Book Notes – Community Building on the Web

Some in-progress notes of Community Building on The Web.

Seems really good so far, if you keep the following in mind:

  • Some of the terminology is old, like “cyberspace” and “hubbub”
  • Tool examples are outdated

Most of the important ideas seem reasonably relavent today though.

Book cover of Community Building on The Web


The web is becoming our collective town square. What are we IRL?

The Net erases boundaries, but people are people, even in cyberspace.

If you read nothing else, the Nine Design Strategies intro section gives a great overview of things to consider.

  • Define and articulate your purpose: Communities come to life when they fulfil an ongoing need in people’s lives. Ask “why do people need us?”.
  • Build flexible, extensible gathering places: Communities take root when people gather and start talking among themselves. Are you giving members the tools they need to talk to each other?
  • Create meaningful and evolving member profiles: Profiles help build trust, foster relationships and infuse community with history and context. Also help create “leaders”, which set good examples for others to follow.
  • Design for a range of roles: Address needs of newcomers without alienating regulars. People come for different reasons – passionate, mildly interested, professional, etc.
  • Develop a strong leadership program: Leaders can ease admin burden, encourage new members and deal with troublemakers. Make sure there’s a clear path of progression.
  • Promote cyclic events: Helps build loyalty and relationships. Puts the community back in to users’ minds. Can be virtual or physical.
  • Integrate the rituals of community life: Acknowledge personal transitions and rites of passage. I guess this could be rephrased as “reward good behaviour”.
  • Facilitate member-run subgroups: Builds lasting loyalty and helps distinguish your community from its competition. Members will only feel loyal to the community when they can contribute to its direction.

Design for growth and change – don’t over-design up front as needs might get uncovered that you haven’t thought about and are now too stuck to do much about.

Create and maintain feedback loops between members and management.

Empower your members over time – look for veteran users who contribute regularly (or intelligently) and offer them extra responsibility.

Chapter 1: Purpose

Successful communities serve a clear purpose on the lives of its members and meets the fundamental goals of its owners. The two must be aligned.

Three questions – ask periodically:

  • What type of community am I building?
  • Why am I building it?
  • Who am I building it for? (what needs am I satisfying?)

Successful communities evolve to keep pace with the changing needs of members and owners.

People will flock to a place that delivers something they need and can’t find elsewhere. What about when they can find it elsewhere? See Selling the Invisible: “How Prospects Think” and “Positioning and Focus”.

Think about which areas of your members’ lives the community will serve. Work, recreation, play, family and civic issues? Helps you understand the core value your community provides.

While you can’t control what your members do, you can reward actions that advance your purpose._

No matter how you categorise your community, subgroups will emerge.

Some subgroups are topic based (likely to persist and grow), others are based on topical events (will naturally fizzle out after the event) and some are based on shared goals (natural churn of members).


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

  • Physiological: System access, ability to maintain identity and participate.
  • Security & Safety: Protection from hacking and personal attacks; sense of a level playing field.
  • Social: Belonging to the community as a whole, and to subgroups within.
  • Self-esteem: Ability to contribute and be recognised for those contributions.
  • Self-actualisation: Ability to take on a community role that develops skills and opens new opportunities.

What specific benefits will members get out of the community?

What is your return on investment? Could be financial or just appreciation. Important to be clear on what’s being invested and what’s expected in return.

Members’ Needs

  • Understand your members: Set aside thoughts of business, technology and brand. Think about members. Who are they? Homogeneous or varied? Distinct subgroups? Interests? Habits? Affiliations? It’s important to start seeing your community through the eyes of your members.
  • List their needs: What needs? Why do they choose you? How can your community help?
  • Prioritise: Which are vital to your members?

Owners’ Goals:

  • Understand your owners: Who are they? Business venture / hobby / research experiment? Why do this?
  • List their goals: What do they want to achieve? What results and how soon?
  • Prioritise: Which are most highly valued to the owner? Do they depend on other goals? Are some critical for the continued development and support of the community?

Community Goals

  • Compare and consolidate: Do issues appear on both lists? Do any contradict?
  • Review regularly

Community has to offer something to both current and potential users.

Knowing who you want to reach is not the same as understanding your audience. The latter is understanding what motivates them in to action.

Suggests a few ways of finding out:

  • Survey: Usual caveats. Selling the Invisible always recommends oral if possible. Sometimes incentives work; sometimes they have no effect, so A/B test.
  • Focus Group: Usual caveats. Interesting idea about using online chat as a way to run a focus group and providing private messaging backchannels. Anonymity tends to bring out more revealing answers. Choose a moderator who’s not emotionally invested in your community. Don’t need to stick to the script – valuable information comes from freeform conversation.


Purpose is now clear; comes to life through words, images, features, policies and social dynamics. Mostly “branding”.

Unless you communicate your purpose clearly, people will use your community in ways that you never intended (sometimes negatively!).

A mission statement helps convey vision to those that weren’t at the heart of creating the community vision.

Have one for internal consumption and one for the outside world:

  • Internal guides the efforts of the community building team.
  • External communicates what the community is about and have a strong sense of the site’s purpose and whether they would feel at home there.

Sections of the mission statement can be displayed on sections of the site that are most relavent – doesn’t have to be the whole thing all the time.

Give some thought to coming up with a tagline – quick summary of what your community is all about. Good examples:

  • “Your personal trading community” – eBay
  • “A home for moms in cyberspace” – Moms Online
  • “Take your place in history” – AncientSites

Think carefully before changing your tagline, because it reflects community values (which should remain relatively stable throughout the life of the community).


Backstory imparts a sense of community’s core values and gives an easy and engaging starting point for new members learning about the community. Easy to share and link to.

Backstory gets passed through generations, reinforcing the values and creating a deepened sense of value.

The presence of symbols is a good way to create opportunities for storytelling (and reinforcing positive/negative behaviours).


Personality created through general copy, tagline, mission statement and backstory. Also through how it looks, what activities tools and content are featured and how it’s staffed and managed.

Would/do our members like us, or do they merely tolerate our personality?

Developing personality involves personal interactions as well as static images and content.

Chapter Two: Bringing People Together

All communities need gathering places so that members can communicate with each other. Start small.

A community is a group of people with a shared interest, purpose, or goal, who get to know each other better over time. Do our members know each other? Can they communicate?

How do we help members form a community?

There’s a discussion of tools which is mostly outdated, but some nice points.

  • Mailing Lists: Messages sent to lists are broadcasted to everyone, allowing the kind of member-to-member interchange that’s necessary for a real community to develop. Better for small or new communities. Good for conversations that happen over time. Difficult to moderate well.
  • Newsletters: Keeps users up to date but doesn’t foster communication. Best used in conjunction with other methods.
  • Forums: Mostly same as mailing lists, but requires users to go to a meeting point (though can usually set email notifications). Newcomers may find it hard to break in to the general hubbub, but provides a sense of place.
  • Real Time Chat: Sense of immediacy and presence. Younger audiences may expect this? Good for scheduled events and real time support and guidance.
  • Comments: Not mentioned in the book but also a gathering point.

Need to consider how these tools integrate in to the main part of your community.

Don’t necessarily need people to talk, but need to be able to “communicate” – e.g. follow the same topic, provide input (e.g. upvoting and downvoting).

Must be flexible enough to allow growth beyond current boundaries

How do you organise your community?

  • Categorical theme: Start with short list of topics and expand as you grow. Best suited to browsing, searching and extending a body of knowledge or information. Possibility to allow users to classify themsleves with teams reclassifying if it doesn’t seem right.
  • Geographic theme: Similar to categories, but based around locations where each location might have duplicate categories. Good for people interested in a particular time and place.
  • Media theme: e.g. breaking news, stories, opinion, etc

Consider the audience sophistication when organising your theme.

Consider taxonomy – what goes where. Make sure subdivisions are meaningful to your audience. They probably have a better idea of what they expect than you do, so let them help you.

A good taxonomy should also be extensible.

The look (and personality) of your gathering places should express what’s special and different about each area. Symbolism can help here.

Give users a starting point for self-categorisation.

You need some sort of “map” so people can get a birds-eye view of the community.

You need a comprehensive search function.

Map encourages browsing; search takes people to where they already know they want to go.

Start small and focused – let admins control the availability of gathering places.

Starting small allows you to find your core audience, develop a coherent identity and learn as you go.

Surface active areas over stale areas.

If your members can see how their input is shaping the site, they’ll develop a sense of ownership and be more likely to take an active role in the community. What ownership opportunities do we provide?

Pay attention to what users do, as well as what they say.

Listening to Members

What they say:

  • Email: simplest; might want different places for specific problems
  • Message Boards: good for members to see other members getting involved
  • Polls and Surveys: good for lots of specific feedback. Let users see a summary of responses to complete the feedback loop.

Be present in gathering places to show that the admins are listening to their input.

What they do:

General analyics-style tracking:

  • Impressions
  • Time on site
  • Traffic
  • Attendance

Statistics can help identify current hot topics.

Controlled Growth

When a member creates something that others can see and interact with, his or her connection to the community is strengthened and desire to return increases.

Decide how much freedom to give members – how to control contributions to prevent overload.

What kind of environment do we want? Think of it like building codes? Exclusive and well maintained or vibrant but a bit chaotic.


  • Require 5 individuals to start a club and their application must be reviewed and approved by site admins.
  • Anyone can start a club so community grows rapidly, but clubs vary from large and chaotic to small and orderly, with plenty abandoned altogether.

Solicit suggestions, but make the decision yourself.

Enlist members for one-off tasks (like a big cleanup or addition of a new category).

Let your members earn building rights – use some measure of positive participation as a prerequisite for creating gathering places. This prevents new members creating too much before they’ve learned about the community atmosphere. Can tier this so that “better members” get to do more interesting things.

Many communities start off with restrictive policies and gradually allow tiered access to creation.

Be sure to create a process for pruning topics and areas that have fallen in to disuse.

TODO: p73 “you must facilitate and curate”

Chapter 3: Getting to Know Your Members

As part of a community, members need to establish identity and develop reputation.


At a party full of strangers, how do you decide who to talk to?

  • What they look likely
  • How they’re dressed
  • The way they talk, gesture and move
  • Maybe eavesdrop on a few conversations
  • Get introduced to people with similar interests by the host
  • Glance at people’s name badges

Entering a web community feels similar to a party full of strangers. Make it clear how to jump in.

People may come to your community for the content, but they’ll stay for the relationships.

Provide context – a profile is a collection of information that says something about who a person is in the context of your community.

Profiles can reflect what members say about themselves and also what they do within your community.

Three types of profile:

  • System Profile: Admin view; Account details, participation history, preferences.
  • Personal Profile: What the user sees about themselves. Name, password, preferences, account info. Some visible to others, some only to account owner.
  • Public Profile: What others see about each member. Will include some info from system and personal profiles. Also participation history, awards, accomplishments, contributions, reputation, length of membership etc.

Public profiles can give a quick overview about how a person participates in the community.

Showcase your members. New visitors will want to see who hangs out in the community.

Use user profiles to build trust within the community. Reputation scores, eBay feedback, etc.

Do your members trust you enough to reveal more information about themselves? Allow members to control what they reveal easily.