A few years ago, social media tools that invited Web site users to comment on stories, rate and rank content, write blogs and post their own photos were found only on big-budget, cutting-edge business sites.
While the notion of user-generated content was popularized in the consumer world by sites such as MySpace and Facebook, business publishers weren't sure whether their audiences would want to participate in those activities on their business media sites or, if they did, how.
Since then, more b-to-b media sites have added social tools, and now they're almost standard in a site launch or redesign.
The use of such tools is widely uneven, but a few business communities have taken off dramatically, including Dow Jones' MarketWatch, GlobalSpec's CR4 and IDG's Computerworld. What have they done right?
The first rule in building a b-to-b community online is the same golden rule that applies to all b-to-b media—know your audience, said Bruce Bergwall, senior director of business development for GlobalSpec. The company's CR4 is a 3-year-old community for engineers.
“You have to understand how the people in your industry interact with one another,” Bergwall said. “Our employees are engineers and our audience is engineers, so we were able to use our own habits as a guide.”
Bergwall noted that, in contrast to the huge consumer communities such as Facebook and MySpace, user interaction in b-to-b communities doesn't grow virally. “You have to market it,” he said. “GlobalSpec offers approximately 60 highly focused e-newsletters. When we see topics taking off in conversations on CR4, we promote them in the appropriate newsletters.” There is also a separate “Daily Digest” aimed specifically at CR4 users.
Jim Bernard, general manager of MarketWatch, said that knowing the community is just the first step. “You have to constantly be going back to the community and have the community help you adjust offerings so that they get the best experience,” he said.
Although it's possible to put community tools on a site and leave them alone, “one differentiator for the MarketWatch community is that we are keeping a development team dedicated to it,” Bernard said. “This team of engineers is constantly innovating and adding and adjusting features so that users are getting a better experience all the time; and we've really seen amazing results from doing that.”
One example was a feature that let users rate stories with 1 to 5 stars. “When that wasn't adopted, the developers quickly moved to thumbs up and thumbs down [icons]—and that worked,” Bernard said.
Joyce Carpenter, senior editor for blogs and projects at Computerworld, is a member of a three-person team dedicated to communities. To get and keep users involved, “we leveraged some of the things we already did well,” she said.
For years in print, Computerworld had a department called “Shark Tank,” which solicited stories from IT professionals about their humorous and frustrating experiences at work. Online, this became a blog called Shark Bait.
Shark Bait evolved into a community site where users can post their experiences, and their peers can rate each one on a scale of 1 to 5 little fish, or bait. Registered users earn points for posting, voting and commenting that can be redeemed for gift certificates at an online store called ThinkGeek.com.
Carpenter noted that Shark Bait users have taken such ownership of their community that they became very vocal when Computerworld tried to expand the scope of the section beyond workplace anecdotes. “We had to pull back,” she said.