Field of Dreams gave us the famous quote “if you build it, they will come.” It’s a great line for a movie. Sadly, I’ve heard too many people use it to justify their plans to build an online community. Sure, if you don’t build it noone will come. On the other hand, the mere presence of a community is not enough to result in anything worthwhile.

Building the community is merely the construction part of the process; like pouring the foundation and framing a house. Establishing an engaged community — and an engaged community is really what you want — is more of a creative process. In the online world, the work just begins when you cut the ribbon.

Most of the successful online communities began not because of a single large scale contribution, but because of a lot of small ones — just as with building personal relationships. Grand gestures like presenting a cool gathering place is simply part of the process. Remember, to be successful a restaurant needs to be accessible, have an appealing atmosphere, offer good food, good service and prices people are willing to pay. Of course, it helps if one of the elements stands out. Still, service needs to be up there. Most people won’t suffer terrible service for a great steak if they can get both (or an average of the two) somewhere else.

And so it goes with online communities. You need to have most of the elements covered, yet still offer something to your audience they can’t get anywhere else. The business world calls this the value proposition. Whether your community is in support of your business, hobby or political aspirations, you must offer something people can’t get anywhere else if you want to get noticed. Like the words or not, you need to have a value proposition.

Digital pioneers had the edge. There was little (if any) competition when they launched their communities. In these cases, the value proposition was obvious — they were one of the only (or only) destination for that interest. As the interest became more popular, “competing” online communities (that is to say, new communities that serve the same niche) needed to offer a slightly different take in order to be attractive to others.

Two examples from my own experience…

  • The Canadian Podcast Buffet was the first community specifically established to promote and support the Canadian podcast community. It had a built-in audience of podcast creators and, as we learned when we loosened the format and had more fun by incorporating interviews and guest hosts, the podcast listening public. Over time, our audience has grown well beyond Canada even though the show is still Canadian-centric. Note, CPB celebrates its fifth anniversary tomorrow (Dec 1)!
  • Just One More Book joined the online effort to promote great children’s books and the people that create them in July 2006. There were already many successful blogs and active communities dedicated to the subject. None of them were podcasting. So, we offered something noone else was at the time. We offered people the ability to eavesdrop on two people, passionately and energetically talking about the books they loved and why. They could do so on their computers or portable MP3 players. This led to weekly audio interviews with authors and illustrators; again something noone else was doing at the time. Eventually we produced a few videos and a special video series called Rock Stars of Reading (again, a fresh idea). Some people say JOMB arrived late and became a standout because we offered something different. I like to think that JOMB arrived differently and carved out its own space.

Perhaps that famous Field of Dreams quote needs to be adapted for the online world: “If you’re relevant, they will come.” There’s more to it than that, too. I’ll write more about relevance in creating a community tomorrow.