Interview – Jim Cashel of Online Community Report

Communities have been around since the beginning of the Web. Many have come and gone, and some have survived several economic downturns and varying levels of interest and disinterest.

Because communities are about people we can be sure that many sites will decide to integrate communities into their overall offering, and that many Webmasters will seek the ways and wisdom of those with experience as they craft their fledgling communities.

Jim Cashel is the Chairman of OnlineCommunityReport and Forum One. Having been involved in online community and communication since the foundations of the Web, Jim offers extremely interesting insights into the Web community at large…

SitePoint: You’re Chairman of your own Web strategy and development firm, and before that you helped found a grant-making organization. What inspired you to start a newsletter about communities in the first place?

It was clear to us that through history there has been great progress in point to point communications (telegraph, telephone, fax…) and in broadcast communications (books, radio, television). But corresponding progress hadn’t evolved in the realm of group communications.

The dominant form of group communications today is still the face-to-face business meeting — not so different than 2000 years ago. Online communities, however, can change all this. We see this as a potent trend, and one we want to track.

SP: What’s the history of OnlineCommunityReport? Where did it all begin? And how long did it take you to get the Report to the point it’s at today?

We launched the newsletter in 1997 at that time when communities were beginning to flourish on the Web: portals were adding message boards, chat had boomed, and group communications technologies were appearing in many new formats.

We wanted to track the news and trends in online group collaboration — and perhaps help define the identity of the sector to some extent. At this stage we publish twice monthly for an "opt in" subscriber base of about 15,000.

SP: Do you see any particular technologies or initiatives which will truly advance "in group" communications to the point where we’ll be able to revolutionize our habitual communication patterns of the last 2000 years?

I don’t think there’s any one technology that will revolutionize communications, but I do think that perhaps 50 relevant technologies will improve to the point where new models are possible.

If you start with a capable platform such as Yahoo Groups, which provides a suite of useful services, and imagine that these will be enhanced in coming years through better bandwidth, video, voice recognition, always-on access, and smarter profiling, you can start to imagine very powerful possibilities.

SP: Why do you think community has become such an integral part of the online experience?

The Web helps solve a number of problems that real world communities face: geography, convenience, social issues, etc. For this reason communities are embedding themselves into every corner of the Web.

SP: So how would you define a "healthy community"? Have you seen any truly healthy communities on the Web?

I’d say a healthy community is simply one in which its members benefit from participation in the community (and "benefit" can refer to lots of things — information, social connection, entertainment…). Using this definition I’d say there are hundreds of thousands of healthy communities across the Web.

SP: Are you satisfied with the growth and quality of existing online communities? Or do you think that the Internet as a whole has more work to do with regards to online communities?

I’m certain that there will be major evolution in the sector throughout the decade. The most significant trend is that the high profile "everybody welcome" communities will shrink (mostly for economic reasons), but those that cater to clearly defined audiences and needs will proliferate.

SP: To build and maintain a community can certainly be costly. How can individuals and companies justify the expense associated with running an active community? Are there any numbers on how online communities benefit companies’ bottom-lines?

This is an important question, in part because running communities really can be expensive. I know that Participate.com and PeopleLink each have studies that detail the ROI of communities. I’ll be the first to admit, though, that it’s hard to produce precise numbers, because some of the benefits of community (loyalty, branding, etc.), are hard to quantify.

SP: What do you suggest is the best way for the average Webmaster to attract new members to their community? If they install a bulletin board on their site, does that mean they have a "community" or is there more too it than that? What are the other major factors to building a "community"?

As many groups have learned from hard experience, a simple bulletin board does not a community make! I’d say the most important strategy towards building a community is to understand that the bulletin board typically comes last, after the provision of quality information, increasing traffic, targeted email strategies, simple engagement technologies (polls, guest books etc.), and short online events.

SP: Which online forums do you participate in (if any)? Which are your favorites – and what makes them so good?

I track a lot of forums. I’m a big fan of slashdot because of the engagement of the community and the excellent use of technology. I think Salon does a nice job. The most interesting communities for me, however, are the small and obscure ones that happen to correspond closely with my interests, be they professional or personal.

SP: And do you have any preference for community/bulletin board software packages?

I’m a fan of ezboard. They have about a half billion monthly page views, so they must be doing something right. The Open Topic folks have done a lot of impressive work. And I respect much of the work of Web Crossing. There are other noteworthy initiatives as well.

SP: How can a site owner or company make existing members return to, and be active in their community? What should be the balance between acquisition and retention — which is more important to the health and sustenance of an online community?

There are many different steps that would be listed in a comprehensive answer, but I’d say a key issue is to understand that your community really revolves around a fairly small number of key contributors. You need to coddle and reward those key contributors. I also think the integration of email with the community is critical.

SP: What do you see as the future for online communities? What will stay the same? And what aspects will evolve?

I mentioned previously the important trend towards community specificity. Other trends that are important include an increased reliance on email and "always-on" access to communities through various communications technologies. I think in the future, we’ll all communicate in some way with groups through these new technologies without thinking much about it.

SP: You’ve had a lot of entrepreneurial experience, both offline and on. What advice would you give to aspiring Web entrepreneurs?

It’s a bit paradoxical, but my main advice would be "be wary of advice". A lot of entrepreneurship relies on using your own judgment. Sure, lots of people have experience in starting companies, but their experience may or may not be relevant to you. Do what you think makes sense — don’t simply accept prevailing wisdom.

SP: So what are your plans for the future? Do you have any new projects in the works?

I spend most of my time working with my colleagues to build a smart Web strategy and development firm, Forum One. We have 25 folks now, have always enjoyed profitability, and hope to keep a good thing going. On the community front the most interesting work involves hard thinking with some large companies about the proper role of community in both their internal and external programs. We’re also building some innovative community sites which will be launched later this year.

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