IT intelligence: Online communities

Do your research before you set up an online community, says Sue Fidler.

Before making the decision to build or create an online community space, it is essential to work through a checklist. This can help save time, money and trouble by ensuring you are creating the right resource for your organisation.

First, who is your audience? Whether you want to create something for clients, supporters or volunteers, you need to identify clearly who the tool is for.

Second, what do they want? There is no point building something your audience doesn't want; identify what its members are looking for, rather than what you think they want.

Third, what tool suits the audience? Do you want to provide a discussion forum or something that provides one-to-one support? Is MySpace appropriate? Do you have potential bloggers or would an image gallery be better? The tool needs to fit the purpose and the audience.

Finally, you need to consider the creation, launch, management and moderation of the community. Can you find free tools to use on sites such as MySpace or bloggers? If so, will your audience be happy using a different URL? Who is going to create or set up the tool? Think about the contrasting benefits of having a community out in the public domain, or driving traffic to your site where you can control the message.

How will you promote the space? You need to spread word by seeding messages in other communities. Do you have the resources to manage and moderate it? Can you promote volunteer moderators or use staff resources? How heavy-handed does your moderation need to be?

Once you have worked through these questions, you should be able to evaluate the need for a community space and plan its implementation. People will use only something that gives them benefit.

- Sue Fidler is an independent charity ICT and internet consultant.

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