Building and running a successful community

Paul Boag

Patrick O’Keefe joined us on the 200th episode of Boagworld to talk about building and running a successful online community.

Patrick: Hello? Can you hear me?

Paul: Excellent stuff Patrick. Oh, we got a picture on the wall.

Patrick O'Keefe

Image Source

Ryan: Oh, yes.

Patrick: Our night begins.

Paul: Lets set you up then Patrick. You know, it’s a real pleasure to get to speak to you. I don’t know, this is where you gonna say: “Yes, have met hundreds of times.” Have we actually MET before?

Patrick: At SXSW.

Paul: Damn!

Patrick: We went for dinner, remember that? You send a tweet out, and I showed up, I think you were at the Omni? Maybe? And we had dinner.

Paul: I remember, yes!

Patrick: And [fox?] was there.

Paul: Yes, yes, yes. I am being really thick, I am sorry.

Patrick: It was really brief. So it’s evening out. It was at SXSW, so no one really remembers much.

Paul: You have no idea how many names I have already got wrong today, and how much I have screwed up. But by this stage in the affair, I am gonna let myself off of that. Patrick, thank you soo much for coming on to the show at the point where we are beginning to lose the plot.

Patrick: Thanks for having me.

Paul: If we are not coherent in our questions and we are not making sense, then please feel free to make up your own questions, and answer them yourself.

Patrick: I have got a list right here.

Paul: Why don’t you start by introducing yourself for people that don’t know you.

Patrick: Sure, so again I am Patrick O’Keefe. I run the iFroggy Network at It’s a network of websites that is covering various interests, communities, blogs, etc. I have been managing online communities for over nine years, coming up on ten years. And I wrote a book called “Managing online forums”, which is a practical guide to managing online communities and social spaces.

iFroggy Network

Paul: OK. It sounds like you said that a few times before. That was very slick.

Patrick: I have, it needs to be short.

Paul: I guess so. We were just saying you also do a podcast now, the SitePoint podcast? So you are obviously a professional podcaster, very slick.

Patrick: Euhm … [starts laughing]

Paul: Euh…

Patrick: No, I have been hosting podcasts for a few years. I hosted a show called “The Community of Men” show, about managing online communities, for a while, for a year and a half, like 2005 to 2006. We posted a SitePoint podcast from pilot to now, I think it’s episode 49ish, it’s temporal lead, and I also host a show called , which is about plagiarism and copyright infringement, co-hosted with Jonathan Bailey.

Paul: Cool. I really enjoyed the SitePoint show. It’s really good, and I was just encouraging people to subscribe to it.

Patrick: I heard that. Thank you.

Paul: But where I get really passionate is with your interesting …

Marcus: Passionate Paul, passionate.

Paul: Oh, I am not allowed to say passionate. It’s the banned word for the day. Don’t ask me why. Where I get really enthusiastic then, is with all of the stuff that you do in relationship to community. Community is something that I have been involved with since the very early days of the web, I was involved with one of the first online communities called The Well, I was involved with the early days of GeoCities. So to see you writing a book on communities and forums, and that kind of thing, it’s just soo cool to see people addressing that kind of issue, and talking about that.

Tell us a little bit about the book and why you felt the need to write it, and what kind of things it covers.

Patrick: Well, thank you first and foremost for the kind words, but you know, I write, I don’t know, I like to think I am writer. I have been a writer, for you know, 10 years for various online publications and so one, and I am passionate about online community. As I said I have been doing it for 10 years, direct management, responsibility, it’s something I enjoy doing, it’s something I have done for a long time, and that is sort of how the book came about, putting two things together. Having experiences that I wanted to share, that I thought could help people, because that is really the value: if you help people or not. And I like to write, so I put the two together, so the book took me about five years in all, from idea to publishing, I took my time, and I went on my own schedule, threw everything in there that I thought would be good. Everything that I know is in that book. So that is sort of how it came about, I just wanted to share that knowledge, and it is something I am passionate about.

Paul: Cool. Obviously the thing that may jump into people’s minds is that you started writing this book five years ago, and the landscape has changed massively over that time, and now there is social media and all of this kind of stuff, you know it is no longer just about managing forums, it’s about managing communities that are dispersed over lots of different places, from Twitter to Facebook, to everywhere else.

Do you feel that the principles are still pretty much the same?

Managing online forums

Patrick: Well, I like to think that, or actually a friend of mine Lee LeFever of CommonCraft who said that “forums or sort of the basis or part of the foundation of social media”, so all these tools that we have now … I love Facebook, I love Twitter, but we have all these tools, and they are all great in their own way, but forums are sort of a standby, I don’t think forums are going away, I think the text based communication in a thread is basically what a forum is, when you really get down to the nuts and bolds, and I think that is something we will want to do. For as long as I can see people want to talk to each other on text, they don’t want to see each other necessarily, like we are right now, they don’t want to talk to each other maybe all of the time, but text, I think, is here to stay. And we are dealing with a lot of text based mediums and I think a lot of the same principles apply, whether you are talking about a chat room, a group, people still use Yahoo groups, called groups, I am on a Yahoo groups mailing list right now! So for communities that’s great. But there are all these older tools that we have, like mailing lists and so on, and they are text based, and the same principle sort of applies: having guidelines, and making sure those guidelines are followed, and encouraging healthy discussion between members, regardless of whatever kind of space it is. Those values tend to stay true.

Paul: Yeah, because ultimately people are people. And community is about people, rather than about the technology and the mechanisms through which they communicate.

Patrick: Right. That is basically it, and I think even though the title of the book, or I might talk about forums A LOT, forums are just one thing. When you look at Facebook, you see forum like components. You see threaded conversations, you see text discussions, the discussion tab on Facebook groups, and fan pages. You look at MySpace, there is similar things, you know. It’s hard to draw comparison to Twitter, but you are looking at threaded conversations, then I think all these community spaces have local rules, things that not need to be adjusted and accounted for, that are for them only, but at the same time there are overriding guiding principles that apply to a community in general.

Paul: Yeah, absolutely, I entirely agree with that. I mean, there are still a group of people that are kind of somewhat hesitant about communities, and about social media. Especially website owners, especially for relatively large websites, there is a fear associated with running a community, they might even pursue social media being a bit of a bandwagon thing that everyone needs to get involved with. Why do you think that website owners like that really should be taking communities seriously, and engaging with the people that visit their websites?

Patrick: Well I think there is a couple of different things.

First, I like to think that everyone has a community. Whether or not if you are a business or a public persona -obviously private persons are not included in that category. But if you are company, if you are a public personality, someone who is out there trying to sell something, trying to get an audience, you have a community. Now, that community is the community who uses your products, who like what you do. Everyone who does something like that, from toilet paper to anything else, has a community. People who like their product. And the question is whether or not you acknowledge that community and engage with it. And you don’t have to necessarily engage with it. There are companies that have been around for a long time, that probably don’t engage with their customers as they should be. They offer a good price, and you know that should be the focus, and that is why people use it. But, at the same time, you know, this community of people who is behind you, can be very valuable in all sorts of ways: improving your product, spreading news. It is effectively a captive audience of people who want to know whatever it is you are doing.

So, if you can take advantage of that, obviously you can be doing yourself a service as a business, and there is a lot of different benefits to that as well. It doesn’t have to be an onsite community, it can be Twitter or Facebook. You know, there is different needs, and you need to filter through the different services. But, if you go where that community is, there is usually not a whole lot of downside to creating a relationship.

Paul: No, I mean, yeah, you are spot on there in everything you are saying, and I have been trying to encourage clients for a long time to really engage with communities. What can of different ways do you think a website owner can do to go about engaging with their visitors? What are the different options that are available to them?

Patrick: Well, I mean there is [an endless list?] of different options. I think if you are talking about it actually being on the website, you are probably talking about some form of hosted community, and if it’s forum software, or if it’s even a blog – a blog is a community, it has comments, you know it’s a community – and maybe blogging is an easy place to start for someone, where they could simply talk about the business, talk about the things they are doing, initiatives they are being undertaken, ask questions, that’s an obvious one, ask questions of customers and see what they say. I think that is a simple thing that you can do on your website. Forums are a little more engaging, a little more responsibility there, a bit more work I would say, but it can be very rewarding. Because if you can cultivate the community on your site that is around a brand – that is kind of a challenge – especially for smaller brands, that is a pretty big challenge, but if you can do it, then again, I think you have that really strong captive audience that is sort of waiting for whatever cool thing you have coming next. And a way to share it, and to talk about it, to help improve it, and that is a golden thing. That is the main way that businesses make money from community that actually sell a product.

Actually you can make money through advertising and other things, but a business that has a product to sell, a community like that are just waiting for the next product to come out, and they want to talk about, share it, and prove it, and buy it.

SitePoint Podcast

Paul: Yeah. I mean one of the big things you do see a lot of people, established communities, established organisations, a lot of communities, recognise the value of it, jump in there, they get a forum build on their site, they open a Twitter account, they start their Facebook page and then they are disappointed with the results. It doesn’t turn out as they expect. What are the kind of common mistakes you are seeing from organisations, as they are trying to build communities. Where are they going wrong?

Patrick: I think though, the biggest thing is: community is hard. I mean, it is easy to have people out there talking about you, but it is a whole different thing to actually build a community on your site, and have a lot of people contribute. This is a hard thing to do.

BUT, I think one key to it is that first of all there needs to be commitment, from an organisational standpoint. I think that if you launch a forum, and you expect it to be active in a month or you are cutting the cord, just don’t do it at all. Don’t even make the commitment in the first place. There needs to be a long term commitment – and I got this from Shaun Diddy Combs – but he says that he is not a sprinter, he is a marathon runner. That’s how your community is. It’s a marathon run, it’s not getting from point A to point B in sixty seconds, it’s a long term commitment, and that is resources, that is people, that is money. And if you are not going to make that commitment then I don’t think you should go all out, and you know, regardless of what you do, starting small is always a good idea.

So if you start with, let’s say a Facebook fan page, then you get some traction there, you get some activity, get some discussion going on. Then maybe you have the community, you have the ware with all to launch a stand alone community on your own site, and engage in a deeper way, you have people actually on your website, you have a deeper access to them.

But starting small, and growing, not trying to do too much at once, not launching a full forum, a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and every other social profile you can think of, all at one time. More often than not, I think that might lead to just a lot of inactive profiles, and I think at the end of the day you might want to have 1 active one, versus 10 inactive ones or 10 moderately inactive ones.

Paul: Hmmm. I do think a lot of people jump into traditional forums way too early. I mean, there is some really obvious challenges with forums, where you are having threaded conversations and there isn’t a lot of traffic, there is not a lot of people who are using it, you know, messages can get lost in this kind of hierarchy of threads and you can feel like the only person at the party. While compared to something like a Facebook page where the discussion is very linear and everybody sees what’s being written, or even a mailing list or something like that, they are much kind of entry level tools, in my opinion. Is that the same kind of approach that you take?

Patrick: Well, I started with forums, so that’s my perspective on it. I think it was a different time when I started launching online communities. In 2001 I launched, so eight years later, nine years later – God I feel old – but you know I think that it depends. I think it really depends on the situation, what your needs are, what you can do. I think that when you look at a Facebook fan page, what do you see? A lot of short comments. And I think that is what it is primarily build for. Even though people can sit there and type for a while and post a long comment, they just don’t know, there is a discussion tab, but you can’t tell me that that discussions area is more intuitive than a forum. People aren’t usually familiar with that format. It’s just not, and I mean, I think that is even a bigger challenge maybe once you have the Facebook fan page, transitioning those people into having a deeper discussion, rather than having them just drawing by and say “Hey, I love this product!” You know, how do you connect to those people? How do you get talking to them? And I find that Facebook fan page questions maybe aren’t the best way to do that, but at the same time they are better than nothing. There is a lower barrier entry, it’s a lot easier to get started with a Facebook fan page. No forums, community in general, managing a community you are directly responsible for, not just a fan page, but an entire operation, it’s hard. Like I said, and if you can build that kind of community before launching a forum, that is helpful.

Another idea you can do is, to just, well hopefully you have some means of communicating with your customers already. You have a fan club, a mailing list, even the bills thing. However you contact them on a regular basis, you must have some way of saying “Hey, by the way, we are launching this community in the future, and we would like to invite you behind the scenes for an exclusive look, and get your feedback on it, and have you help us improve it. We love your thoughts, we love you to be part of this exclusive community that’s invite only”. And maybe you get 10, 20 people, people who love the product, people who responded to that call out. And then you start building a private community behind the scenes, before you launch, so there is activity already there. And then by the time it does come time to actually launch, then you have some momentum already going, and that makes it a lot easier. So I think for the most part I always like to have some pre-launch community, some sort of private access community that is going on, and we where we can have something going the moment we launch.

Paul: Yeah. That is the big thing, isn’t it, ending up with an empty community the moment you kick off, and then you do have that problem of being the lonely person in the room. I mean, what about, one of the big things that people worry about is scaling their community. So as their community grows, it becomes harder and harder to manage and it could get expensive, and you want a return on investment. What kind of advice do you give in terms of growing a community?

Patrick: I think, Darren Rowse at problogger, on a panel he said something that I think that is pretty fitting. He said: “If you have three people, love those three people.” I think that is how I look at community building. We grow one by one by one. And maybe for some it’s one, two, three, four, five. Maybe for others it’s one … two … and so on. But as [..] going only one person at the time. So the people you already have on your community, those are the people that you should be spending a large amount of your time embracing and encouraging and appreciating. And if you appreciate those people then it will grow through those people: word-of-mouth etc. Having that activity helps you grow. Now as far as supporting a community in general, I mean it’s a website, so a lot of the same online marketing principles apply of course, but I think activity is just a big thing. I think being involved.

A lot of people launch a community – and I hope this is going down in occurrences – but it seems, and I don’t know if it is, where people just expect it to happen, and they go away. Community isn’t like something you come and visit just once a week. I mean you can visit every other day, that’ll be OK, but it’s something you need to be there for. You need to engage and participate, start threads, reply to people, ask questions, talk about things. Whatever presences you have already, promote it through that – if you have a website already in place – obviously it should be linked – a lot of people don’t do that very well. If you have a Facebook fan page already, then it all should be integrated into working together.

When it comes to growing activity, things like contests or give-aways obviously are not novel or new concepts, but they can be effective. I like contests that give you something tangible, not like referral contests where people can sign up for a member, and that member never posts. But actual contributions and articles, and things that can be judged on their merit. They really add to the community, those can be really helpful things. Activity is just a big thing, because all your marketing endeavours, if you spend money on Google Adwords, if you buy advertising for your site, the effectiveness of those campaigns all go back to whether or not your community is already active. Because when people come, that’s one of the things they’ll use to make a decision on whether or not they’ll stay.

Paul: Yeah. Absolutely. How do you deal with … , a problem that we have with Boagworld is that I could only invest so much time in the forum, but there was a real desire from the community for the forum to grow, they wanted to get into the forum. And the way that I solved the problem was actually to take those people that were most enthusiastic about the forum and give it over to them, and give them the power, make them community leaders. Is that the kind of approach you would encourage? Does that work? Can we volunteer community leaders? Or have I done it horrible wrong and should I fire them all?

Patrick: I don’t think you have done it horribly wrong. That makes sense. I am a one man operation, with little resources, I’ll be honest.

So I run a network of forums, and I am primarily responsible for them. I do have a volunteer staff that have very little requirements. They are people who have enjoyed the community, most of the time it is them giving back and maintain something that they themselves have benefitted greatly from. Obviously there are small benefits in there as well. But at their core, they are volunteers, and I think that is a great thing, to have people be passionate about the community. I mean I am passionate about the community so that’s ironic, but I think that’s a great thing, but I think it is important to have guidelines for those people, so that they know exactly what their responsibilities are, how they are supposed to go about these responsibilities, and so on. And that there is someone who is overseeing it, I guess, is what I always say. Because I review things that my staff members do, so if they remove a post, or if there is some sort of violation, we have a system of documentation behind the scenes that they logged it in there, and now I see it, and 90% of the time, 95% of the time, what they did is in line perfectly with what our guidelines say, what I want them to do. But there is that 5% where I want to correct it, so that we are consistent so that members are treated 100% the right way, to set the tone for any future things that they should do. Because I always want it to be a 100% correct whenever we take some staff related action, so I think having some sort of over sighting documentation system is important, but beyond that, having the volunteers that love the community is a great thing to do.

Paul: So you talked about providing guidelines to your community leaders. The question that comes out of that is: What kind of guidelines are we talking about? What is it that community leaders need to know in order to be able to effectively run the communities effectively for you.

Patrick: So in my case they are more moderators. I don’t really let anybody have … For example I am the only one who bans people. The less people you have who can ban people, the more consistent the bans are. So that’s why I have it that way, but other than that they have moderator authority to remove threads, any thread or post in public, just contact members to notify them about those violations, and etc. So I have a set of example staff guidelines on the book website, where people can download and see what my guidelines look like.

Paul: Where is that?

Patrick: That’s and there is a link in the sideboard Downloadable Templates and you can download the staff guidelines that I use myself, and you kind of can get a sense. But, basically what they are, they talk about what you do.

So for example: You can remove threads. What do you do? Do you delete them totally or do you move them to a private forum where we can see them later? Or we can have them if something should come up in the future. That sort of thing.

So we tell what their responsibilities are, how they go about executing, what is expected of them? That could be staff related duties, that could be “We expect you to be an example to everyone of this community.” I kind of view my staff members as not just moderators, but people that other members should follow. In an example they should be the example member, so that everyone sees the ideal way of participating in our community. So it just talks about … think of it like: at a corporation you might have an employee manual, it’s not that hard core maybe, but it provides some guidance and some details, because I think if you have nothing then people can do anything. And you know it’s easy to say common sense should apply, but my version of common sense and someone else’s version of common sense may differ greatly. It’s good to have something I can point to and say OK, well this is how we do this, it’s right here in the guidelines, and keep it in mind for the future. And it’s always easier to do that then say: “I had this thought in my head, which no-one has access to”. Perhaps you shouldn’t do that.

Paul: Yeah, and you got to present something to people where they got a really solid line. They know what they are doing, they know where they stand, and there is no uncertainty in the situation, but both in terms of your community leaders, the rules that they abide by, but also that of the entire community I guess.

Patrick: Right. Exactly.

Paul: So, looking forward. How do you think communities are going to evolve on the web over the immediate future. Do you think we are going to see some substantial changes on how communities grow and how communities interact with one another, and how organisations can make use of community.

Patrick: You know, I think what tends to change is the technology. You know, and that is not to say that forums themselves, or … I mean like video for example. YouTube is a community, a video community, there are video communities out there, it’s not that really around text based, although text based comments tend to be a big part of it. I think technology is for the most part what changes, we see new things come up, like a new platform like Twitter, a few years ago, or Facebook etc. where you have this community space. As we talked about earlier, some of the same principles still apply. I think good management strategy doesn’t change as easily as software.

That is why, in my book, I didn’t talk about phpBB version 1 or [..] version this or BBPress or whatever, it’s not about the software, there is tons of good software out there, and there will be more good software out there. What will determine your community success in the end, is the people part of it. How you manage people, how you cultivate their community, and all those things that are actually going into managing actual people, that are irregardless of software. Software doesn’t matter. You have tons of good options these days, so much different from when I started ten years ago, and there was phpBB version 1, and that was it. Like, I mean, literally, that was IT. There was uBB back then, which cost a ton, and now you have so many good options, so many good open source options, software is no longer the issue, it’s the people that matter, and I don’t think that will ever change.

Paul: Yeah. I mean, ultimately the same rules … almost the majority of the rules that you would apply to an online community would equally apply to running an offline community.

Patrick: Right.

Paul: Because ultimately it is about people.

Patrick: Yeah, exactly. Offline community and online community, you know are similar. I always try to take that stigma away from it, because there are people who think: “Online community: it’s not genuine. This is online, you’re at a screen, a computer screen, you are not face-to-face to people, that is not REAL community”. But it is, I mean, why do people meet offline? Because they have common interests for the most part. They want to talk about something in common. Why do they meet online? Same thing, you know? So that’s how I view it.

Paul: I mean, I guess, the major difference, at least from my experience is that people are less reserved online. They will be blunter and things, especially textual communication, things can be misunderstood easier. So there is a … do you perhaps need to think twice before responding online, you know compared to offline. But other than that it is very similar, very similar.

Patrick: Right. And yes, [..] “irregardless” is not a word. Thank you, thank you very much.


Patrick: I knew it as soon as I said it, OK, I am just kidding.

But yeah, I think that is very true, and I think obviously what I have to say is that the online world, the internet as a whole, has made the good things better, you know, you look at charity endeavours and things, and you see like Haiti and whatever, and just the amount of the money that was raised it can’t be duplicated 10, 15, 20 years ago. There is just no way.

Paul: Yeah.

Patrick: But is also makes the bad things worse. It makes bad people, it gives them more of an anonymous opportunity where they are not as easily spotted maybe, as they would be offline. So good things better, bad things worse. And that applies to community, it applies to how you handle yourself online and how much that amplifies. You just said “being careful of what you say”, but hey, it’s also access to those people who want to have conversations and to share information.

Paul: Mmmm. Well excellent! Absolutely excellent! Really enjoyed chatting with you Patrick. I wish we could chat for longer, but Ryan has got carried away with endless guests, more than you can possible ever image on one show.

Patrick: You know we have been talking about having you on the SitePoint podcast, and us, or one of us on your podcast.

Paul: Yeah.

Patrick: So you know, maybe just one day it won’t be just talk.

Paul: Yeah, one day. Perhaps we ought to do a joint show. That’s what we should do. And then we can double it up and get twice as muchfor our money.

Patrick: Well, I appreciate you having me. And congratulations on having the 200th episode. And I guess we’ll see you at SXSW.

Paul: You certainly will. Can’t wait for it. Look forward to meeting you there. Bye.

Ryan: See you later.

Marcus: Bye, bye.

Paul: Brilliant stuff, I mean I love the subject “community”, and it’s something I could talk about absolutely endlessly. Possibly, I mean, for fear of getting gushy, possibly because Boagworld has been the success it has been because of the people that pitched in, and you know, from Ryan, to Paul, to Anna and then all of our community leaders as well. And all the people that transcribe the show. I am constantly amazed at how much effort people will put in, to something that, really they don’t get a lot benefit back other than listening me waffle at them once a week.

What are you laughing at Marcus?

Marcus: Emma Bolton here, seemed to have totally missed Boagworld 200: “Can anyone give me a summary of what was just said?”

[Lots of laughing]

Marcus: Superb.

Paul: Yeah, that’s not going to happen, I am sorry to say.

Marcus: But we are recording all of it.

Paul: We are recording all of that. I think that the further into this I go, the more I think we need to basically release this content in every possible way, to justify the amount of effort has gone into doing it.

Ryan: I have now squeezed Jonathan Snook into our last free half-an-hour.

Paul: Oh, for crying out loud!