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July 3, 2008

Key Elements of an Online Community Strategy

Your boss just read an article on the benefits of online communities… You know, how online community members visit Web sites nine times as often, stayed five times as long, and represented 65% of sales.

or maybe

how 89% of mid to large sized companies have adopted at least one of six community-building tools, such as blogs, wikis, social networking, or content-tagging.

so now he’s asking

“What about our website? Shouldn’t we have an online community?” (Damm you McKinsey! Now I have to come up with an online community strategy).

Developing an online community strategy is a HUGE endeavor.

All too often businesses think that if they call it a “community” their website will magically transform itself into a community. And when the traffic and sales don’t present themselves, they’re left wondering what went wrong?

so what makes a website a community?

1) The community must satisfy a need

Generally there are three different types of communities:

a) Those that satisfy the need for information (i.e. sphinn, car enthusiast sites, etc.)

b) Those that satisfy the need for support (i.e. weight loss groups, cancer support groups, etc)

c) Those that satisfy both needs for support and information (i.e. when I was pregnant with my first child I joined an expecting club – we supported each other with information about our pregnancies and loving support)

It’s important to identify what kind of need your community is going to fill up front. This is because you will have to build the right community components or infrastructure to support that need.

If your community’s need is for information, then an article library may have worked in the old days. Today, that need for information is more likely to be served using a wiki or pligg type type solution.

If your community’s need is for support, then you need to make sure that you build profile functionality combined with easy communication between members like the ability to email or IM your community friends.

If your community’s need is for both information and support then you’ll want to evaluate if one is more important than the other. If they’re equally important then you’ll want to make sure that both types of infrastructure are equally prominent in your community.

2) User participation or interaction

Giving people the ability to comment on your blog is a good start. But a community it does not make. And signing up for your email list does not make me feel like I’ve just “joined your community”. Especially when I’m spammed regularly by your sales offers and incentives afterwards.

One- sided conversation is the most common mistake that I see with Corporate Websites. They are initially built to sell a product and then Community is just a label that’s slapped on as an afterthought with little or no effort given to meeting the needs of your visitors.

User participation can be built into your community in many different ways:

  • Comments – not just on your blog but elsewhere on the site too.
  • Forums (think Digital Point)
  • User Reviews (think Trip Adviser)
  • Social Networking (think Facebook and LinkedIn; even Stumbleupon)
  • Content tagging (think Delicious)
  • Content Aggregation (think Flicker)
  • Content Aggregation Plus Ratings & Reviews (think Reddit)

Remember to make sure that you build your interaction in a way that solves the particular need of your community (don’t guiding principles make life easy :) ?)

3) Ability to get to know other community members

It is impossible to build a community based on the visitors’ lone interaction with the site.

A community needs members.

The ability to get to know other community members is a critical element in meeting a need for support.

But companies must think beyond profiles.

In regular life we are defined by our actions not words. Online, our words are our actions. You will learn much more about me by looking at my comments, by the content that I submit to aggregation sites and by my user reviews then you will ever learn through the crap I wrote in my profile.

There are many ways you can build the ability to get to know other community members:

  • Avatars – people are visual. It’s difficult to make a connection with an alias, handle, or even a name. I can connect with an aviator even if it’s anime or a pair of red shoes.
  • Allow user feedback through comments. Encourage it through a point type system like SEOmoz. Remember your voice tells me a lot about you… people gravitate towards like-minded people.
  • Conversation – Social Networking capability like the ability to email or IM members is a great way to allow your community members to get to know each other.
  • and yes, User Profiles :). Especially where the profile can be further personalized through pictures and videos and free form comments (not just filling out a few profile questions)

4) Have a reason to go back

The most popular communities make you feel like you will miss something important if you don’t go back regularly.

The more stagnant your website the less reason people have to go back to it. The converse is true with a community. The more active your members, the more your visitors will need to go back regularly.

So if new information, conversation, content is the carrot then you must build incentives into the design of your community:

  • A Visitor Usage Statistics are easy to implement and go a long way. When I first joined Stumbleupon I felt painfully new having less than 100 stumbles. This was incentive for me to become an active user in the Stumble community.
  • A Community Statistics readerboard can provide incentive as well. This is because being in the top percentile of content contributors, commenter’s or voters can help to position you as an expert in your industry.
  • The more prominent the stats the more incentive they create (to a point). Focus on the positives or it will be a disincentive if new community members are too obvious.
  • Points system for contributing where accumulating points gets you additional privileges in the community.
  • This can be as simple a concept as allowing do follow links after 5 comments or as complicated as allowing access to premium content if a threshold of points is maintained.
  • The ability to elevate your status in the community (member, gold member, moderator, etc) based on your participation can also provide incentive to be active.

Understanding your visitors needs and staying true to these Guiding Principles of Building an Online Community will help you to successfully transform your website into a vibrant Community.

Jennifer Osborne writer and marketer for Search Engine People.