Knowing who is likely going to be part of your community will help ensure it's well attended.
When you throw a party, you definitely don't want it to feel under-attended or empty. The same is true for communities. Low participation is potentially embarrassing, and not the way to ensure ongoing support and attract new members.
Ghost town communities happen primarily when the host doesn't
-- know the target audience;
-- budget and plan for content and programming;
-- appreciate the need for ongoing cultivation of participants;
-- understand the dynamics of how communities start and grow;
-- have an awareness of the social context in which members operate and the skills and power they wield.
My alma mater, for instance, over the years has failed more than succeeded in engaging an audience that already has some level of affinity. There are two reasons for this: the lack of investment in true online programming, and the dramatically changing needs of the audience, which is causing a disconnect between those managing the community and what community members find relevant. Online is treated simply as a way to share things being done in other channels and formats.
Empty parties are embarrassing, but it's another thing entirely to have a small one. Small parties--and communities--are some of the best because there's an intimacy and connection you can never have at a large event. Still, it's much better to have planned for a 40-person event and have 50 people show up than to plan for 500 and have only 50 attend. It's the same number of people, but the perspective of the attendees is much different.
In planning a new community, you'll want to set a size goal that you're confident you can achieve. This may not be the size you want the community to be when it's mature, but one that works at the start. To help determine your initial goal, figure out
-- what competes for the target members' time and attention;
-- how isolated potential members are from one another;
-- the total number of potential members and the concentration of strong interest within that group (i.e., are only a small percentage likely to be heavily involved, or is a high percentage of the group likely to participate but not consistently?);
-- how strongly aligned your target members are with the community's goal.
In some cases, driving community membership is quite easy. For example, BabyCenter has little trouble aggregating new moms into communities because its target audience is large, has an extremely high level of interest, is often isolated, and often has plenty of time to participate. BabyCenter is almost all user-generated content.
In contrast, CardioExchange, which provides connections among cardiologists, must be structured differently. Its target audience is much smaller, has little extra time, and is very goal oriented--seeking primarily to find trusted information and get feedback on specific issues. The content on this site is set up to let members quickly establish trust, indicate favorites, and comment on content. It doesn't require them to create a lot of content in order to get value from the site.
Both of these communities are driven off of attendees' shared interests, but they have different characteristics, including size, goals, business models, frequency of activity or cadence, content types, atmosphere, and participation criteria.
Having the self-awareness and understanding to know what your community is likely to look like will ensure that you plan accordingly and in doing so, maintain support for your initiative over time. If you plan for BabyCenter's community and instead have an audience more like that of CardioExchange, you'll expect a lot of activity too soon, build the wrong tools, invite too many people too early, and likely end up with what feels like a ghost town.
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