Steve King - Online Topic Communities

Here's what I learned while building 100+ online communities where users can discuss topics they are passionate about.

I explain my discipline with the help of Paul Adam's visualization of structures and influence in social networks. Paul's infamous Social Circles slide deck


As a Community designer/ manager... I build social network structures from the bottom-up... one topic, one discussion at a time, till some sort of critical mass is reached and the conversation takes off.

This is pretty much the opposite of top-down influencer marketing that attempts to reach customers by expensive media buys and highly inefficient social media "engagement" programs.

State of marketing

  • Social media marketing is dysfunctional
  • Organic doesn't reach
  • Paid is too pricey
  • Influencers don't influence
  • Content is often just... more digital noise

Trusted online community venues create a protective shell of customer engagement and loyalty around you brands and products!

Trusted topic communities

In Social Network Analysis (SNA) a strong tie is defined as a connection you have with someone you are close to (e.g., friend or family)... a frequent, persistent, trusted and empathetic connection.

In a well-designed online topic community, frequent discussions and problem solving take place in a topic area of mutual passion, forming virtual strong ties that act very much like real world strong ties in terms of trust, influence and motivation.

A better social marketing approach

Strong ties in a topic-based customer community bind users together with issues and information they are passionate about...

  • Enables trust, loyalty and valued customer engagement
  • Creates user-generated content and insights
  • Solves user problems
  • Unleashes customer innovation
  • Provides an early warning system for market risk

Strong vs weak ties

In the real world, your family and friend connections form a strong-tie thinking network that is the basis for decision making and empathy with products, brands, organizations, etc.

Real world weak ties are connections with people you see infrequently but there's value because weak ties bring new information about risk and opportunity to the attention of strong tie networks.

Shared-thinking networks

Strong-tie networks are the core of our social existence:

Strong and weak ties work together

Weak-tie connections feed new and interesting information into strong-tie networks.

Segmentation in real-world social networks

According to Paul Adams and other SNA mavens... In the real world, each person tends to have 4 - 6 independent strong-tie networks that are based on the major areas of our lives: home, work, church, sports, hobby, travel, military, locales, etc.

In online communities, users will commit to multiple virtual strong-tie topic groups where they engage with passion that is very similar to real world strong-tie passion.

Segmentation in online topic communities

Community features like reputation, badges, permissions and tagging accelerate the process of strong tie formation within topic areas. (Weak ties are also supported by more passive interactions like viewing and voting user generated content.)

With a well-designed reputation system, users in topic communities really care about their standing and put much frequent effort into reciprocal knowledge sharing and problem solving efforts in the topic areas they love.

StackExchange: Online topic community ecosystem

Many of the communities I build are based on the StackExchange model of topic-based discussion forums. StackExchange is an interconnected community ecosystem where users are hugely engaged and passionate about a wide range of topics from cooking to bicycling to math and science.

Tags are emblems of strong-tie interest areas

Topics are curated and tagged by one or more keyword. The reporting shows how popular tags are.

Some of the tags on StackOverflow have 100,000+ followers.

Tag-centric user interface

I worked with Johns Hopkins University informatics experts to create a topic community for health workers. An extensive tag cloud was defined, enabling a topic-query user interface that gives users access to over 10,000 health information resources and discussion threads.

Topic-based user content

On the Hopkins site, the text editor lets users create posts and tags with automated help from the topic system.

The system helps users find the specific topic areas where they can share information and solve problems together.

Topic community visualization

A healthy topic community has a range of topic areas that are compelling to users who share similar interests.

Too much or too little topic diversity can inhibit community success.

The right-hand circular diagram shows relationships between related tags on StackOverflow.

Community building process

The following slides show the key steps in designing a topic-based online community that will unite users via passionate topic discussion and shared problem solving.

Beta customer community

This community was going to be built with Lithium, but that was canceled due to lack of enthusiasm. Instead we used a StackOverflow style community platform that allows rapid sign-ups and answering of beta test Q/A issues. Within a month a very active, productive community had formed.

Video content integration

Discussions are greatly enhanced with multimedia content integration. I try to integrate video and audio content into topic communities whenever possible. Both live streaming videos and archived video content can be added to discussion threads directly.

Topic showcase home page

Topic areas are showcased on the home page of this topic community for diabetes research that I built for a consortium of universities and health-care organizations. A month after launch, the site has served thousands of page views with an average of 8.2 pages per session.

Body of Work

Here's some of my influences and involvements

Thanks for swinging by!

Thanks to Bob Briggs, Karen Chenette, David Tobey, David Boje and the many other PhD researchers, collaboration software experts and shared thinking advocates that I have communed with over the past 20 years.

Please see this sister site on virtual problem solving collaboration enclaves:
Group Intelligence Lessons from Pixar, Apple, Google and Beyond

One last big thanks to Paul Adams for sharing so much of his innovative, ground-breaking thinking about how social networks are structured and influenced.

© 2016 Steve King