You've spent tens of thousands of dollars creating an online community site. Your organization has a big vision for how this new community can engage your customers, members or the public. Your developers, communications team and fundraisers are all bleary-eyed from the effort and dollars it's taken to get you to launch day. Now what?

That's the question we tried to answer during last week's session at NetSquared. The conference itself was a great reminder of the number one law of community-building: you can set the stage, but the community will define itself. And when we helped CompuMentor launch the NetSquared online community three years ago, we could never have envisioned the depth and breadth of expertise and enthusiasm that the community now encompasses.

This year's NetSquared showcased the very best of what's possible when development know-how meets community vision: the twenty-one projects that were showcased in the Mashup Challenge demonstrated a wide range of ways that content or tools can help drawn people to a site.

But drawing people to your site is just the first step. How do you motivate them to actually participate, to contribute their own time, ideas and content? In other words, how do you bring your site to life?

My presentation at NetSquared drew on four kinds of resources to help answer that question:

1. Questions to ask before launching your online community.

Rob has written a great introduction to the questions you need to ask yourself before launching an online community (PDF). Some highlights:

  • What's in it for your users…and how do they know?
  • How do you want people to behave toward each other?
  • How will users know their contributions are valued?

2. The ingredients for a community engagement plan.

We often help organizations answer this question by creating engagement plans. If you want to roll your own, we'd suggest including

  • key messages
  • audiences (with relevance, messages and channels for each)
  • incentives for participation (contests, recognition, points, etc.)
  • outreach best practices
  • blogger outreach plans and sample outreach e-mails
  • media outreach plans
  • sample e-mails for outreach to e-mail lists
  • sample e-mails for outreach to friends and colleagues
  • recommended outreach collateral (e.g. stickers, brochures) with creative
  • plan and texts for internal channel outreach (e.g. main web site)
  • timeline for first 3-6 months of post-launch activity
  • animation guidelines
  • do's and don'ts for site management
  • FAQ responses to questions about the project
  • pre-prepared texts for responding to emergent challenges (e.g. criticisms)

3. Slides summarizing top tips for bringing your community to life.

The session covered key topics like:

  • an effective invitation
  • the role of rules
  • incentives
  • community ownership
  • effective animation
  • gateway participation
  • balancing quantity and quality

By popular request, the content slides are now posted on SlideShare. What you won't find there are the slides that structured the various activities we undertook as a group; I have to keep a few tricks up my sleeve for future presentations!

The contributions of the (session) community.

If there's one lesson we continually learn and re-learn from each of our online community projects, it's that the community always knows more than we do. That's just as true for a live community, like a workshop or presentation audience. So my NetSquared workshop focused on surfacing the knowledge and insights of the talented folks in the room — and they had a lot to contribute! You can find some of the highlights in the Twitter feed for N2Y3, and from session live bloggers Laura Whitehead and Ivan Boothe.

Hungry for more? Come to the Social Tech Training in Toronto later this month. There's a special discount for members of the NetSquared community.