By Simon Preece, Senior Consultant at RMM.

Surely it’s not that hard to create an “online community”? You simply take your existing audience group, add a dash of Twitter, a gallon of branded Facebook content, a scattering of YouTube videos and hey presto, job done. Unfortunately this commonly applied formula in no way guarantees the creation of a truly engaged, interactive and ultimately, productive online community, because it fails to take into account the fundamental drivers which enable a community to form and function.

Do not allow yourself to be blinded by high-tech wizardry here. The key characteristics which differentiate a group from a community have remained unchanged for centuries, in spite of a shift from spears to smartphones. Whether it is formed of people, online profiles or avatars, a community is defined by the following five core attributes:

1.Boundaries: which define who is in and who is out.

2.Common purpose: all communities form with the aim of achieving something. Members come together within their boundaries in order to get something done.

3.Reciprocity: in striving to achieve their common purpose, members develop reciprocal relationships with one another. They scratch each other’s backs, if you like.

4.Rules: communities need rules about how members are expected to behave, with penalties applied to those who break the rules

5.Self-Determination: communities must be free to make up their own rules and to decide upon their own common purposes. Communities are self-organising and self-regulating.

So what does all of this actually mean in practice? Essentially, boundaries determine who is or isn’t included in a particular group and communities often form organically on the basis of common social factors, interests, qualifications or even geographical location. However, an online community does not simply consist of a group of people with a shared demographic or psychographic profile: if we do not take into account the shared objectives of a particular group and the outcomes which members may want to achieve by coming together, we have not created a real community, just a — most likely short-lived — group.

It’s only when we remind ourselves what truly defines a community that we understand the reasons why an organisation might choose to build, host and manage such a thing. Only then can the right platform be identified. It should NEVER be a case of creating a forum or a Facebook page before working out what that purpose is.

Whether you are looking to build customer loyalty, encourage greater employee collaboration, protect and enhance your online reputation or generate new product ideas, a well-designed web community can provide unlimited mutual benefit, both for its members and the organization which created it.

Just take a look at Dell’s industry-leading IdeaStorm initiative, http://en.community.dell.com . IdeaStorm was set up to enable Dell to communicate and collaborate with its customers on a global scale, using crowdsourcing to generate product innovation ideas and providing online technical support for its customers via user-led, company monitored forums. Since the inception of IdeaStorm in 2007, Dell has implemented over 425 consumer ideas out of the 14,750 suggestions which have been submitted by its community, an outcome which obviously has multiple business benefits, including cost-efficient, targeted market research and product development, an enhanced customer experience and improved sales prospects. Since the site was launched, Dell has also reported a 30% drop in negative sentiment, which is no doubt due to the fact that the community is meeting the shared needs and objectives of its members, i.e. a requirement for cutting edge, user-friendly products and immediate, comprehensive technical support along with a desire for a responsive, interactive and customized customer experience.