It might seem that an online community is not something that can be engineered. A website can be made to look and function in a particular way, but a community is made up of people and people aren’t so easily programmed.

This is not the case. Across the web there are many different communities. Some of them spring up from the grassroots of the internet, and others are designed and managed using proven community building tactics.

Successful community building involves following a set of well documented techniques based on theories taken from a range of disciplines, as outlined in my previous post.

You start with a clear objective or mission statement and a desired outcome. From this, a community manager makes important decisions about the design of the community focusing on the following community levers.

Size and structure of site

There are a wide range of structural considerations when planning or running a community. For example, deciding to create a community with a small population will help foster a sense of exclusivity whereas a larger community may be harder to micro-manage.

Structural considerations such as the number of topics discussed in the community, the number of sub-groups and how members are recruited and screened will all determine the type of community that develops.

Form and types of content

Will content on the site be collected from outside sources, created by the community management team or generated by the users? Most likely it will be a combination of the three, so what percentage will come from each?

Will members of the community submit blogs, status updates, contribute to forums, upload media, fill in a profile or leave comments? Each of these different forms of content will have different effects on the dynamics of a community.

Organisation and management of content

Enabling community members to find the content or tasks that are relevant to them and preventing user distraction is key to a good user experience of a site.

Presenting particular bits of content to particular groups or individuals will ensure relevancy whilst implementing a way to monitor and remove offensive content is essential.

Relationships to other websites

What relationships will your online community have to other websites and social networks? Will you pull in profile information from Facebook or Twitter and will your community broadcast using these networks? Will you leverage the unique designs of sites like Tumblr and Pinterest? Will you tap into your members social networks to pick up new recruits?

It might be necessary to create relationships with other websites, such as syndicating the content of a news site to provide discussion material for your members, or tapping into another sites readership for recruitment.

Membership screening

By using registration forms and by recruiting through targeted websites and networks you can fine tune who becomes a member. Do you recruit people with similar demographics, attitudes and outlooks, or do you want diversity? Will you assign new members a series of tasks before they are accepted as part of a community?

Membership screening is particularly important in research communities as they often have very strict guidelines about who is a member. If a community has strict recruitment criteria then it is important to pay close attention to registration communication and make sure that expectations are well handled.

Allocating roles

At a basic level, you will want to have two tiers of community membership – member and non-member. This can evolve over time to include any number of roles. Experienced members should have their site privileges increased and an appropriate title such as administrator or elder should be awarded.

With these new roles should come an increase in responsibility and opportunities. Experienced members can begin taking over some of the management of your site and can help resolve conflicts. Furthermore, a clear path into these senior roles can motivate new members to contribute.

Rewards and sanctions

If you are directing a community towards a particular purpose, then capitalising on the power of rewards and sanctions can be really beneficial. By rewarding and highlighting the kind of behaviour and contributions you are aiming for whilst providing feedback and sanctions on undesired actions, you will be able to mould the shape of your community.

Rewards don’t necessarily need to be monetary – they can include highlighting and publically praising individual members contributions or awarding an increase in responsibility. Care should always be taken when delivering feedback, as you don’t want to put people off!

Framing and branding

The way a community defines itself, the way it asks questions and the way it writes copy are all major factors in how a community will develop. Fun, jokey or satirical content will attract a different crowd from content with a professional, official and serious tone.

How a community postitions itself in relation to other communities is important – is it in competition or collaboration with similar sites? Logos, typography, colours, taglines, images and other design considerations can all be used to brand and define a community.


These are 8 broad areas that are all within the control of the community management team that can be used to engineer the shape and growth of a community. Within these elements there are hundreds of different variables and choices, each with well documented outcomes.