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NETSENSE: How to build community on your site and participate in others

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Portal. Sticky. Loyalty. Community. These are the Web buzzwords of the moment.

"Community" is especially hot right now. Sites that have built online communities recognize that communities are one of the most powerful forces on the Internet. This is not a new thing, though. Back in the pre-Web days, we had bulletin boards and Usenet, topical e-mail discussion lists, and chat rooms.

All these are still around. In reality, anytime people with like interests get together online to discuss those interests regularly, you have a budding community.

One of the Internet's most powerful advantages over other forms of mass communication is this ability to bring together people who share the same interests for topical discussions.

When I think about the various activities I do online -- shopping, researching, participating in a discussion list -- it is the discussion list that gets me most involved and draws out my strongest opinions. Those other activities are more clinical, but in a discussion list or Web forum, it's me on the line, exposed, my opinions and feelings posted for my electronic friends to see.

Targeted but not all interested

If your company site does not have community-building features, like forum boards or discussion lists, you may be tempted to get your message out to communities at other sites.

Say you're selling Volkswagen parts. What better place to pitch them than at the VW Lovers Web site, where there are Web-based forum boards with hundreds of regular participants daily, each one of them a VW enthusiast?

Whoa, not so fast, Hans. An uninvited commercial post in a community forum will get you nothing but heartache. If you are a stranger, it's far better to lurk and learn, participate, help folks, make some friends and be patient.

Let me also point out that while Web-based forums are solid and almost a required tool for community building on your site, an interactive e-mail-based discussion list is nearly always better for quality discussion. Why? Because e-mail list members have made an extra commitment to mailing lists by signing up to receive every posting into their e-mail in-box.

Be sure to offer Web-based forums and e-mail-based discussion lists as part of your community-building plan.

Building relationships

So, if you are a Web marketer, how do you build relationship-based communities on your site, and how do you participate in those that exist and are a fit for your business?

  • On your site, you must encourage as much customer interaction as possible, with you and with each other. In essence, this is where community starts. Encourage site users to send e-mails with any questions they have. Offer a private and public way for them to communicate with you.

    Create a forum for answers to common questions. Let anyone post to it. Assign staff members on a rotating basis to participate and seed the forums.

    Allow users to create their own forums. Sounds risky doesn't it? Sure it is, but you can't force community down someone's throat. They have to feel like they are building it.

  • Make it company policy that every user who posts to the forum board is invited by private e-mail, one-to-one, to join a discussion list you sponsor and run. The forum posters are the leaders among the lurkers. Nurture them. My hunch is that for every three people who post at a forum board or within an e-mail discussion list, 300 are lurking and reading.

  • Think of the community as an extension of your brand identity. Brand communities are subtle. The VW Lovers forum board is an example. These types of boards and discussion lists are often more about lifestyle and attitude, with the product being the magnet that draws people together.

  • Never lose sight of the fact that communities are places where company and customer can carry out an online relationship. Don't shortcut the process. Relationships are between two or more people, not between people and an automated e-mail 'bot. A company that really wants to build a community centered on its brands must be willing to dedicate time and staff to develop and nurture it.

    What's the NetSense in all this?

    Online communities cannot be created in a day, a week or a month.

    In the physical world, when you see a new subdivision, it isn't a community just because the houses are close to each other and the builders named it Friendly Cove. Likewise, slapping up a Web forum at your site and putting a "Subscribe to our mailing list" button on your home page does not mean you have a community site.

    Eric Ward is a consultant, speaker and writer who launched the Web's first awareness-building service for Web sites in 1994. Reach him at AdAge@netpost.com.

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