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I’m heading to LA tomorrow, to speak to the winners of the 2010 Knight Community Information Challenge during their three-day boot camp at USC Annenberg.

I’ve sat down several times to craft my presentation over the last two weeks, but every time I get started, it just doesn’t feel strong enough. I end up jotting down notes and ideas but never commit to anything concrete.

At first I thought it was about me being a perfectionist,which does happen from time to time, but I know that’s not it. It’s much more than that.

This group isn’t simply thinking about community projects or looking to learn enough to convince the leaders of their organizations that they should invest in online communities. They’ve got the funding to do it and they’re going to do it, so my words can have real impact on the grantees and their projects, and I don’t take that lightly.

It’s an amazing opportunity for me and I am deeply honored to have been invited. But on some level, I’m feeling the pressure because of it. It’s not the kind of pressure that makes you cave, but the kind that makes you want to give 110%.

I’ve read the project summaries at least three times each because I want to understand the mission of each and give the best advice I possibly can. All are part of a growing movement to help fund local news and information projects and ensure that residents are informed and engaged.

If you’re a regular reader, you know my thoughts on what it takes to effectively engage communities. Not to mention the fact that you have to get them there first.

I have to tell them that. They need to know that  their job will be difficult at best, and it will take serious commitment to grow any community. But I don’t want to scare them. I suspect that this is why I’ve struggled.

I know from experience that building it is not enough. So maybe that’s what I’ll say first and go from there.  After all, I can talk about this stuff all day.

I’ve got a six-hour plane ride ahead of me, which is plenty of time to pull it all together but I’m thinking this time I’ll speak more from the heart and depend less on a Powerpoint.

This group of winners has a unique opportunity to make real change in their communities, both online and off. I just want to give them something to put them on the road to success.

Wish me luck.

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Its one thing to charge someone with growing your membership, but quite another to truly understand what it is you’re asking.

No one can effectively grow and maintain a community without the resources to make it happen.

What are those resources you might ask?

Well, the most important is time. They need time to nurture the community, seed it with content, create discussions, build relationships and interact with the masses.

But wait!

They can’t do any of that if they don’t know what the users want. And if you can’t tell them then you need to give them more time to figure it out so that the community can thrive and grow.

There is so much competition out there, so your community has to become a destination. It has to fill a need that isn’t being met elsewhere. In other words, people need a reason to come.

Sometimes your brand is enough to get them there. But oftentimes it isn’t enough to get them to stay.

It is frustrating to see people deem this as an afterthought. If you are building or maintaining a community for a client, you need to be paid for the time it takes to do it. And you need to make sure they understand that this does not happen overnight.

How many ghost towns have you seen lately? How many LinkedIn groups with no discussions, abandoned Twitter accounts and empty Facebook pages have you visited in the last month? (Remember this report released four months ago that found that over a third of all FB fan pages had fewer than 100 fans?)

The problem is everyone wants to be everywhere but they have no strategy for making any of it a success, and that, in my opinion is crazy.

The point here is this: If you have goals related to increasing membership and engagement levels of any online community regardless of the platform, you have a hard job.

So, you’d better make sure that you aren’t the only one aware of that fact.

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Are you working on a new community with big time bells and whistles that caters to a niche that you just know has been waiting for a place to call home? If so, I encourage you to push ahead full steam. But, let me caution you first.

Your new community, no matter how great will not change habits. What I mean by this is you will not be able to stop potential members from posting on Facebook or twitter or their favorite Ning community.  If you are assuming that your new community will become the new gathering place for those belonging to the niche, I think you will be disappointed.

Can you make it a great destination with robust content and interesting discussions? Absolutely. I know from experience what that kind of commitment can do and if you want some ideas on how to grow your community, read through some of the archives, or check out my book, “18 Rules of Community Engagement.”

The main point here is, if you are assuming that you can stop people from spending their time in the mainstream communities, you are way off base.

If you have a presence on those other networks, let the community know that and use them as part of an outpost strategy that highlights all that’s going on in your community. Accentuate the positive, or communicate with your audience in other places whenever you can.

Building a community is a labor of love. (Well, it can also be one of hate if you don’t have support from the top, but I digress…)

You will always think it’s better and deserves to be the center of your members attention, but it won’t be. Certainly not in the beginning.

Accept that you are not an island and work hard to grow your membership.

It’s the only way to grow.

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This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. Feel free to challenge me, disagree with me, or tell me I’m completely nuts in the comments section of each blog entry.

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