Richard Millington has a blog and newsletter on his Feverbee site that has great information about "how to grow thriving communities" I recommend.
I never recommend reinventing the wheel. Use what works from others, learn from their mistakes, and go from there. Berkeley Parents Network, started in 1993 by Ginger Ogle, is the “grandmother” of all online parenting groups. She’s put together an FAQ that covers many of the tips that I would give you. It’s here: http://parents.berkeley.edu/FAQ/how.html
I would add a few things to her document:
Read up on managing online communities. There are lots of ways to encourage productive and supportive communication. Richard Millington at FeverBee has tons of resources as well as a daily email that gives tips about running a community: http://www.feverbee.com/
Available software varies widely: Both Yahoo! and Google haven’t put their groups as a high priority so I wouldn’t recommend using their platforms. Other software includes BigTent, Xing, TownSquare and Meetup. If you want to charge a membership fee, look for a platform that has the ability to do the processing as PayPal may seem easy, but if there’s an annual fee and not reminders set in place, it gets complex fast. Do your due diligence in selecting a software so you don’t outgrow it and it doesn’t go belly up (groupspaces has all but disappeared). We use Club Express for Park Slope Parents which takes membership fees, includes forums, and also has modules for events and more.
Know that this is an investment of time. Creating successful groups requires oversight, as human nature and the anonymity of the internet creates a situation that can turn ugly fast. People get attached to their community, and as it grows it will take more time and energy. Getting help and having an advisory board to help bounce ideas off of is super helpful. Choose these folks carefully (and pick people who don’t always agree with you) and shower them with thanks, fuzzy socks, and an annual dinner (at least).
Consider having offline events as well. There’s nothing as fun as meeting people whose email is “hairybatman” and putting a name to a face. It helps build the community to have events offline to increase the strength.
Energy Vampires are always there. I’d say over 95% of our members are awesome, giving and wonderful people. The remaining 5% take up about 75% of moderators time, whether it be people who argue about policies, fairness, need extra technical help, and guidance.
Grow a thick skin and lots of patience and compassion. There are people who can dash off a nasty email that can keep you up at night if you let it. Know that people may be attacking you after a bad day at work, fight with their ___ (spouse, kids, parents) or any number of things. And frankly some people are just bullies both online (and off) and if they don’t agree with you they want you to suffer. PSP was threatened with a lawsuit by an unpleasant lawyer, has been attacked by the media, and has so many people tell us they don’t like our policies (or worse yet, us!). Over the years I’ve learned to not take it personally and try to be compassionate for the people who are really unhappy and want to spread their sentiment to others.
Decide on whether the reply is to the group or the individual who posted the message. In larger groups like the Park Slope Parents’ Yahoo groups, having people send “I agree with you” messages adds to the extra noise so we decided that replies would go to the person posting. However, in smaller groups it can help build a strong community to have more back and forth so our smaller groups are set to reply to “group.” Decide what level of activity you want on the groups.
Have “ground rules” so people know the intent of the list. Invest in having a mission, joining agreement, and policies.
Decide on advertising and marketing rules. Some people will join just to market their services and products. Over the years people think online groups are a form of social media and they can (and will) go overboard if allowed. Figure out what the overarching rules (and penalties) are and remind the membership frequently. You want members to be community members, not see your group as a “target demo.” Some people have a difficult time seeing how a “free demo class” is marketing (“I don’t make any money”).
Decide on whether people can give “shout outs” and unsolicited recommendations. As with advertising/marketing, do you allow Chris to say, “I’m a plumber” to the list or not. And can Chris answer a message privately or not?
Encourage lurkers and discourage frequent posters. One of my grad school colleagues studied healthy relationships and found that the more voices and more topics on an online group, the more satisfying it is. Having the same person answer everyone’s question almost immediately is a lot like that kid in school who raises their hand for everything—but it’s worse. It makes people feel like someone else will chime in, which limits interactions.
People just don’t know the amount of time it takes. There’s a saying… “doing a good job is like peeing your pants in a dark suit. It feels good but no one seems to notice.” The vast majority of people won’t understand the time you spend behind the wizard’s curtain. It takes time, energy, and dedication to run a successful group.
Much good luck with the endeavor!
Susan Fox, Ph.D.
Founder, Park Slope Parents