You may think that building an online community is just a matter of setting up a Bulletin Board or a chat room and then sitting back and waiting for the people to come in, but there is a lot more to it than that.
What is a community?
According to the WWWebster Dictionary, a community is (one of several related definitions):a unified body of individuals: as ... a body of persons of common ... interests scattered through a larger society
For the purposes of the Internet, this is the best definition, as it does not require that the people live together, only that they have common interests. By that definition, anyone who visits your Web site is a part of the community of that Web site.
Why build community?
Once you have people comming to your Web site, you already have a community of sorts, so why spend time "building" one? The Internet is a cold place. Most communities in history have been built around people who lived together, and so could get to know and work with the other members of their community.
When you are part of a community on the Web, you often don't know the other people with whom you interact. You could walk right past them on the street and not say hello. Building a community on your Web site, gives your visitors the chance to interact and feel a part of something. These connections build a network between people and (hopefully) they will like interacting with people with similar interests and so will keep coming back.
Online communities give your readers reason to stay interested in your site, and give you more readers.
How do you add community?
There is no tried and true method to encourage community spirit and feeling on the Web, but there are some tools to help encourage community.
Bulletin Boards and Online Forums
Bulletin boards are a great way to create an online community. Most forum software allows people to browse through the postings before logging in, and once they feel comfortable they can set up an alias and submit their own posts.
For example, my bulletin board allows you to read and post about HTML related topics. There are currently nearly 100 different topics, with many more responses and information.
This bulletin board uses Delphi forum software.
Web Based Chat Rooms
Chat rooms bring instant interactivity to a Web site. They also bring more anonymity than a bulletin board. Your readers can come into a chat room, give themselves any name they like and talk to other people with similar interests. They are less formal than a chat room, and allow more freedom. Good chat clients allow one person (or more) to act as a moderator so you can have hosted chats and control the room. Once you have a chat room, you can set up regular chats sessions, informal meetings, or just allow people to come and go as they please.
For example, in my chat room, I have an informal schedule. I try to come into the room on Monday afternoons, but I can't always make it. There are other people who hang out there all day, and some people who just drop by once in a while.
This chat room uses Parachat chatroom software.
Newsletters are a great way to keep your readers informed about your site. You can use newsletters to talk about new features, explain exciting changes to the site, or just give good information that they might not have found otherwise.
I use my newsletter to provide additional tips and tricks about HTML. I point out newsworthy events and software or books that help in building a Web site. There is a section for beginners that is only available for readers of the newsletter.
The newsletter is sent out using Listserv newsletter software.
Often the most overlooked community builder is the online calendar. This can be as simple as a list of events and their dates and times, or as complex as you can imagine. They are an invaluable tool for building community, as they allow your readers to find out what's happening. You can and should list events like your chat room schedule, guest authors, or forum topics to be discussed, but don't forget events outside of your site. If your readers find that they can get valuable information from your calendar, they will come back and be more motivated to use it for your other online services.