Site Savvy: To Create Community, Look at Platform

SAN MATEO (04/03/2000) - I never really had a lot of fun at the "community" pool. There was too much noise, too many rules, and patches of yellow water. I had little in common with screaming children and panicked mothers, and even less in common with the adults wearing pink floral swim caps. Sure, we all had the desire to swim and stay afloat, but that wasn't enough to bring us together in any sort of "community" or cooperative spirit. Such is not the case on the Web. We're all swimming around looking for something to connect us. Community forms that connection, and it is a fundamental building block to most serious sites.

Building community on a site is no easy task, and you must take it very seriously. InfoWorld.com is currently working on a new community strategy and solution. Discussion group forums were our first-generation community solution, and for the early years it was very effective. Recently, we implemented a new forums solution, and within a few months we withdrew it. Our service was plagued with issues relating to usability, performance, reliability, and more.

Our community strategy was limiting and misaligned with our business goals, and we're retreating until we get it right.

Communities facilitate everything from one-to-one to many-to-many exchanges among those who share common interests. On InfoWorld.com, that mutual interest is more like a passion -- a passion for IT. People visit sites in the quest for information; more often than not, if invited, people are more than willing to contribute to the knowledge pool. Communities support the gathering of knowledge and allow businesses to get closer to their customers. Communities let us better understand what drives people to a site. The best ideas come from listening to your customers. Ultimately, communities can boost the business's bottom line by providing a clearer definition of customers' needs. Deliver on these needs, and the business will benefit. If your community succeeds, people will be connected and form relationships with others. If you're part of a community, you stay on the site longer and visit more often. The benefits include increased traffic, brand loyalty, and advocacy. Remember that communities and trust take time to build just as in any relationship. Control your expectations, and don't think increased profitability will follow the day you launch your community initiatives. Often, increased revenues will come via an indirect method, such as outstanding marketing for your business.

An effective community strategy hinges on understanding what brings people to your site and how and why they seek out the knowledge of others. Community should be tightly connected to the site's content. Community provides an exceptional vehicle for user-contributed content, and there lies the value proposition. Take the existing content, enrich it with user-provided content, and you have something even more compelling. Community should not be a service stuck behind a button or in a special part of the site. Community should be everywhere. If you're just getting started with your community strategy, first define your community values and objectives. Determine exactly what you're attempting to accomplish with your community. Next, check if this approach matches your site visitor profile. Will your visitors be psyched to participate? If your objectives and site profile are not aligned, do the backstroke. Once they are aligned you should create a series of programs that supports your objectives and site profile. Finally, create a set of metrics to measure the success of your community programs. Be sure to include both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Finally, let your business requirements drive the technology solution.

Community requires the best technology platform for providing interactive services, such as message boards, instant polling, visitor reviews, ratings, and more. We've created a specification containing well over 100 requirements and are currently evaluating community tools, including products and services such as Web Crossing, Prospero, BuzzPower, WebBoard, and EZBoard. We hope to have a solution in place within the next few months.

Want to drown yourself in the community pool? If so, check out Net Gain:

Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities, by John Hagel and Arthur G.

Armstrong.

Laura Wonnacott is vice president of InfoWorld.com.

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