Building and Running an Online Community

Ben Brown speaking at Web Content 2010

I presented this week at Web Content 2010 in Chicago. My presentation was about the practical issues you face when building online communities.

I have been building and working with web communities for a long time. For this talk, which was to an audience primarily consisting of content strategists and web editors, I wanted to distill as many of the lessons I've learned into a few solid pointers they could actually apply to their work.

Based on the things that people tweeted during my session, these are the big ideas worth repeating:

  • If you have an audience for your content, you already have a community. They may not be posting on your site yet, but they're out there, talking to one another.
  • "User generated content" is something a drug addicted robot poops! Think of the stuff that your audience creates as "member created art."
  • Community isn't made up of software components - it's made up of people, and they really want to talk to one another.
  • You should start simple, and build community software to enhance what your community is already doing.

You can pretend you were at my presentation in Chicago by stepping through my slides, embedded below - worth it if only for the amazing user loyalty graph Heather and Jon shared with me from

Weeknote 72

Katie and I went to New Orleans this week to attend Do it With Drupal, a great conference for lovers of the dark Drupal arts put on by our friend Jeff Robbins and his cohorts at Lullabot. I have been wearing one of their teeshirts for years, so it was quite an experience to walk through a hotel convention center and see hundreds of people wearing the same shirt.

Building online community

Jon Armstrong and I gave our talk about online communities. It went well, and I had a lot of interesting follow up discussions with other attendees. dooce Community makes such a compelling case for the kind of personality filled niche communities I love to build. I really wanted to sell the rewards these kind of sites deliver, so we talked both about the traffic boost they've seen - Jon showed snapshots of his analytics that show the community users spend nearly three times as long on the site as they do on the main blog - and about the emotional outpouring they've seen from the nearly 20,000 members they've signed up in the first month. See this thread, it melts my heart.

I said a few things that people liked and tweetered about a bit. I am always mega-honored when anyone quotes a talk I give on Twitter. This time around it was "When I build a community, I'm hoping it will actually improve people's offline lives as well as online," and When you open up community access to a site you own, you're essentially selling shares in your site."

These choice nuggets are from a section of the presentation where I was discussing the responsibilities we have as purveyors of web services and online communities. The tools we have to measure our impact on the people who use our products focus on anonymized trends and aggregated cross-sections. But the communities we manage are not these aggregates! Each member is a person, sitting somewhere in front of a laptop or holding an iPhone. Each, a person who has made the decision to trust us, that we as software providers are trying to make the world a better place through technology, by connecting them and letting them speak to one another. I believe that the software we provide creates a connection between us and each one of these people, and that we need to respect that connection. So I rant about it!

While at DIWD, we got to hang out with some charming new friends. Kristina Halvorson gave a great keynote about content strategy, and then gave me some great advice about running a small business. NOTHING BUT CLASS, that lady.

We also spent some quality time with Rob Purdie, who presented about his work with The Economist and all of the magic that can be achieved using the Scrum development method. I impolitely complimented his politeness about three times, so I hope he won't avoid me the next time we're in the same city.

Our lovely client, Micki Krimmel was in town as well, presenting about the job of community manager. She gave a great presentation, and it was exciting to see NeighborGoods up on the big screen. If any DIWD attendees are reading, join up to share your old Drupal books with your pals.

In between all of the excitement, I found just enough time to upload the first baby version of Media Bugs to our dev server. After weeks of planning, it's always fun to see the software come to life. Scott has already logged in and posted the first few bugs. Meanwhile, the team at Rumors Studio nailed their deadline and delivered some awesome wireframes for our join project with Helsinki Design Lab.

The only thing I haven't checked off my todo list is to check out the newest version of Flixel. Adam Atomic has been twittering about all the improvements he's made, and I'm anxious to dig in and see what the new capabilities inspire.

I'm off to San Francisco on Monday for a few days of in-person time with our friends in PST. Katie will be holding down the fort in Austin while we prepare to close out the year. Excelsior!

Yes, we will be at SXSW.

This will be our 9th year at SXSW, and my 7th year as a speaker. This year, I will be appearing alongside Andy Baio, Michael Sippey, Jane Mount and Lane Becker on a panel titled "What Do I Do With Myself, Now that the Economy Has Collapsed?" Be warned: I plan on talking about my worm farm.

Update: Listen to me talk about our panel on Austin's own KUT radio! Or, watch me in this 5-minute interview with where I talk a little bit more about what XOXCO is trying to do.