How to Build Online Communities
by John Shreeve
John E. Shreeve has been a freelance writer and journalist since 1989, following a career as a guitar player in various London bands. He writes for a diverse range of publications, including The Financial Times, The X Factor, and the US careers magazine Diversity/Careers.
He also works in new media, writing content for Web sites and scripts.
One of the best ways to make an e-commerce site seriously sticky is to build an online community around it. Besides keeping visitors on your site for longer, it will give you an insight into your customers’ general likes and dislikes, as well as offering a stark view of what they think of your company and its products or services. If done in the right way, a community will also boost sales and enhance the credibility of your business.
But before we get into that, let’s look at what online communities are. Essentially, they are groups of people who regularly visit a Web site to discuss a common interest; this could be anything from e-business to sewing. Discussion is the central attraction, but community sites often include regular competitions, news, chat rooms, informative content, and links to other sites relevant to the interests of the community.
Discussions are conducted via message or bulletin boards. Someone posts a question or observation, then any number of others in the community may reply or add observations of their own. It is not necessary to join the debate; you can simply ‘lurk’ and observe the action.
A Marketer’s Dream?
On the surface, communities look like a marketer’s dream – specific interest groups just waiting to be hit with targeted advertising campaigns. But, as even the newest of net newbies knows, touting for business on community message or bulletin boards is a total no no. Such practises are known as ‘spaming’ and are frowned upon by the Web community. Break this etiquette and you risk being ‘flamed’ (sent a mass of vitriolic emails) by irate community members. This could jam up your e-mail system for some considerable time – losing, rather than gaining you business.
Clearly, if you are in the e-commerce field, you need to tread very carefully when it comes to online communities.
So how do you go about building a community around your company to increase profits and gain a credible e-commerce presence?
The first thing to do is position yourself and your company as one of the Internet’s premiere information providers for your industry and particular niche. This means injecting your Web site with good, solid content and updating it regularly. You will have to pay specialist writers to do this, but strong content will attract people to your site.
Next you need to provide a discussion forum, so site visitors can get together and talk about the issues surrounding your industry or pick up on those raised by your site’s content. Once it gets going, a discussion forum will add enormously to your company’s reputation as a key information resource relating to the particular product or service you offer. Of course, visitors who find your site content and message boards useful will also be likely to buy from you.
Most message boards have a ‘moderator’. This job is not so much about censorship as ensuring that postings are relevant to the topic being discussed. If there is a call for a greater level of diversity, the moderator will simply set up further discussion subjects. Or they can add a little light relief by adding an ‘off-topic’ discussion strand to accompany the main ones.
John Audette, President of ‘AudetteMedia’, moderates a successful online forum called the ‘I-Sales Discussion List’. Formed in 1995, the forum’s aim is to support people interested in learning how to market their products or services on the Internet. The I-Sales Discussion List has drawn an impressive amount of highly targeted traffic – much of it via word-of-mouth. It has also brought a good deal of free publicity and has provided Audette with a wealth of contacts in the marketing field.
First Give, Then Take
‘A moderated discussion list is a community that is matched up to your market, with you being in the middle,’ explains Audette. ‘It builds credibility and is a good marketing tool for generating sales and business contacts.’
If you make advertising space available, discussion lists can be a source of revenue in themselves. But Audette sounds a word of warning in this respect: ‘Just remember this rule when starting a moderated discussion list: first give, then take.’
The message, then, is clear. Credibility and stickiness can be achieved by building online communities around your e-commerce site. But for this to be successful you need to take off your marketing hat and think about what you can offer a community before you consider taking.
Recommended Community Web sites
I-Sales Discussion List
See above article for details.
A topical community site for people interested in personal financial investment. Members communicate on a variety of bulletin boards organised by type of industry, specific company, and type of investment strategy. The site, which has reached near-cult status, also sells books and other products related to finance.
Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities, John Hagel III and Arthur G. Armstrong (Harvard Business School Press 1997)
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