Key Elements of an Online Community Strategy

by Jennifer Osborne July 3rd, 2008 

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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

angry_boss_small.jpg

"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.

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26 Responses to “Key Elements of an Online Community Strategy”

  1. Justin B says:

    Good stuff. Insightful and funny.

    Every business should have an online community. It's the new thing man!! (note sarcasm)

  2. Nick James says:

    Great stuff, Jenn. I think your initial point of the boss saying "…shouldn't we have an online comunity." speaks volumes. Too many people want things because they hear its the latest thing to have (this goes right down to commisioning a website in the first place), yet they're not only unprepared for the work that is needed to not only maintain and make successful, but completely unaware of the time and effort that is needed in the first place.
    Keep up the good work, Jenn.

  3. Marty says:

    "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."

    One can't stress this enough. With all the chatter about "authenticity," creating fertile mechanisms to facilitate the participation you wish to incite is critial.

    Thanks for the post Jen.

  4. egi says:

    building an online community is the most important tools for your seo

  5. @ Justin – tx! Sarcasm is appreciated here :)

    @ Nick – thank you – a community can be a great strategy for many companies, but it's important that people realize the implications of this decision. It's HUGE. It will likely mean massive changes to your site and could even force you to change your business model. I think this why many "communities" fail.

    @Marty – I"m glad that you highlighted that point – it's so important that we build sites that respond to the needs of our customers and not just "perceived needs".

    The actions of corporate sites i.e. building the mechanisms and infrastructure are what make these communities genuine.

  6. Theory is all very well. Just wait till your boss reads all that you have written here and he will say "Oh! It is that complicated. Anyway, nothing is broke yet, let us not try and fix it!"

  7. @ Comparison Shopping – that's a great point. If the company isn't willing to make the investment in time and money then they shouldn't "fix what isn't broken" :) . Thank you for the great comment!

  8. Utah SEO says:

    One must have some sense of intuition and ability to recognize patterns in community.

  9. Very helpful and direct to the point tips on the different elements of online community..and how to make the most out of it in promoting your site or just by simply acquiring some info.

  10. [...] Key Elements of an Online Community Strategy | Search Engine People Blog Strategy for Internet Marketing Success [...]

  11. Online community is the wave of the future, and those were some great tips about how to make one's own community thrive. Web 2.0, they say. I wonder what Web 3.0 will be…

  12. paulette says:

    For a blog to be keep alive interaction is badly needed

  13. That's a good to do list for creating an effective and efficient community forum.

  14. paulette says:

    Keep on blogging, we need you. I’ve got so much useful stuff from your blog and really value your opinion in this stuff.

  15. Nick James said it best, as I wished to answer it. As soon as the boss realises that they have got to allocate resources to this marketing strategy things invariably change, "its a website, its easy". Well written though.

  16. paulette says:

    Nice article and catchy pic:)

  17. You need to give the visitors reasons to come back again. Creating community features that promotes interaction among each other can deliver the purpose, but again it boils down to which type of needs you are satisfying.

  18. Sites got to be engaging in today's search technologies where more factors are put into play. Being engaging not only promotes interaction among visitors, it helps robots in identifying and better rank your site when universal search comes into the picture early first quarter of 2009.
    Anna Nguyen

  19. [...] Key Elements of an Online Community Strategy [...]

  20. bill says:

    Companies are starting to realize that they can’t control the message or the medium. The best are acting as good hosts of their communities, and creating clean, well lit places to host the conversations and experiences their customers want to have. They are also extending their efforts to reach customers and prospects at the other places they work and play online, and to engage them in appropriate and interesting ways. These efforts go well beyond the traditional marketing and PR efforts of the past, with the end goal of creating unmediated relationships with their customers.

  21. david says:

    Your members have an ego; stroke, massage, and leverage it. If you have a certain activity in mind that you really want your membership to be doing, then promote those most active. You can do this by providing some kind of rewards or badging system, which can you take a step further and assign different levels of points to each kind of activity, modulating this weighting as your priorities change. When one of your community participants achieves something, celebrate it and interview them in your newsletter and feature them on your site. Even better, when your community passes a milestone or succeeds in a common goal, support and promote their celebrations. In the same way, commiserate with them on failure or the unfortunate occurrences of disaster in their lives.

  22. mike says:

    A continuous effort to build and feed relationships between members and the organization, as well as between each other, is necessary. If you see them form, encourage and strengthen them. If you don’t, connect people and try to ignite them. If they are thriving in one area, harness them to work towards a common goal.

  23. steve says:

    It’s easy to stay committed to a strategy when there are positive results. It’s challenging when other deadlines are pressuring you or the results don’t materialize immediately. The participation in social media is not always convenient or directly beneficial. If you give your time and energy consistently over time, you’ll get back the results desired. Understand that each action is a building block towards long-term success.

  24. chris says:

    I think that building a community talks time, effort and focusing heavily on great content. Even if you have a lot of users that read your articles, if you don't challenge them, engage them into meaningful topics then you haven't done anything worth while.

  25. Michael says:

    Companies are starting to realize that they can’t control the message or the medium. The best are acting as good hosts of their communities, and creating clean, well lit places to host the conversations and experiences their customers want to have. They are also extending their efforts to reach customers and prospects at the other places they work and play online, and to engage them in appropriate and interesting ways. These efforts go well beyond the traditional marketing and PR efforts of the past, with the end goal of creating unmediated relationships with their customers.

    Read more: http://www.searchenginepeople.com/blog/key-elements-of-an-online-community-strategy.html#ixzz1HtgqRqeg

    I Completly agree with this post of Billy!