Community Success Factors 5: Culture

Posted on: August 30, 2009

This is Item 5 of my 8 Critical Success Factors for Virtual Communities post.

Culture underpins how we communicate, so a positive or appropriate culture is vital to a successful online community. It will determine whether people feel comfortable joining and participating and whether visitors and members will stick around. Once a community has bonded its norms may even include a type of language or ‘paralanguage’ unique to it (Van Dijk, 1998).

Thus one should beware of trying to transplant a community and social software that works in one place, into another. The unique combination of geographical location, demographics and the way dynamics develop between individuals over time means assumptions about replicating models, designs, community guidelines and management techniques are unwise. Ultimately, the culture of a community will be constantly evolving, as is the case offline – as a result of internal and external stimulus.

Culture affects how people interact in different circumstances – and with different media: Forrester have highlighted the diversity that exists in interaction patterns across geographical regions using ‘social technographics’ profiling. For example, their take on Europe in 2009 is:

While uptake of social media activities overall has increased slightly in the past year, online European usage of social networks such as Facebook and Bebo has grown significantly — around 30% now engage with social networks regularly, up from 18% last year. Overall, more than 60% of online Europeans now engage with social media on a regular basis, and in some countries, such as the Netherlands, this is as high as 74%. However, penetration of social activities remains very different across the different countries in Europe.

Rebecca Jennings

It is possible to investigate the social technographics of your target community members here >>

To turn to Forrester again, their POST (People, Objectives, Strategy, Technology) framework encourages the social strategist to begin with people, including their culture and patterns of interaction, rather than with technology or an organisation’s aims.

Culture varies from place to place, but also tends to seep through boundaries and influence others. Thus one virtual community can impact others and indeed whole strata of interests (or social objects). For example, Bennett (2003) has commented on a shift taking place in political activism located online – whereby “the primary basis of movement integration and growth has shifted from ideology to more personal and fluid forms of association.” So adherance to an idea no longer tends to bond activist communities together, rather freedom of interaction and ideas is expected. In terms of facilitating a community online, being aware of such norms and potential influences is essential.

An example of norms spreading from one community to another is how use of the @ sign, popularised on twitter is now prolific on other many-to-many forums, such as the Guardian comment is free:


There may be trade-offs between passion and volume, in the sense that strong-willed community members could fill a forum with detailed and aggressive contributions, but more members might participate if the tone is kept a little lighter. A community manager can affect this using design and nurture; further ideas on setting boundaries and active coercion will follow in the next installment in this series.


1 Response to "Community Success Factors 5: Culture"

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