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Staffing a Virtual Community

The key "building blocks" of virtual communities are Web-based technologies that support such functions as chat, instant messaging and message boards (see Sidebar 2). However, the key ingredient in building successful virtual communities is people. Creation of a virtual community business requires many of the staff skills required to build any successful Web business: technology integrators, system administrators, Webmasters, marketing and sales folks. In addition, a virtual community requires two other key staff roles: executive producer and community manager. A successful virtual community will need a savvy executive producer — someone familiar with online communications technologies, aware of cost/return tradeoffs in the business, and creative in the development of content, partners and services that will be interesting to the nascent community. The executive producer's job is to direct the creation of attractive content services which generate revenue. The performance measures of an executive producer are total membership and revenue.

Another person who is critically important to success is the community manager, who is responsible for overseeing all member-generated content. The community manager sets the standards for the community interaction (what is acceptable and unsuitable), and is responsible for recruiting, training and motivating remote staff. Performance measures for the community manager include: member retention and the ratio of community staffing costs to total members.

Remote staff includes principally the Caretakers and to varying extents Motivators. Remote staff will typically be volunteers who host or moderate chats and message boards, respond to members being harassed in chat rooms, archive community created content, etc. In our experience, the selection, training and support of these volunteers is fundamental to growth of the community. Selecting mature, responsible caretakers will foster the creation of a strong, self-governing community.

The content and focus of a community may evolve in unpredictable directions. However, the creation of safe, inviting interactive environments for the large numbers of members required to make the virtual community successful is a function of the skill and effectiveness of the community caretakers. The virtual community organizations that create effective processes for recruiting, training, and motivating remote staff will have created an enduring asset.

Virtual Community Building Blocks

As we have seen, a successful virtual community can be formed around a single message board (i.e., a newsgroup). However, robust virtual communities typically make use of a range of technologies that support person-to-person and person-to-group communications. The primary enabling technologies are described below.

Most virtual communities provide for both "synchronous" (real-time) communications (through text chat and instant messaging) and "asynchronous" (non-real time) communications (through message boards, maillists, member and community web pages, and surveys). As a generalization, real time communication is usually social in nature, while non-real time communication tends to be more cognitive and topic-focused.

In addition to these key building blocks, virtual communities also depend on a member database and may also include technologies to support registration, electronic commerce, directories (of products, services, suppliers, etc.) and searches (for searching member profiles, community documentation, reports, articles, transcripts, archives, etc.).

Text Chat
Text chat is the exchange of written statements and responses among a group of people who are "present" together online, "in a chat room together.." A chat room can be available 24 hours a day or may be available only at scheduled times when a moderator is present or when a guest is "speaking" on a specific topic. Chat rooms can be public (open to everyone) or private (open only to invited guests.)

Text chat was invented by CompuServe in the late 1970s and has been a critical element in the popularity of America Online. Approximately one-fifth to one-third of online users enjoy the real-time social interaction offered by text chat.
Chat room regulars contribute strongly to creating a sense of "community" on a site. Chatters often have a strong sense of belonging and occasional visitors to an active community know that they can almost always find a group of regular chatters online with whom to socialize.

Instant Messaging
Instant messaging allows a user who is online to find out if a friend or acquaintance is also logged in at the moment. ("Buddy lists" automatically display the names of friends who are online at the same time a user is online.) Friends can use instant messaging to engage in a private one-on-one text chat with one other. This exchange is displayed in a dedicated window and can take place at the same time that members are engaged with other aspects of the community (e.g., reading web pages, posting on message boards, participating in a chat room, etc.).

Community managers can use instant messaging to keep members informed of current events (e.g., when a scheduled guest is about to begin a presentation, an instant message can be sent that says, "tonight’s speaker will be on in five minutes. . .if you are interested in participating, click here").

Message Boards
Message boards (also referred to as newsgroups or discussion forums) support ongoing discussions, generally of a single topic, over a period of months or years. An individual posts a message on a board that can be read at a later time by others who then post their responses (unlike chat, participants in a board need not be online at the same time). Since past messages remain available, a transcript is created over time that provides a record of the discussion.

Some message boards are open to all; others require permission from a moderator to join. Messages on simple boards are organized sequentially; more sophisticated boards allow for "threads" in which messages on sub-topics are linked to one another.

Maillists allows a user to send an e-mail to one e-mail address where the maillist server automatically forwards the message to everyone who has subscribed to the list. This type of communication supports the creation of sub-groups within the community based on specific topics.

As with message boards, there are open lists to which anyone can subscribe and closed lists that require permission for subscription. A community manager can create and administer a maillist or it can be administered by a member of the community based on a topic of interest to him/her.

Member Web Pages and Profiles
Many communities provide members with the opportunity to create and maintain their own web pages and/or personal profiles. Sites such as GeoCities, Xoom and AngelFire are primarily based on individually-developed Web pages organized into "neighborhoods" of people who presumably share common interests. Member profiles will become an important feature of communities over time; their precise format will vary based on the theme of the community e.g., in a golf community participants will be interested in other members’ handicaps, courses played, etc. while in an investment community participants will be interested in other members’ stock picks, asset diversification strategies, and other investor characteristics. These profiles could be tied in to the developer’s member database which will also include the member’s demographic information and possibly their responses to survey questions. (Privacy terms will become critically important.)

Surveys and Other Features
The ability to ask questions of a community’s members and tabulate responses can be extremely helpful in delivering services desired by the community. Information about who members are, what they want, what they like, etc., is also valuable for attracting advertisers and sponsors and for justifying a community’s advertising rates.

Other emerging features that add additional capabilities to virtual communities include the ability to form and manage sub-groups within the community, group calendars, that allow people to coordinate their schedules, and virtual worlds, that add graphic and other dimensions to real time textual (and soon, voice) communication.

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