Creating meaningful content for an online community is a tricky business. Few online communities survive solely on member discussions.  As I am fond of saying, people come for content but stay for community.  However, if online community management shares too much content of marginal value, members can be overwhelmed and distracted.  And of course, too little content usually results in an empty community.  
 
Striking the right balance of content and conversation is an elusive but necessary combination for success.  When developing the content component, online community managers often think in terms of monthly or weekly Editorial Calendars to ensure a steady flow of ideas and content sources to keep the site active. This is a best practice, as it allows community management to plan for the future, align site activities around topic themes and, frankly, helps forestall a constant scramble for articles and the like.  But in too many cases, calendars are devised with the primary goal of filling the content bucket, with little regard for the needs of and value to members. Community management hasn’t stopped to ask the “So what?” question on the members’ behalf.
 
What’s needed is the right kind of content to fuel interactions and provide ideas and insights that help members solve the problems that brought them to the community in the first place. The most important content in an online community is that which comes from its own members (i.e., members sharing their experiences) vs. content which the community organizer brings to the community from other places ((i.e., external articles published elsewhere.) Emphasizing community-generated content supports the peer-peer exchanges which brought members to the community in the first place. 
 
I’ve created this chart to help visualize the how member contribution varies with the different content types in an online community (click to enlarge):

 
 
 
The vertical axis – Level of Analysis – describes the degree to which the member is providing synthesis or interpretation based on experiences or data. For example, at the low end, a member profile is a simple biographical statement about the member. Further up, a member article or point-of-view item would offer some analysis and informed opinion about an experience or issue – from the viewpoint of a member in the community.
 
The horizontal axis – Member Impact– denotes the relative number of members involved in the creation or authorship experience. For example, a member’s own profile or an individual interview involves only one or two people, while a rapid poll draws on a number of members’ responses to create value.
 
When viewed through the lens of member creation and contribution, it’s easy to see how so many externally-generated content types, such as Industry News, may not address member needs. They can probably get the information someplace else, unless it is sourced from and intended only for members of this community. Note that, if a number of members began posting comments about a particular item or engaging in an ongoing discussion about an issue raised by an item, the value of the resulting content rises. The level of analysis and number of contributors (member impact) both increase, moving it up and to the right into the realm of a forum discussion.
 
The third dimension of this chart defines the categories of content – the diagonal bands moving from the lower left to the upper right. The categories are:  Individual Exposure, Idea Exchange and Reflective Practice.
 
Part two of this post will explore the special aspects of each of these content categories, based on how members and the community organizer can work together to create content of maximum value and impact for the community as a whole.