How to Build a Community Web Site
Cheryl and I have been friends for 20 years. We met way back when we were practically kids – just out of college, wide eyed and hopeful about what our careers is TV would hold for us.
She was a video editor, and volunteered on Soundtrack, the music show I produced. We were fast friends…mostly because we clicked, but partly because you can’t help but become close to anyone with whom you spend 15 hours a day in an edit suite.
One of the things I love about my friend is she lives, breathes and eats passion. She dives in head first to anything she believes in, and just makes things happen. While the rest of us are sitting around contemplating next moves, she’s making phone calls, sending emails and getting people engaged and excited.
Last Spring, we were sitting at the bar at Chez Lucien, a great little burger joint in downtown Ottawa. We’d just polished off delightful plates of carnivorous goodness, it was about 9:30pm, and Cheryl asked me, “So who’s playing tonight?” It was a common question for us – if there’s one thing me and Cheryl LOVE to do it’s see live bands.
We grabbed our respective mobile devices – she on a web-enabled cell phone, me on a iPhone – and proceeded to look up the local music listings for our town. 20 minutes later, we were shaking our heads, glaring at our devices, both of which had yielded no common source to find out what bands were playing. We eventually gave up and just went back to her place for a glass of wine. It was over that glass of wine that Cheryl said thoughtfully, “If there is no online source for Ottawa Arts and Entertainment, then why don’t we start one?”
In that moment, Ottawa Tonite was born.
Sometimes, ideas like that happen, but then they quickly get overridden by normal life stuff – jobs, kids, and other commitments and suddenly you’re thinking, “It’s too bad we never got that site off the ground..” But this is Cheryl we’re dealing with here – so of course that wasn’t going to be the case!
A few days later, Cheryl called me to inform me she’d purchased the domain name ottawatonite.com, that she’d been talking to some of her musician and theatre friends, and they’d be interested in contributing to the site. Wow – in three days, we had a home for the site, and we had people who wanted to sign up to help out? Well alrighty then.
Within a few weeks, Cheryl had contacted just about everyone she knew in the Ottawa arts and entertainment scene, and had nothing short of 15 people ready to provide written, video and audio content. In fact, some of them were already out there gathering stuff, and were willing to post it on the site, for free!
We had content, but sadly, we had no actual site yet! If there’s anything that social media has done for myself and Cheryl it’s put in front of us dozens of talented graphic designers and developers. We were able to use our networks to find the right people for the job, and in spite of a few (normal) hiccups along the way, a few short months later, we had a functioning web page and content to make it work! Yesterday, we launched ottawatonite.com, Ottawa’s online source for arts and entertainment!
Community Building 101. Many people think that in order to build a community web site you have to get the actual site up and running first, then worry about filling it with content. Ottawa Tonite is a VERY ambitious project – we aspire to be the pre-eminent source for what’s happening in the theatre, music, literary, film, comedy, and food and drink scenes in our city. That means we have to be totally tapped in to all of these areas – and we definitely can’t do that alone. After all, this is a volunteer effort – we do have full time jobs and families and things and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for us to be running around to every event in town.
Step #1 in building an online community is always, always, always people. Months before we even had one piece of design or code on the page, Cheryl was running around town talking to everyone she could about the site, and getting artists and behind-the-scenes people on board to be contributors. And she didn’t just stop with a “sure, I’ll contribute!”. She got them to start gathering stuff. People were capturing video, writing blog posts, and creating audio recordings months ago. Cheryl set the expectation with them – the site was a few months out – but it didn’t matter – people were fired up and ready to hit the ground running.
80% of the work on this project was done months before any code was placed on the site. Thanks to those efforts early on, we now have a wonderful community, and the site is up and running and jam-packed with great content. The community is vibrant, and most importantly, it’s sustainable. No one person has too much on their plate. Everyone is working with their own talents. Cheryl has provided the vehicle – the artists are providing the voice.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – it’s not about the tools. It’s not about the tools. It’s about people. Cheryl saw a need in her community in an area she was passionate about. She went out and got other people to be passionate about her idea. And it worked.
Check out Ottawa Tonite when you get a chance – we’d love to hear what you think. And if you have thoughts, suggestions, or are interested in being a contributor or an advertiser, give us a shout at info [at] ottawatonite.com.