30-10-2013

Dead duck or popular hangout: What makes online communities tick?

Author: AD Communications

Online communities have been attracting a lot of publicity lately, with teenage favourite Ask.fm taking a particular bashing from the media following some high profile incidents and alleged bullying culture.

Author: AD Communications

AttributionSome rights reserved by Sean MacEntee

Online communities have been attracting a lot of publicity lately, with teenage favourite Ask.fm taking a particular bashing from the media following some high profile incidents and alleged bullying culture.

By comparison, my local online community – The East Dulwich Forum – is a fascinating and largely non-controversial place to spend a few hours.

While East Dulwich itself is a pretty sleepy – but very pleasant – London suburb, the online forum attracts an amazing volume of posts and hits.

A thread on an M&S planning application for example, has attracted furious debate, feverish excitement and more than 100,000 hits.

Meanwhile, online forums for neighbouring boroughs, such as Virtual Norwood or Se23.com, attract nowhere near the same level of debate and enthusiasm.

So what makes some online communities – whether they are local internet forums or communities launched by brand-owners – so engaging while others never take off to the same degree?

I feel that, first and foremost, a good online forum is a resource. Whether I’m trying to find a good vintage buy or a recommended tradesman on a local forum, or seeking advice for my tablet from a technical support community, it’s a place I go to for inspiration, help, or for any other information, such as upcoming events or reviews of new product launches.

Of course, it also helps when a forum has a kind of “water cooler” environment rather than that of an online graveyard. While the well-populated forums I visit always seem to have a handful of members – often both opinionated and argumentative – that like to comment on every single thread, at least their comments can be entertaining, while deathly silence can only ever be dull.

Finally, it makes such a huge difference when a forum is welcoming to new members. There is nothing worse than posting on a forum for the first time and being completely ignored, while all the regulars carry on chatting around you!  Worse still are the forums which seem to be dominated by keyboard warriors who are just plain rude or condescending to those who have just signed up, asserting their superiority like an animal marking its territory. 

For me, these are the three main criteria that spell the difference between an engaging, lively and well-populated forum and one that is as dull as dishwater. What factors do you think are key?