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Five tips to get your community growing

1. Invite the right people, keep it private and small. When you find people who have a common interest and put them together in a community (fewer than 400 people), their energy explodes.

Screen people to uncover interests, passions, and willingness to participate, and avoid using only simple demographic and geographic criteria. Second, keep the community private.

More of the right people are likely to participate in private communities than public communities because they feel more comfortable in an environment where they know what they say will only be seen by other identified community members, the facilitator and company representatives.

2. View members as advisors to the company. Think of community members as valuable advisors to your company, not as a market research panel. When you treat community members as advisors they will go to amazing lengths to help your company -- and for very little compensation.

People in one of Communispace's shoppers communities recently drove over 100 miles to check out and compare competitive stores despite high gas prices.

An important note: be sure to let your community advisors know how your company is using their ideas. The more you reciprocate, the more people will help your company.

3. Find the social glue, make it member-centric. The more focused the community is on topics of shared interest and relevance to its members, the more involved they are likely to be.

Don't base a community on just your product or company. Rather, find the commonalities among potential members that are also relevant to your business, and ask people for help in better understanding that particular topic or domain.

For example, one pharmaceutical client is exploring the emotions behind a disease and how people make treatment decisions rather than just testing drug ads.

A financial services client is exploring not just how people feel about their brand or even just their category, but how and why members have come to consider themselves consumer activists.

4. Work at building the community. Communispace clients are often stunned when they learn that, on average, 68 percent of community members are actively participating within 48 hours of joining the community.

One reason for such high participation is this best practice: create community building activities that help people quickly understand what the community is about, make them feel comfortable participating, and allow them the means over time to get to know one another.

Some of these community building best practices are creating "rituals" like Tuesday night chats or "random thoughts" weekly polls asking people to post personal profiles, share personal stories relevant to the community's focus, or upload photos, like pictures of their favorite pet or the inside of their medicine cabinet.

5. Be genuine, encourage candor. The community's facilitator should set a genuine, open, and candid style and tone for the community. When a new member starts a conversation, make a big deal about how much you value the comment as this will reinforce the behavior.

For example, the facilitator may respond, "Hey, great idea. We want to hear everything so please say what you want." Or the reinforcement can be a spontaneous award. Make a conscious effort to give people permission to be honest and say what they really think.

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.