It can be tempting to think of online communities as just that, communities that exist only online. The truth is that nothing could be further from the truth. The best online communities are those that operate as actual communities, with social dynamics and social rules.
The online community should work offline too. In fact some of the best online communities are those that integrate offline events and activities or seamlessly bring together the online and offline experiences.
I was reminded of this fact when the FreshNetworks team headed away to do some recruiting and filming of footage for a new community that we have helped to launch and are now managing.
For the people we met, the online community was a way of continuing their offline experience – an online way of meeting and talking to friends and sharing photos when they are not together. This kind of behaviour is typical of online communities. As we’ve noted before, social media is a great way of allowing people to meet and form communities with others with similar interests. It can often be easier than ever before to find people who share your interests, even if they don’t have to live near you or share common friends with you. The online experience allows these people to meet and stay in touch when time and distance separates them. It also allows them to interact, share ideas, innovate and work together to solve problems. But many of these things would also work offline and acknowledging and even facilitating offline interactions can be a real boost for any online community.
A sign that a community is maturing can be that members meet each other offline, either spontaneously or at planned events. How you make sure that these events are integrated into the online experience is an important role for the community manager – making sure that those who aren’t involved don’t miss out or feel left out. But as our recent experiences here shows, an online community can build on and enhance existing offline communities. The two go together and it’s important to recognise this.
Yet another reason why when you are planning and building an online community, you should make sure that you are putting the community first. Any technology you use should be a given.