Non-governmental organizations seeking to strengthen relationships with members. Governments trying to reach out to citizens. Businesses hoping to engage and win the loyalty of customers. These are the kinds of challenges that bring people to the field of online dialogue and community-building — and that should encourage them to adopt RSS.

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, a format for storing online content so that people — or web sites — can subscribe to and receive content as it’s updated. (For a more detailed explanation see my RSS mini-site.) RSS lets individual users “subscribe” to online content (“RSS feeds”) by using newsreaders (“feed readers”) that round up all the news from different sites and put it in one place. But RSS can also serve as the circulatory system for online communities by making it easy for web sites to share content with one another.

Marnie Webb’s great post on the ten reasons that non-profits should use RSS is a great crash course in the value of RSS. But it’s become clear that RSS has particular value in creating online communities — and not just non-profit communities, but potentially for-profit communities, too. So with a big nod to Marnie, let me suggest….

10 ways RSS can help build online communities

  1. Start in the middle. The biggest hurdle to creating an online community is the challenge of starting up a site without any content to draw people in. With RSS, you can create a site and immediately populate it with content that will interest the kind of people you’re hoping to engage.
  2. Safety in (small) numbers. Small communities are easier to create and sustain — but small online communities can have a hard time generating enough content to sustain their members’ interest. RSS makes it easy and efficient for people to set up sustainable micro-communities by aggregating (subscribing to) content on a given set of topics, rather than creating it from scratch. Fo example, the left-handed trombone players of Wyoming can have a thriving online community populated by RSS feeds about left-handedness, trombones, and Wyoming. (Sign me up!)
  3. Go to where the people are. Offline communities have long known that when you’re trying to recruit or build your community’s membership, you can’t wait for potential members to come to you; you have to go to them. RSS lets you apply that insight in the virtual world: instead of waiting for new community members to return to your site, your content can reach them — when and where it’s convenient for your readers.
  4. Put your members to work for you. Communities thrive when members participate actively. If your site makes effective use of RSS, your members can contribute content by streaming comments directly from their blogs to your site.
  5. Online community in 5 minutes a day. One obstacle to participating in online communities is the amount of time it can take to track a range of conversations across the many discussion boards and threads that can emerge within a single online community. RSS makes it easy to offer members a customizable dashboard where they see all the content and conversations that interest them as soon as they get to your site.
  6. Safety and diversity. It’s easy for online communities to become “echo chambers” in which people hear only the views of people who think the same way they do — in fact, one valuable kind of online community is just a safe space where people can talk with others who share their core values. RSS lets homogenous communities bring in content from people who think differently, and then review and discuss it within their safe space.
  7. Foster discussion, not chatter. For the same reason that online communities often become echo chambers, they can also become pretty lightweight. RSS feeds can inject substantive content into your community, encouraging your members to engage in meaningful dialogue instead of idle chit-chat.
  8. Look around you. Your community isn’t just the people who have registered on your site — it’s the broader community of people whose interests intersect with the interests or values of your members. RSS makes it easy to exchange content (like blog posts) with these related sites, so that your members can find one another.
  9. Plan for your demise. Many communities have a limited life span. Conference sites inspire great discussions that peter-out; contests or promotions produce a spike of interest that ultimately dissipates. By creating RSS-based relationships with other related sites, you hook your site into a larger community that can offer your members other possible homes if and when your site reaches the end of its useful life.
  10. Plan for your rebirth. Those other sites I was talking about? They don’t have to belong to other organizations. RSS makes it so easy to move content across micro-sites, it’s suddenly efficient for you to run multiple online communities that target different groups, interests or efforts. By the time one community winds down you’ll have another site and community well underway.