning ordinary customers into evangelists. After all once your customers help build a product, they will be much more committed to promoting it, as it's partly their product.
10) Highlight and Support Evangelists - Expect the unexpected, your audience may take your product in new and different places, but be supportive of their efforts, if you are supportive others will see what you do and join in.