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  Best Community Launch Approach?
What is the best approach to launching a community website? Is it good to start with a closed user group so as to build up a small but dedicated group or is better to go national?

Thank you so much for submitting some important questions.

The launch phase of a community is crucial for its success. It is your launch which will, from the word "go", define the scope and atmosphere of your community. It should be said right from the beginning, that it is a risky scenario to change a community in fundamental ways once it has been launched, so it is very important to launch the community correctly and appropriately at the outset.

In order to do so you should be able to pinpoint and have a clear understanding of the purpose of your community. This will help you to define a set of goals that will guide your community in its development and growth. Also from these goals and definition of purpose, you will be able to formulate your community strategy, a launch plan for how to best execute your new community, as well as a growth plan.

Assuming you have a strong sense of the goals and purposes of the community you can then formulate a launch plan. Your launch plan is the blueprint or checklist, if you will, for constructing your community and preparing for a productive and successful launch. Without a plan, crucial components of building a community can be overlooked and remembered once the site is launched, when it is oftentimes too late.

Your launch plan should include all the necessary items and their timelines and responsible parties. For example for a community message board you should consider the following in your launch plan: forum creation, topic creation and descriptions, moderator allocation, seed posting and so on.

In this regard your second question becomes relevant. Should you launch with a small group as a opposed to launching on a larger scale?

The answer to this really depends on your reasons for scaling down a launch and what you would seek to accomplish by doing so. In some instances this may be a matter of "starting small" so you can ascertain how the community might work, how it might be developed into something wider, or to gain experience of running it in a safer, more controllable way. In this scenario you might simply invite a small number of people to visit and provide you with feedback before opening the community up to all.

In other cases, it is beneficial to do what we call a "soft launch" and launch with a small group as you mentioned, letting them access the community and get involved first before letting a larger user base to access. This helps in two ways:

1) if there are any bugs or glitches that were missed in testing, they are found early on and by a smaller, and probably more forgiving audience; and,
2) a soft launch also helps develop an inviting and engaging environment so that when you are ready to allow the world to see and participate in your community, they have existing conversations and exchange to add to. There is nothing worse, for example, than having new message boards on a site that sit for days without conversation to encourage further participation.

At a minimum we do recommend some form of "soft launch", either with a scaled down number of your final community members or a select invitation of individuals to test it. This helps all-round to ensure the best possible start.

It is important to always keep in mind what is in the best interest of your site and company, as well as the best interest of your potential members. As long as you continually keep your finger on that pulse, your community has the best shot in the world for thriving and succeeding.

Again, we thank you for your questions and wish you the very best of luck with your new community. If we can ever be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to let us know.

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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