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Building Your Community

Establishing a community of users on your site is not as easy at it sounds. Putting up a discussion board or chat room, or running a moderated discussion list, does not a community make. It's the wise combination of these activities that can exploit the benefits of community.

The first step in opening your site to user comments for all the world to see is to confirm that you have a good product, service, or organization. Why? Because there's no way you can ensure that the talk about your company will all be positive. We all know how quickly people spread news of a bad experience. So before your organization considers implementing community elements on your site, make sure that you have a good product and happy users.

Once you're sure that your organization has a positive reputation with users, here's how to build an effective and useful online community.

First, don't reinvent the wheel. Visit other organizations' web sites and see how they have incorporated community elements into their e-business strategies. The more successful sites incorporate these fundamentals:

  • Provide content. A community works best when there's something to talk about. Of course, you already offer products, services, information, and so on, but consider providing more. Depending on the type of organization you have—selling products or services, gathering members, etc.—establish a content area on your site that contains industry information, directories, pertinent news, research links and tools, information about other companies and their products and services, white papers, special reports, etc. Expanding your site in this way accomplishes two objectives:

    • It provides grist for the conversational mill.

    • It increases your search engine ranking by generating additional content for searches matched with your keywords (see Part 3 of this series, "e-Marketing for Search Engine Optimization"). This content should include archived issues of your email newsletter.

  • Create interaction through discussion. You can start with a simple discussion board or a live chat room. Then add a moderated discussion list, linking threads from your discussion boards to the list and vice versa to increase interest and drive traffic to both. Both the discussion board and discussion list should provide ways to post questions and answers—from either you or your users—along with comments and helpful advice. Encouraging participation and interaction in your discussion board and discussion list builds community spirit. This input also will likely be of great value to your organization for use in improving your site, marketing tactics, and business strategy. Finally, it allows customers who have experience with your product or service to share their knowledge with you and with other potential customers who are considering a purchase or enrollment.

    NOTE

    Sometimes there's a bonus attached to this interaction with your site visitors: Some customers may actually end up taking over some of your product support role by helping other customers. Such interactions should be monitored, of course, and sometimes you have to mitigate wrong answers, but existing customers who use the product constantly sometimes come up with better solutions (and faster) than you may.

  • Solicit user reviews. Amazon.com pioneered the concept of customer reviews, and has now added a new section called "Our Customers' Advice." Here readers can recommend products in addition to (or instead of) the product being displayed. The opinions and assessments of other users can help allay fears of those considering a purchase or help direct people toward products that more appropriately meet their needs.

  • Start a blog. Weblogs organized around your industry, product, or service can be a great way of jumpstarting community on your site. (For a good discussion of weblogs used for business purposes, see Blogs4Business.) Blogs are a cross between a bulletin board and a link list. Though blogs were started by individuals to communicate their views on various topics, they're now being used by many organizations for community purposes on business sites.

    You can build custom software for blogging, but it's really unnecessary. If you don't want to deal with complicated server setups and custom development, check out Blogger, a web-based tool for dynamic content publishing that lets you post weblogs without installing any software on your site. Blogger is essentially a simple posting-and-archiving program that lets your customers or members send their posts via email. You then decide which ones should be posted; that you can do with the click of a mouse. Blogger can even post its blog using your own site templates. That means that your blogs look just like the rest of your site and reside on your FTP server.

  • Use other site forums. There are many stand-alone discussion and opinion sites on the Net where your users and potential users are likely to congregate (Epinions.com is a good example). Consider linking from the community section of your site to the product pages of these opinion sites, and encourage users to sound off about your product or service. Your users are then acting as referrals for the potential customers or members who visit those opinion sites.

  • Don't forget the back end. Creating an integrated community experience is more complex and involved than setting up a web site. Don't let your marketing staff underestimate the work that IT has to do to implement the necessary technology. "Set up a discussion board" or "Send out a moderated discussion list" may sound easy. But IT needs to educate the marketing folks on the implementation of the technology and the costs involved.

    Make sure that all technologies you deploy in the community are pre-tested and functioning properly. Verify that your web server or hosting service is adequate (community elements soak up bandwidth) and that all activity can be monitored. Finally, make sure that everything is working before you go live.

  • Publicize your community. Launching a community requires the same attention as launching a web site. Consider how to optimize the pages so they appear at the top of search results. The search engine optimization strategies that you applied when promoting your web presence should also be applied when promoting your community (see Part 3 of this series, "e-Marketing for Search Engine Optimization").

Of course, starting a community is easy. Retaining that community is the difficult part. Understand that once your organization commits to a community strategy, your IT staff will have to budget time on an ongoing basis to maintain and grow your community. A community should be an active, vibrant place. Community members will expect content to be refreshed, links to be working, discussion groups to be current, and interactive systems to be responsive. Maintaining the community is an essential part of its success. And it does not stop there—you should always be looking for ways to improve and grow the community.

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