Articles / Setting up an online community

In this article, I explore what needs to be in place before starting an online community, and some generic tools to help you make it happen.

To begin with, you need to have a clear idea of what your reasons are for setting up an online community, and have an equally clear idea of what value it will bring to the members.

The members will need to know how it’s going to help them in their work, and how participating in the community will benefit them.

Ideally, you would hope that they have some prior interest in their field of work, and in self-development. They may already be what Etienne Wenger terms ‘a community of practice’ – a group of people who share a concern or passion for something they do, and who learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

This is important, because the interest must exist before the community. As Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder) is reported saying:

You don’t start communities, communities already exist. They’re already doing what you want them to do. The question you should ask is how can you help them do that better.


An online community, at its most basic level, can do the following:

  • provide a space for facilitated discussion (you could direct them towards articles or blog posts which they then reflect on and discuss. This would consolidate and broaden their learning).

  • offer work support through a forum which Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can also have input into.

  •  Manager/facilitator

    Most communities benefit  from having a facilitator, whose role is simply to guide and steer the group.

    Networks need seeding, feeding and weeding.

    Clark Quinn

    In other words, it will need you to drip feed in information for discussion – through your own blog, articles you put a link to, or the members’ own blogs (you could get them to each contribute a blog post on various topics, and encourage members to respond/interact with them). This is the model adopted by many cMOOC’s, such as the Digital Storytelling community based around DS106.

    The facilitator will be the ultimate arbiter of good taste and how long a discussion thread runs for. Which means you can kick people off if they’re rude!

    As with face-to-face facilitated groups, it’s always a good idea to set some ground rules at the beginning. Such as those based on the concept of “netiquette”.

    This is an example of a simple rule that Jay Shepherd uses in his company to provide guidance for the use of Twitter:

    Be professional, kind, discreet, authentic. Represent me well. Remember that you can’t control it once you’ve hit ‘update’.

    You could write your own rules, or get the group to come up with their own!

    So, although it’s a group for a community, and although its success is dependent on the extent to which the members get involved, it will be up to the facilitator to keep the conversation space current, interesting and useful. This can be achieved by:

  • Helping people overcome any technology or confidence-related barriers (that might also include over-confidence!)

  • Providing regular stimulus for conversation (eg. a question or a resource)

  • Guiding the conversation if it goes beyond the bounds set by the ground rules

  • Community features and functionality

    Having established that there’s someone facilitating discussion and guiding the group’s reading and learning, what generic software features would be useful to the community?

    Too many features can overwhelm users, but you need sufficient features to enable the community to function successfully.

    Social networking

    Platforms like Yammer, Socialcast or Buddypress are based around a box which says: “Share something with your group”, just like Facebook, in fact. This is the place to post blogs, questions for discussion, links to YouTube, newspapers, magazines or other articles.

    Each post can be replied to, eventually building up a stream of discussion – assuming there’s something to talk about!

    People connect to each other, which generally means they are then included in each others conversations.


    The facilitator could write regular blog posts on a platform like WordPress or Tumblr.  These don’t have to be long! They can be a reflection on an article or topic, links to useful resources, questions to stimulate discussion, links to YouTube videos, or newspaper/magazine articles. The list goes on…

    Community members can then respond with comments on the blog posts, or with blog posts of their own.

    Collaborative documents

    Some platforms will allow people to work collaboratively on various types of files, such as word-processed documents, spreadsheets, presentations and even diagrams. The best, like Google Drive, work in real-time, in that many people can be working inside the same file at the same time.

    Tagging and organising resources

    Many community platforms allow you to tag posts so that they can be organised and grouped together. For example, you might tag posts to do with ‘audio’. At a later date, by clicking on the tag, you would then have gathered together in one place all the posts which referred to the use of audio. Useful if your manager wants to develop the use of audio as a training tool.


    Most community platforms have a search function to allow you to find things that have been shared – although good search results often depend on good tagging and clear writing!

    Social bookmarking

    Whilst not actually in many community platforms, a social bookmarking tool like Diigo is a useful way of gathering and organising information, squirrelling it away for future use without having to remember where you’ve put it!

    It’s a useful tool for a community facilitator (or for anyone, for that matter), who needs to collect ideas and resources as they go through life. Pinterest is an example of a social bookmarking tool, though with an emphasis on gathering pictures.

    The great thing about these tools is that whatever you save, annotate, tag or highlight, it’s all saved to the cloud. Which means you can access it anywhere there’s an internet connection, on any device.

    The resources that you gather and manage on a tool such as Diigo can then be fed into the online community as and when you see fit (the seeding and feeding concept, keeping fresh content appearing to the community and so holding their interest).

    Posted: 20 February 2014

    Tags: Projects Learning