I spent a large chunk of my Saturday at the CommunityNext at Stanford and I have to say that it was a great event. The audience was good and the speakers were entertaining. Below are a few observations I had after attending:
1. It’s really hard to build a social network or community around a topic where you are not yourself passionate. This ought to be obvious, but it’s really hard to develop an application that really speaks to a community when you aren’t a part of that community yourself. There were a number of good demos that really showed that their creators used imagery, language, layout, and design that seemed to resonate with their target user base.
2. Building a good community is about give and take – you need to allow your users to help build your application or presence. One of the core concepts presented at the conference was the idea of providing a mechanism to both solicit and apply feedback from your user community. This is harder than it sounds, I think — simply having a blog, discussion forum, etc isn’t enough. You need to be a part of your user community and figure out how to get them engaged and show them that you value their input.
3. Building a strong community is right now in the “art” as opposed to “science” stage. Overall, a lot of the feedback and insight from folks on stage tended to be retrospective; most of them were able to identify the specific things they did to become successful. However, there wasn’t much prescriptive advice for someone starting out today, aside from some general tips. I can only draw two possible conclusions from this. First, the folks who know how to build great communities know it’s hard to do and don’t want to spill the beans. The alternative is that what it takes to build a great community isn’t boilerplate and really can’t be boiled down to a science; you have to just tweak the basic principles to fit your specific situation.
The one question that I was hoping to get answered that was neither explicitly asked nor answered while I was there was how do you really identify and cultivate your core first group of 500 to 1,000 (or whatever the proper benchmark might be) users when starting from scratch? This question was on my mind all day and I was dying to have someone ask it. There were a few allusions made to the fact that some people’s “viral” strategy is really a codeword for spamming people and hoping that they sign up, but I didn’t hear anyone who was able or willing to really talk about that topic.