You have this great website, you have sent out e-mails regarding your services, printed out hundreds of brochures which you have given to friends and relatives, but what you really need is to get people talking about what you offer. You know that if you can do that, people will recommend you to others and your client base will begin to grow. Sounds great, doesn't it? But how on earth do you get people talking?
Two words: ONLINE COMMUNITY
Communities come in all shapes and sizes - from sharing coffee with neighbors over the garden fence to sharing ideas in an online chat room. Whatever the venue, building communities is integral to human existence and exchange.
And for new businesses, a community can play a key role in customer relations, promotion, performance enhancement, sales, recruitment, profits. . . Online communities are a great way of finding out what your clients think of you and your ideas, building loyalty and providing top quality customer service. Relationship building and word of mouth play vital roles in building business. If a client likes your product or service and has a good relationship with you, they are more likely to tell their friends, who may do the same. With a dynamic site and viable online community, you have fantastic opportunities to build up a loyal, active and varied client base - a crucial factor in growing your business, increasing your selling power, getting exposure and increasing profits.
Early Days Online
When the Internet was just a baby, basic, specialist and largely free-for-all newsgroups made up most online communities. They were difficult to access and understand. Website managers had few opportunities to explore their site's community potential, less advanced technology at their disposal and fewer resources for understanding how community might be employed. Websites were not that sophisticated either. Businesses weren't able to reach out to their target audience as readily, much less truly promoting an online business. Community building was at best hampered and at worse simply diluted by the Internet's limitations.
Things have changed!
Website managers and users increasingly understand what community is and what it offers. Internet communities are now commonly given high profile on websites and used to leverage value - anything and everything from handling complaints to building up subscriber numbers. A strand of professional community producers has developed, alongside trained facilitators (also known as moderators) who support the community. They're producing well-trafficked and viable online communities, as safe, valued and convenient as their offline counterparts.
Businesses are increasingly using all manner of community-focused tools to build relationships with clients and allow them to build relationships with one another: entrepreneurs old and new can really cash in from such communities. Still, for many people, the idea of building online communities is a non-starter. Many new entrepreneurs ignore the value of online communities at their peril. After all, having a decent website, let alone building a great online community just isn't that high on a small business’ priority list. Also many simply don't know how to go about it.
With over 400 million Internet users, building online relationships and communities could be that killer application. But there are many great reasons for creating an online community. Maybe you want an online version of your existing offline community or maybe you want to create a new internet-only community. Or maybe you want to bring together all of your clients and customers in one place.
Providing a viable, safe and dynamic place for your clients and potential clients to share, tells them you CARE about what they have to say and that you VALUE them. And this has real mileage: you'll stand out from the crowd with extra selling points compared to your competitors. You'll develop a reputation that people will regard highly, remember and recommend to others. Building an online community could seriously impact on the success or otherwise of your idea.
Don't fall into the trap of ‘if I build it, they will come’. Having a chat room or message board on your site is, in itself, not enough to build community. To truly create a community your participants should:
feel they have reason to belong to it - maybe they're interested in wood carvings and came across your community of like-minded enthusiasts on your Carvings Are Us! company website, and feel that by belonging to it their needs are accommodated - like picking up some excellent advice on the subtleties of wood carving design.
Key tools to help build your online community include:
Polls: users submit their “vote" on topics on the site. Polls are a great way to gain feedback, but they don't allow members to share any thoughts behind their vote.
Chat: chat rooms can provide an excellent place for real-time exchange - for anything from technical support to just casual chit-chat. If you do add a chat room make sure you have a good mix of free-flow and structured chat for your users.
Message Boards: another venue for members to exchange ideas and comments that can become excellent information banks. Unlike real-time communities, you have more control of the content. Choose a message board which best reflects the structure of your site. And use consistent labels and groupings to achieve the best fit.
Mailing List: a great way for you to communicate with your members without having to add community components directly to your site. It's also a cool way to test the community waters, as members can share their ideas with one another via e-mail.
Whatever tools you use should be integrated into your site to maximize its interaction and value. Make sure you explore all the options on offer to find the best mix for you and your idea.
Building community requires heart, a nurturing understanding and bags of energy. For your online community to have value and be appreciated, your users must feel they contribute, that they are involved, and, above all, are appreciated.
So exactly what does online community building mean and what does it take to make a community successful? It's all about ‘stickiness': repeat visits and an active membership depends on it. Site stickiness is crucial, especially for a small business, as you've invested a great deal of time, energy and money in your site. Every penny counts, so the last thing you want is to have a site that no one uses. Adding community can give your site features that will encourage repeat visits. People like to see responses to their ideas and suggestions, and by providing the venue they will return.
Worried about what an online community for your idea might actually be like? Well, it isn't really any different from hosting a party. When you go to a party, the host welcomes you, introduces you to some of the other guests and serves you food and drink. Great!! Basically, the host makes sure your needs are met, you are enjoying yourself and feel real comfortable.
Building your own online community is not so different. You need to give a similar level of attention to your users as you would to guests at your party. Your users should be greeted when they join your community, made to feel comfortable and a part of what's going on. They need to feel involved. And you need to continue this throughout their visit.
Getting that Community Ball Rolling
As you mill around that party, you discover other interesting guests to talk to. Some of them have similar likes and loves as you. Brilliant! The starting point of many conversations is often ‘how come you're at this party', or an invitation to join in the conversation.
The same holds true in your online community - make sure you provide interesting topics and questions to your users to act as a catalyst for chat. New users should be welcomed and invited to share something of themselves. Your moderators (if not you) should make themselves known and act as guides to the conversations, assisting with questions and encouraging interaction. Articles that spur conversation should be linked to the topics of your boards or chat room.
Seed, Feed, Weed. . .
Community management is like gardening - you need to seed conversation, feed interaction and weed out the dead wood! And it's your moderator who makes sure things run smoothly. They are responsible for maintaining content, upholding site guidelines, guiding users and stimulating conversation. Your moderator needs to be a great receptionist, a knowledgeable manager and a top communicator all in one. They're on the frontline of your business and need to be equipped as such. To your visitors, they ARE you and your idea.
Get it Right, First Time
So how do you make sure you hit the mark straight away? Focus on providing the services your community needs, using the best tools to meet the task, and back this up with personality and energy, and your online community has the potential to thrive. Do your research by asking what it is you want your community to achieve for itself and for you, what you'll need to fulfill that, and never hesitate to contact professional community builders. Also, ask for feedback, as your users ultimately decide how much and in what direction your community develops. After all, your users can steer extra traffic to your site through recommendations, making your community sustainable.
Some forms of online community are more appropriate for some businesses and not for others. Take a look at your clients and, given what you know about them and their needs, think of what community components “fit" with them. For example, conservative solicitors are hardly likely to take part in an online chat event, but they might feel infinitely more comfortable taking part in a message board. Conversely, if you're running a health-focused biz, users want to ‘speak’ in real time to you and others about their experiences, so a chat event might be good. Think of your users, their needs and constraints, and what makes them get involved. Is the immediacy and spontaneity of a chat room better than a more passive message board? Does your idea lend itself to a particular kind of community involvement? You can only build the right community once. With planning, you can build an online community where people will come and want to contribute. Traffic will develop, sales increase and your presence become stronger just because you cared enough to provide your clients with a place to communicate and interact. By building your very own online community to support your idea, your idea can survive and thrive. The rewards for getting it right can be immense and pleasing for your mind, your wallet and your heart.
Copyright 2003, Pam Thomas & Jon Nix
Pam Thomas, Solo-E (http://www.Solo-E.com ) founding member and Jon Nix are co-founders of CornerWays (http://www.cornerways.com/ ) an Internet production company providing quality online community building and design services. CornerWays can help you shape your corner of the online world through dynamic, personalised Internet solutions.
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