for a movement or community to form, only two things are needed: (1) a reason for people to care, and (2) a way for them to communicate with each other.

By Jane Finette (Entrepreneur-In-Residence, Astia)

The Internet has created tremendous opportunity for connection, and with a new generation of socially connected Millennials, we are in a unique position to deepen engagement with customers and allow them to participate and create meaning.

Community is the new black. Everyone wants one, some of us have one, and most want a bigger one. Truth be told though, companies are still building audiences, not communities. The term ‘user’ has been supplanted with a flourish for the new
word ‘community’, without truly embracing what leading and being part of a community actually means.

There are some basic rules to follow that, when fully embraced, allow communities to grow and thrive.

Rule #1 – Give People a Way to Connect

It is said that for a movement or community to form, only two things are needed: (1) a reason for people to care, and (2) a way for them to communicate with each other.

You may think that Facebook and Twitter allow for this communication; however, very often it remains one sided and doesn’t allow for discussion between your fans.

For a movement and community to thrive, everyone should have an opportunity to have their voice heard – not only that of the leader. It sounds old school, but online forums and meet-ups are still superb ways for dialogue and connection to happen. Ensure that you create spaces for communication.

Rule #2 – Allow Your Community to Take Ownership

Audiences are transient and will flock to the next shiny object. Communities are longer lasting. They are loyal through thick and thin ‘if’ they feel invested in the cause. What responsibilities could you ask of your community? Would they answer Twitter replies for you? Manage a forum? Present at an event? Tell their story to the media? Submit their best idea for a marketing campaign? The list is endless if you are prepared to let people in. Who said you have to do everything on your own?

Rule #3 – In Real Life Matters

The most successful communities have built in person connections beyond online.

The power of building physical relationships is still key to deep connections. So whether you create weekly meet-ups in towns and cities across the country, or host a single event for your tribe per year, you can guarantee those ties and affinity to the brand or cause will persist.

Rule #4 – Give Up Control

Now, this is a hard one. As I’ve mentioned above, communities thrive when they have ownership and can communicate with each other. That’s pretty terrifying for most corporate communication folks, not to mention your Board. The possibilities of openness and inclusion though are immense. And remember, it is central to community. Creating guidelines and codes of conduct are important tools to give your participants so that they have a framework in which to operate.

They should not be overly strict, yet make clear lines that cannot be crossed. I often find community guidelines are a reflection of your culture e.g., we welcome polite honest feedback or every person has something to contribute. When the culture is strong, you will find your community will also police itself.

Rule #5 – Create a Strong Mission

People will follow you when the stakes are high and the vision is clear. They will participate in your community rather than another because you moved them to act. So do not settle for mediocre. No great idea, product or service can truly be successful without the help of a committed tribe of supporters. But first you need to inspire, to call on something visceral, and motivate people toward something better.

Traditional ways to grow business are changing forever. We are only at the beginning of what the connected Web can do. Embrace building and nurturing your community today – they will soon be demanding it.

Women 2.0 members: What are your tips and tricks to building an engaged community online? Let us know in the comments!

About the guest blogger: Jane Finette is an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Astia. She is an organizer of Community Hacks. Previously, she was Director of Worldwide User Engagement for Mozilla Firefox where she worked with her team and the wider community driving engagement, loyalty and retention. Jane has led several eBay business units, launched a consulting practice to help entrepreneurs and brought two US-based software companies to Europe. Follow her on Twitter at @janefinette.