Building Communities
on the Web

A Conversation with Amy Jo Kim, author of
Community Building on the Web

By John Milton Fogg

For more than 15 years, Amy Jo Kim has been designing online networks and communities. Ph.D.-trained (though she never displays the title) in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Washington, Kim spent five years as an interface architect at Sun Microsystems. This eclectic mix of backgrounds brought Ms. Kim to where she is today: one of the world's leading authorities on Web-based community design and online gaming environments. Kim is the Founder and Creative Director of NAIMA, a Web design studio south of San Francisco, that develops cutting-edge "social architecture for networked communities." Her clients include eBay, Electronic Arts, Maxis, MTV, Nickelodeon, Origin, Paramount, Sony, Westwood and Yahoo. Her book, Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities, is considered the bible for building Web-based communities.

-JMF

Amy Jo, what distinguishes a "community" from a Web site?

Once you have the ability for a shared communication channel among a group of people, you have the potential for community. Whether or not it turns into an actual community is another issue.

A Web site can be read by anyone in the world, provided it's a public website. All those people who read a Web site constitute an audience. An audience is simply someone who views or consumes content; a community involves communication back and forth.

For example, if somebody has a Web site where she posts information, and she also has a mailing list associated with that Web site where people communicate, or message boards on or associated with that Web site, then you have a building block for a community.

 

So an enterprise like Amazon.com is based on an audience; the closest they come to that back-and-forth communication are the reviews.

Exactly--the reviews make it feel like a form of community. I say "feel like," because I wouldn't call Amazon a community per se.

 

Can you give me some examples of popular online communities that really work well?

It depends on your definition. Many people consider eBay a community. I think eBay has micro-communities within it, but it's really more of an aggregation of buyers and sellers. For what eBay does, it works really well. Those people aren't going to each others' houses to comfort each other when someone dies; eBay has a job to do, and it works.

iVillage works well for some people; they have a lot of features, systems and programs that are great examples of what to do in a community. Slashdot works really well--for their audience.

What are the ideal elements you'd want to see in a vibrant, vital online community?

There is no one answer to that; it depends completely on what you're trying to accomplish with that community and on the needs of the community's participants. This is a critical point: In this sense, it's just like a real-world community.

Some people believe that in a real-world community, what you need to see is people who really care about each other, listen to each other, take over a casserole when a new baby's born. Well, okay--but that's just one idea of what community is. A working community can also be people who engage in constructive political debate about something; that kind of interaction can beautifully meet the needs of a particular group of people at a particular time.

The cornerstone principle is that a community that works is one that meets the needs of the people who are involved in it. What those needs are really depends upon the context.

Take Slashdot, for example. Slashdot's tagline is, "News for nerds, stuff that matters." Many people consider Slashdot as nothing but stupid juvenile conversation, full of misinformation. If you're looking for super-accurate information and deep, caring conversation, you're going to think Slashdot is horrible. However, for the young and technically-minded (or the not-so-young but still technically-minded!) who really enjoy debate, have a tolerance level for trash talk and enjoy the somewhat complex rating system Slashdot offers, Slashdot's wonderful. It totally meets their needs. It just doesn't meet the needs of every type of community.

iVillage provides a good contrast to Slashdot. iVillage has a lot of different forms of communication; there are mailing lists, chat rooms, message boards.... There are programs that highlight parenting styles, experts who offer educational advice, and so on and so forth. For women who are looking for something similar to what you would find in a typical woman's magazine, such as Good Housekeeping or Redbook, and who want to engage in conversation around those topics, iVillage might very well be the ideal community.

But for a busy career woman who wants to dip in and out and who really wants a community where she can get savvy business networking, iVillage is not going to be an effective community.

 

Are there entities or enterprises you've noticed that could really benefit from having an online community?

Sure, lots of them. However, not every business or Web site needs an online community.

During the dot-com craze, everyone thought they needed to have an online community. I am very pragmatic when I talk with companies about whether or not they should host an online community; sometimes that's not the right the thing to do.

 

Can you give us an example?

My husband is a game designer; one of his clients, Binary Arts, is a high-quality educational toy company--a mid-sized company, not huge. Over the years, I've talked with them about putting up an online community.

Their main reason for wanting to do this is that a community of people actively engaged and talking to each other around some focused topic can be a great way to get customer feedback. The company can listen to its customers, learn what they want, establish stronger relationships and increase customer loyalty.

However, one of the realities of running an online community is that it takes time, effort, focus and budget. It also takes some expertise to filter and interpret the feedback; not every business is in a position to have that expertise. Binary Arts made a few forays in this direction, but ultimately realized they didn't have the extra manpower or resources.

 

Can you say more about "interpreting the feedback"?

People self-select when they participate vocally in an online community. Only one out of ten people who read the postings in a community or e-mail list actually talks back as well: You're hearing from a vocal minority. For a business, that usually means customers at either end of the spectrum: those who absolutely love your product, and the disgruntled customers who have an axe to grind.

Let's say you're doing new product design: If you go to your online community to find out what customers want, you're going to get a necessarily skewed point of view; you might be better off doing an e-mail or paper survey that reaches more of your customers. If you know you're going to hear from these two ends of the spectrum and that you'll be able to interpret that accordingly, great. But again, that takes expertise.

To simply have the community there and not actively engage in it is not useful: You're not getting the learning and the customers aren't getting any interaction with you. Worse yet, if you can't effectively digest the input you're getting from your community, it can be very misleading.

What do you think about network marketing companies establishing communities?

I think it's a great idea! For that matter, if the company itself doesn't establish an online community, the members can get together and do it; in fact, that can even be preferable.

I'm a working mom; about a month ago, I was invited to a gathering for a party plan company with other working moms.

As it turned out, this was very much a recruiting situation. For my particular needs, this was not an opportunity I wished to pursue, so I wasn't interested. Unfortunately, now I'm getting e-mail I'm not interested in--and I'm having trouble getting off their list!

That's the downside: You have to be careful how you extend the reach of your community to new recruits, because you run the risk that people can feel they're getting spammed.

 

How would you avoid that risk?

A safe, practical way for a network marketing company to approach creating an online community is to start by offering its distributors an opt-in communication channel. Making it opt-in means that nobody's going to be spammed.

Message boards are opt-in by nature: You have to go to them to participate. You can also offer an e-mail list for which people need to actively sign up in order to participate.

 

You spoke about the downside; and the upside?

The upside is that when you do establish the right channel, people can stay in touch, learn from each other, support each other and cheer each other on.

Back to my example: During the party, the woman who hosted the event told me all about the glories of being a distributor for this business. In the course of the conversation, it became clear that she's very active on her company's message boards. She spends two to three hours a day communicating with distributors all over the country, swapping tips, chatting, staying in touch. She considers these people her best friends--and she communicates with them all online.

For that company, an online community for active distributors is an integral part of running the business, and makes all the sense in the world. In fact, for this woman, being involved in this business would make absolutely no sense at all without the online component!

There are so many similar examples. A few years ago, a client of mine ran an online community for Hallmark store franchisees. It was phenomenally successful: All these people were able to swap tips about what seasonal store displays were working for them.

 

What makes that such a win?

Because it serves a real need--which goes back to my original point: An online community makes sense when there's a clear purpose for people to go there. An online community needs to target and address the specific needs of the people who participate.

If a group of network marketing distributors truly wants to communicate, both for companionship and for information sharing, then a community is going to serve a real need. However, if these same distributors are very, very busy and feel a more competitive orientation--they already have plenty of conversation and companionship going on in the world around them and they don't particularly want to swap tips--then the community is not going to meet a need.

It starts with asking the question, what is the need of your target group?

At my company, www.there.com, we make a virtual world--something like a game, but less structured. We're finding that the core need that online games meet is that they provide an alternate world where you can achieve success, status and recognition--where you can feel powerful and feel needed.

Many of the people who participate actively in online worlds like this are not highly empowered in their lives. They may have jobs they're not crazy about, or may be freelancers who are lonely and kind of struggling, and they really enjoy developing this alternate persona that doesn't have the disappointments and the frustrations of their regular lives.

 

I've heard it said that in a virtual community, "the members are the content."

Yes, that's largely true.

 

What do you see in the future concerning the validity of and the proliferation of online communities?

There are several key directions that evolution is taking.

First, the distinction between online and offline--between "virtual" and "real-world"--is getting fuzzier and fuzzier. As we move forward in time, many offline communities--cities, towns, circles of friends, college buddies, and so forth--will come to have an online component. They'll set up mailing lists, then message boards... you're seeing this happen today, more and more.

At the same time, many communities that started online will migrate offline as well, and start meeting together in person.

As both these developments continue, I think the notion of an "online community" will start to disappear--there will just be communities, period! People will use the Internet and all the communication channels available through the Internet just as they now use the phone, as simply one more communication channel.

The second trend I see happening is that for businesses, what we now identify as "online community," all the tools and infrastructure of online community, will become just one more normal aspect of doing business.

In the '70s and early '80s, there was a lot of excitement about the evolution of artificial intelligence software. There were companies who identified themselves as "artificial intelligence companies," who declared that they were going to replace experts in all sorts of domains...and today, those companies have all gone out of business!

What happened? Over the last few decades, those artificial intelligence techniques and software became just another variety of software.

You don't think of Amazon.com as an "artificial intelligence company"; you think of it as an online bookstore--or now, more of an online superstore. But underneath Amazon.com is some very sophisticated artificial intelligence! It's called "collaborative filtering." When Amazon tells you, "Oh, you like this product? Well, you might like these other products, too." That's artificial intelligence--but we don't call it that. We just see it as part of the overall product offering.

I think the same kind of evolution is going to occur with what we now call "online community."

Today, we can already talk back to Wal-Mart!

Great example. In the '90s, we would have said, "Oh, look! It's a message board!" Now, it's just Wal-Mart getting with the times.

The Well is another good example: The Well is an online community--and all it really is is a bunch of message boards. Or, take Salon Magazine: Salon is not a community per se, it's an online magazine that also has a discussion forum and message boards.

I think we're going to see more and more of that: community thought of not as the product or end result, but simply as one of many parts of a very rich online offering.

 

Do you get the sense that through these ingredients that have evolved out of community, business in the future is going to be much more responsive, much more interactive--and that's a gift of the Internet to business?

That was incredibly well put; I wholeheartedly agree. In many ways, that was the point of the book, The Cluetrain Manifesto [Note: See our review in our August 2002 issue--Ed.].

Giving customers the ability to talk back, to communicate both with the company and, much more importantly, among themselves, is fundamentally changing business. When customers can share information and compare notes, and do that on a national or even international scale in one aggregated "place," they have much more power to influence the company.

I spoke earlier about the associated costs involved with maintaining an online community. That said, I think businesses in the future will simply build this into their budgets--because frankly, it's cheaper to do that than to redesign your products because people aren't buying them!

The Internet is changing other aspects of life, too. It's fundamentally changing not only companies and products, but also the way in which all of us are informed about news in general. The fact that customers provide content in the form of opinions and written communication is changing the print business.

Look at what's happening with blogs: That's another form of community--a very different form of community than a message board. You've got someone's journal, along with the ability to have other people create comments and link to other like-minded individuals who also are posting their journals and still other people who are creating their comments...and that aggregate of opinions is challenging the news media in its ability to provide information. It's like "letters to the editor" on steroids!