There have been excellent advancements in online community development and management over the years, with technology platforms, support tools, and engagement techniques. However, the basic premise of what makes them successful remains much the same. After many years of managing internal and external communities, I liken them to the care and attention one gives to hosting a dinner party.

Generally, you want all invited guests to show up, to fully engage in active and stimulating conversation, to enjoy the foods you have prepared, and to exit knowing they will tell their friends and family about their positive experience and happily return with great enthusiasm.

Without trivializing the amount of hard work and thought that goes into creating and managing successful online communities, there is a similarity to the attention we give to inviting people into our homes. We are just as raw and exposed, and we want to do all we can to ensure our guests are happy and comfortable with their experience.

Let’s explore those similarities and how we can make certain we take the greatest care of our community members and their overall experience with our brand.

Theme | Purpose

Before hosting any sort of dinner party, we tend to come up with the reason for the event first. It’s a birthday or holiday celebration, we want to share good news, there’s a group of people that haven’t come together in a long time, we want to host a themed event coinciding with something else, or simply to spend time with our closest friends. Usually, there is some purpose for hosting.

Before launching any community, it’s important to clearly define what you’re creating, and more specifically, why you’re creating it. What’s the purpose for the existence of this community—why does the world need it? Are there other communities that exist similar to what you want to create? Do you have ideas that would make yours different or how it might provide a more unique experience from what they are getting in a similar one? If so, are those ideas enough to engage and build a strong community for the long-term?

Be clear on purpose and differentiation.  Do your homework and make certain you have a solid understanding of what already exists and what the real needs are before going any further.

Guest List | Target Audience

As we think of our dinner party purpose, we immediately start thinking about the people we will invite. What’s going to be the guest list for this event? Based on the theme or purpose, who makes the most sense, and maybe who doesn’t? Is there a certain type of personality, background, or demographic that will make it successful? And how will you invite them – in person, via email, phone calls, paper or electronic invitations, or social media tools like Facebook?

“When we’re discussing who to invite to a dinner party, my wife Chaz and I sometimes use the shorthand, ‘good value for money,’ which indicates guests expected to be entertaining.” –Roger Ebert

Our online community purpose should dictate what sort of community members we hope to attract. If it’s a community of interest, what sorts of individuals are interested in this topic? If it’s a community of practice, who are the practitioners doing this work that would be ideal members? Are there thought leaders who can add real value if they participate? If the purpose naturally aligns to a specific demographic, who are they and how can you reach them?

Begin establishing a list of ideal members for your future community. Create a member persona based on what you feel would be the key characteristics of your vision. Research the best way to find and engage with these members so you can invite them into your new community.

Location | Platform

When hosting a dinner party, presumably the location is in your home. But there are variations that can support the purpose or define the experience. It could be a formal dinner party hosted in your dining room. Are there budget constraints that dictate specifics? Maybe it’s a more casual al fresco meal—an outdoor barbecue with swimming in the pool. It could be an Oscar party with a self-serve buffet and living room couch seating.

The location defines the overall experience, how guests may mingle and interact, and how they will consume your meal.

Much the same, the predefined purpose and target audience will drive what platform you choose to host your online community. Do you need security, anonymity, predefined access levels, or specific features and functionality? Does the nature of the purpose and audience dictate the user experience and interface design? Are there cost constraints associated with what you end up choosing? What about scalability as your audience and their needs evolve?

Choose where your audience would naturally be or could go, make it as easy and accessible as possible, and ensure you pick the platform, features, and design that can grow with your community.

Host, Co-host | Community Manager, Topic Moderators

While you’re the one who’s decided to host a dinner party, there may be other friends or family members that will co-host with you or take on certain responsibilities so you don’t have to do all the work yourself. This not only ensures all bases are covered but allows you to participate and engage with your guests more easily given not everything is resting on your shoulders. Not to mention, there may be certain activities others are just better at than you—bartending, managing the music, overseeing the grill, or even greeting guests.

Dividing responsibilities makes for a less stressful party and a more enjoyable experience for all involved.

Approach your online community similarly. Are you going to be the main community manager, or is there someone else better suited? Examining the purpose of the community, understand if members have certain expectations as to who owns it, as well as who would draw the most participants.

When looking at the topics and content categories you hope to build, are there specific individuals or thought leaders that you can and should assign to manage that specific portion of the community? These are people that will stay engaged, drive open and honest discussions, provide valuable input, and make connections when and where appropriate.

What other roles and responsibilities are required?

Atmosphere | Experience

When planning a dinner party, after we’ve thought through the purpose and guest list, we want to choose the right atmosphere for our event. This will likely define the location for the meal and how guests will experience the entire evening.

Should it be big and open, or simple and intimate? Do we want something more formal and contained, or do we want guests to be more casual and carefree? Is it cocktail attire, or flip-flops and jeans? Are there decorations, flowers, candles – what will the actual space feel like?

Is there an activity that will define the atmosphere, such as dancing or games? If there will be a mix of personal and professional connections, should there be some constraint to the tone, or is an open bar with anything goes what you are looking for?

“I try to greet my friends with a drink in my hand, a warm smile on my face, and great music in the background because that’s what gets a dinner party off to a fun start.” –Ina Garten

How will guests be greeted and by whom? Should they arrive at the same time, or is it a longer affair where they can come and go as they please?

After assessing the purpose, the platform, and target audience for your online community, you need to get clear on the tone and environment you want to establish for your members.

What’s the experience you want your participants to have throughout their entire interaction? What will it feel like to be part of this community?

When extending the invitation to join, how will it come to them? What does that look or feel like? Is it exclusive or open?

When they join, do they have a call-to-action that they must fulfill first? Is there automated messages welcoming them, or does the moderator personally extend a welcome?

Is the tone of conversation fun and social, or is it more academic and professional?

Set the tone in advance, define the rules and protocols and have those readily available so everyone understands how things will proceed and be managed, and be consistent throughout all interactions.

Food & Beverage | Content & Value

What to serve can be the most difficult step in hosting a party. You have to know who has diet restrictions or allergies, are there vegans or vegetarians, do people drink or not, what do they drink, how much food do you need to provide, what are convenience foods versus creating something special, and the list can go on.

And what about who provides the food? Do you cater the entire event, do you ask each guest to contribute a dish, or do you take that workload on all by yourself?

As a good host or hostess, you want to provide delicious food that people actually want to eat. You want it to be balanced, high in quality, wide in variety, flavorful, nourishing, and perfectly filling. You don’t want your guests to leave feeling hungry and needing to stop at the drive-thru on the way home.

A good community host understands the content and value needs of their members, and provides useful, unique, fulfilling, and meaningful options. They understand how to package and distribute for convenience and maximum consumption, while still being credible and unique.

They clearly define when and how members can contribute to the community. Is it purely as commentary, or do you accept thought leader pieces, blog posts, or research papers? Can high volume participants eventually be topic moderators or full-time content contributors? Make this clear early on, and showcase the examples where it’s working successfully.

Conversation | Engagement

Along with great food and a diverse and interesting guest list, your party needs you to drive interactions and conversations. Good hosts are focused on their guests, graciously attending to their needs while still being social. They contribute to the evening with their active participation rather than being confined to the kitchen. They’ve defined what activities will take place, and are organized in execution. They also understand when to step back and let guests get to know each other better as they engage one on one.

Great community managers and moderators do the same. They are observant, transparent, and authentic leaders with a knack for driving new conversations, not letting it become stale or stagnant. They are active participants, yet understand when to step back and let members engage and learn from one another.

“I don’t walk into a dinner party and say, ‘You’re an idiot; give me my coat.'” –Don Rickles

They set the tone for members with their own voice, sense of humor, social skills, and the overall value they bring. They are responsive to questions, open to member needs, and willing to listen and act where necessary. They are attentive and supportive, and they welcome audience input when defining and shaping the evolution of the community.

Whether hosting a party or an online community, be prepared, do your research, and be specific about what you provide and for whom. Take great care in delivering clear value, engaging with your audience, and ensuring they have a positive and welcoming experience, all in the hopes that they will return again and again.

As participants enter your community, they should have full confidence that they will depart with a great return on their investment in time.

For more resources on creating and managing successful online communities, explore these great sites:

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Content Strategist, Messaging Pro, Storyteller

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