The first 4 are "table stakes" - a high percentage of communities are aware of them and do them, they just need to do them well (communication, competition, customization and conversation).
The next 4 are "take 'em or leave 'em" practiced by 1/2 the communities we run across (connection, community, categorization and collective wisdom). The last 3 are rarely practiced or practiced well but truly harness the potential of an army of enthusiasts when executed correctly (co-creation/ collaboration, contextrual extesnions and culture-building).
On to #1 - Communication & Content.
Like any website, communities have to deliver communication effectively, efficiently and provocatively. In communities, the ability to convey a lot of multimedia information in an inherently uncontrolled environment presents some challenges. Given that most communities "seed past" were built around pioneering yet really clumsy looking sites from the 90's like "The Well", good web design and "pleasing on the eyes" user experience is sacrificed at the altar of functionality and good web practice.
So when you run across a community-based website that works good, feels good and looks good. You sit back and admire. I had a number of sites that present their photos, blogs, information, video, user gen content, albums, news and updates well but we settled on American Express' Open Forum (screen shot pictured above).
What do I like about Open Forum?
- a clear purpose statement
- a great secondary top menu, getting you to the key interaction areas - business stories, forums, blogs and member wall
- a smart menu breakdown of the 5 constituent areas of the site
- a video flash based area where the most important content bubbles up
- a prominent login and call to action for current and new members
- countdown clocks, countdown clocks - I love the conveyal of "something important coming this way"
- a secondary flash based area that covers off top leading content with transparent bacground messaging
- a tag based menu architecture to allow for random surfing and top subjects of interest
- shining the light on cardmembers and highlighting their contributions through their "insight area"
- video, news and content in clean 3 column interface
- branding - a good secondary balance and support for more explicitly American Express branding and benefits - the sponsorship of the site is clear that it is American Express-driven (in fact, they could have heightened the brand presence even more without giving it a salesy look and feel)
- a search area to easily sort for content and people
- a bottom menu that is loaded but not overbearing
- a member signup area that is straightforward and presents other members who have already joined - also uses intelligent dropdwons that speeds up the signup experience
- an RSS feed on content, added subtly to the front page
- a colour coded, well integrated forum that looks like it was built with readability not technical ability in mind
- a well presented blog with highlights on affiliated subject matter experts
- the use of community guidelines which takes legalease and good intuition and puts it into a nicely packaged 12 clause statement
My only four issues with Open Forum are:
1) not allowing the user generated side of the site to surface beyond certain areas and the ability for these same people to join groups, connect and create their own mini-communities. The site is great partly based on the funds American Express has put in to buy or broker interesting content. Perhaps what's in the works for their relaunch is to take the same design credos and apply it to their open and networked member side of the fence.
2) the ability and incentive to refer others, from a simple "tell-a-friend" functionality to sophisticated social network integration - simple builds could increase referral at little expense, effort or design compromise.
3) The site did not feel well-integrated within the social web - no perceived integration with other sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Flickr, although there was an RSS feed and a tweet tracking widget on their blog posts. Maybe intentional to keep the exclusivity of their audience but may be undermining the traffic funnel they could create (currently the site has 13,000+ regsitered members).
4) granted the cardmember/small business audience may appreciate this or find this comfortable, but the site can look too corporate in some areas, and not enough "taking off the tie and shoes" content areas. Perhaps nit picky - but that much pale blue, grey and black sets me off sometimes.
Overall though, a well planned, well-designed and well-executed communication/content/community site for a well-targeted community of people.
Next Online Community Tool C post - Competition