Every community needs a killer app

One of the key challenges to establishing a community is attracting engagement – not just getting the numbers in of people signing up, but getting them to actively take part. One step to achieve this is through gradual culture change, helped by active and properly targeted facilitation. Another is to create a reason for people to come to the site on a regular basis, in fact to make them come.

What do the following have in common?

  • Lotus 1–2–3 and the PC
  • Email and the internet
  • Google search and the world wide web

Easy, of course, the former in each bullet being the ‘killer app’ of the latter item. Lotus was such a good spreadsheet that people bought PCs just to run it. Email was a key reason for the growth of home web connections through the ‘90s. Google has made the web accessible for the masses.

So, to provide that reason for people to visit your community, you need to find it a killer app – something that your site does better than anyone else’s. Preferably, to extol the virtues of social media and online knowledge sharing (generally the raison d’être of online communities), this killer app should be open and possible to manage through the community.

So, what sort of things could we have as our killer app? I can think of two, both of which I have developed myself for the local government sector but which I didn’t tie to a wider community. I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t.

Firstly, customised search. Every sector under the sun is screaming out for one of these. Google and the other search engines are great at finding specific terms, but they have little understanding of context. LGSearch has had a tremendous impact in local government circles, especially when one considers the lack of promotion it received (a couple of blogs posts, the odd forum entry).

One of the first things you should do when building a community is to create the search engine. Just use Google Coop to start with, it’s easy but powerful (and free) and you can always sort out something else in time if it isn’t up to the job. Make sure the search is both embedded in your community’s home page and available at (say) a sub-domain so it can exist in its own right. Include plenty of cross referenced content between the search page and the community, to make it easy to explore.

Make the list of sites searched open to suggestion (possibly through a wiki) from community members – in other words, give people a reason to engage.

The second killer app is the wiki glossary. Every sector has its own jargon, acronyms, abbreviations, terminology and no one understands it all. This was the reason for the creation of localgovglossary between myself and Steve Dale, inspired by David Wilcox’s social media wiki glossary. These are great, because they are easy to understand, perfect for the wiki medium and are instantly useful.

Here’s an example of why wiki glossaries just work in terms of online knowledge sharing. One of the more regular contributors to localgovglossary is a chap called Duncan Ford, and the material he is posting are culled from notes he has been making for himself for years, whether on paper or in word documents. He’s seen several attempts to create an online glossary in the past, but the wiki format is the first to make it a viable enterprise.

Make the glossary wiki a publicly accessible key part of your community site. Being able to add to the wiki is a good reason for people to sign up, and once they’re, and used to the idea of knowledge sharing online, they will be more likely to engage in other areas of the site.

So, create a reason why people can’t not join your community. They don’t have to be either of the tools I mention above, but they are a couple of things that can be got off the ground very quickly and have instant rewards.