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Four Smart Ways to Run Online Communities

Of the many ideas that have entered the business world by way of the Internet, few have proved more potent than "online community" in which networked groups of people engage in many-to-many interactions. While community is central to the success of many consumer-oriented Web sites, companies in other industry segments are still learning how to best put community to work.

The authors studied 15 online communities to determine how to best establish and maintain such communities. They developed a framework that identifies three activities central to the success of every online community: member development, asset management and community.

Continuous member development is required to grow the community and replace members who leave. Communities need clearly defined goals and member demographics to be marketed effectively. Member acquisition and retention is best achieved by using a wide variety of communication tools.

Community assets include content, alliances and infrastructure. Asset managers must create member profiles and topic-specific subcommittees, capture and disseminate useful knowledge, and create processes that facilitate member involvement. Communities must evolve over time to meet the changing needs of their members.

Community relations establishes guidelines for community members and moderators. While conflict is often welcomed to spur participation, explicit rules help community members police themselves and guide moderators when intervention is required. Moderators must be experienced and rigorously trained.

The authors illustrate these lessons in case studies of four kinds of online communities:

Kaiser Permanente Online extends the HMO's services to members via the Web. The community improves outcomes and lowers costs by fostering preventive care. Community members interact with each other and with doctors in moderated sessions. Their feedback enables Kaiser to continuously improve its services.

About.com operates a news and entertainment network comprised of more than 600 topic-specific Web sites known as GuideSites. About.com's virtual community delivers training services to GuideSite Webmasters, shares best practices, disseminates marketing materials, discusses corporate strategy and encourages collaboration between GuideSites.

Sun Microsystems created the Java Center community to foster thought leadership and knowledge sharing among its most senior Java application developers. The community also serves more than 1,000 systems integrators and Sun customers. Community members post project and design documents, links to source code and to other useful Web sites.

Ford Motor Company's virtual community encourages engineers to share knowledge, collaborate in work groups, and find knowledge using the company's intranet. Ford's community improves the speed, quality and cost efficiency of new product development. The community provides Ford's engineers access to more than 500,000 engineering documents.

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