Tuesday, June 12, 2007

 

Blueprint for a successful online community

I'm a BIG fan of SparkPeople.com. It's an online healthy living community, focused not only on helping people lose weight, but establish long-term healthy living habits to maintain users' ideal weight.

Sure, a lot of diet companies talk about "keeping the weight off," but this time I believe it. I'm two and a half weeks into using SparkPeople, and have lost 10 pounds already. Best of all, I don't even feel like I'm dieting. Just eating healthy, eating correct portions, and working out more regularly.

And SparkPeople is helping me do this, in a number of different ways. Here are a few reasons why I think SparkPeople works, and why it's a great example of how others can create an active community-based service:

Long-term goals with daily action items
When I signed up, I set a long-term goal. My goal is a set weight by Halloween. But what's great about SparkPeople is that, after setting that goal, I really don't have to think about it again. Based on that goal, SparkPeople tells me what to do every day to meet my long-term goal. If I want, they'll tell me exactly what to eat and what fitness plan to follow. Or, if you want more flexibility, just keep your daily food intake within their set calorie ranges, and follow their weekly fitness recommendations.

That's it. If I do the relatively easy daily goals, I'll reach my long-term goal. Great way to keep me engaged, and un-intimidated by the aggressive long-term plan.

An active, supportive community
SparkPeople is full of people doing exactly what I'm doing - trying to shed some pounds and live healthier. Their discussion forum is full of success stories and users encouraging each other, all with opt-in, customized "meters" under their signatures that indicate their starting weight, goal weight, and current status. Very encouraging to see others who are following and succeeding with the system. It's a great way to keep newbies engaged, by showing them that the system works!

Daily motivation and reinforcement
Every day, I get 4-5 emails from SparkPeople. I've opted in to each of them, and most days read each one. Some have interesting food comparisons, others have fitness tips. But at least once a day, I get a motivational article about how to optimize my plan, get more out of meals, how to mentally stay in the game, etc. Yes, this is a LOT of emails from one company, but for many SparkPeople users, their participation in the program is a BIG part of their lives at the present time. These emails are daily reminders of what you're doing, why you're doing it, and how to do it better. All opt-in. Each one incredibly valuable.

Points
Almost everything you do on SparkPeople earns points. Drink eight glasses of water a day? Earn points. For every five minutes of cardio? Earn points. Log-in every day? Spin a wheel for points. Earn enough points and the size of your online "trophy" grows. Eventually, users have a chance to win prizes based on their points.

The points don't really mean anything, and even the "prizes" are usually t-shirts and water bottles. But these points make the site fun, and add a level of group and individual competition beyond the weight goals and daily tasks.

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