I think this is a useful way of thinking about it: a community website is a place where you can make a friend.
At first blush, that seems too simple, but that's actually the idea's strength. It cuts past individual features -- forums, messaging, user ratings, user-generated content -- and, instead, asks the core question: can your visitors use your site to expand their social circle?
Note that this isn't a quality rating: the fact that you enable your visitors to make friends by way of your site doesn't mean that your site is well-designed. You might have a painful sign-in procedure, a bewildering IA, or some other problem that punishes visitors and makes them wish they were somewhere else even as they manage on the margins to connect with other visitors. We'll deal with the question of what makes a good community site some other day; now the question is more basic.
So let's think for a bit about what web features allow visitors to make friends and, in the process, create your community for you.
- Forums. This is easy. Threaded communications and persistent identities are the quickest way for people to interact over time and get to know one another (for better or worse). There's a tension here, though: the easier you make it for your members to contact each other and transition their relationship from online to offline, the more likely community is to form, but the more you expose your company to potential liability if some of those offline contacts go wrong.
- Messaging. This might be the core community function (more on this in a later post). Friends contact each other; they have private conversations that are not intended to be shared with the group. Enable that via your site (email links, IM functionality, private drop-boxes, etc.) and you enable community.
- Shared calendars and other event-planning tools. Online community is, by its nature, a very limited thing as long as it stays online. It doesn't really come into its own until online and offline communities merge into one another. Evite is not a community site per se, but it enables community by making it easier for people to get together. See above about potential liability, though.
- Friends lists. Another obvious one. MySpace managed to turn this feature into a competitive sport: its members compete with one another to assemble larger and larger bodies of "friends." That's a neat trick: get your members to compete with each other to build your community, and you might be the next MySpace (though hopefully with a better page layout).
- Personal blogs. This is a hard one to get past management. It's OK to give your members a voice, but hosting those voices in a way that might seem to give official sanction to what Joe Random User is saying? Dangerous! Or so the lawyers think. If you can make the argument for it, though, personal blogs can be a very powerful community tool. Blogs draw in traffic, they link to each other in ways that spread the message more powerfully than anything else you're doing, and the kids love 'em. You just need to make sure that they're happy enough with the product or service you provide that they'll be evangelists rather than an unruly mob.
Items that don't enable friendship include the following (and note again that I'm not saying these are bad features, or that you shouldn't include them in your site; rather they simply are not core community features):
- User-generated content. There is nothing about UGC per se that builds a community. It's a great way to generate traffic, but you won't have a community until you do something with that traffic (i.e. give a way for visitors to your site to connect with each other).
- Marketing. This is a message that the suits don't want to hear. They see your community site as a marketing platform, and why shouldn't they? After all, it's likely that someone's marketing budget is paying your bills. But marketing not only doesn't build community, it has the power (if used unwisely) to destroy community. Use a subtle hand, or see your members abandon a site that they rightly understand to be more about the company than it is about them.
- Editorial content. It took me years to realize this. I've spent a decade developing content for community sites, and I still believe that you can build a better site with content than you can without it. However, I've come to the reluctant realization that content doesn't build community. Traffic doesn't lie, and editorial content performs very poorly next to the traffic to true community elements such as forums. Good content can still enhance community, but it's frosting on the cake, not the cake itself.
- Licensed content, such as audio or video. If you've got the budget to license audio or video from major media companies, go for it. You'll get plenty of traffic (along with a hefty bandwidth bill). But, as with UGC, you'll need to do something with that traffic to turn it into a community. A million isolated visitors staring at a streaming video are not a community -- not until they're watching those videos in a chat room or otherwise connecting with each other.
- Corporate blogs. See above, re: marketing. Corporate blogs are a trifle better, assuming you enable comments. But top-down messaging are antithetical to community. Build features that allow communication to flow from the bottom up (or from the bottom in any direction) and you're on a better tack.
So there you have it: if your site allows a visitor to make one friend -- a real friend, with real potential for taking the relationship offline -- you have a community. If you don't, you might have a good site, but you'll never have a community site.