These days, every web publisher wrestles with finding the right balance between producing their own content versus relying on contributions from visitors. It's almost magical when visitors return to your site just because they can find appropriate experts or like-minded people there. A combination of both professional and user generated content can also increase organic traffic and create more ad inventory.
One major dependency for user content is the quality of the actively participating community. At last week's Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) brown-bag session, experts in "how to grow" communities for major brands were on hand. Their advice and approach seems worth sharing, to help optimize your site.
According to the experts, a community forms when two or more people share common interests. It gets further refined down to people with common purposes, such as business professionals who need to share practices or make decisions. To the bigger marketers, it's far more than a group of friends or colleagues -- although that's a start.
For publishers of all stripes, who joins their respective communities matter because these joiners drive loyalty and repeat visits. There can be controlled access or permission required to join into conversations, which creates a defined group of experts. Or, there can be more open, serendipitous environments where consumer experiences are shared.
Experts suggest that you set your community goals clearly. What's important is thinking about the nature of your visitors and what you really want from them. Do you want a broader, less engaged base? Do you want to appeal to more involved people who can carry your message? Do you really have a narrow group to whom you can differentiate your community?
Of course, it's not possible to create communities in a vacuum. The experts also encourage you to consider how your goals will play out against your own expertise or reputation. For online publishers, this means considering these community-building criteria:
* Look at subject matter. The current popularity of some topics can work for or against your efforts. Another Britney site won't draw active participants unless you have a special twist to compete with others. A specialized "long tail" subject might work better, particularly if it's dynamic and worth sharing and discussing with others.
* Think about participants. There's plenty of social glue among certain types of people. Clear examples include parents sharing stories and angst with one another, patients or caregivers discussing medical conditions, and business managers based on their industries or functional roles. So define your targets beforehand -- though you may end being surprised about who bonds.
* Examine your competition. Are there many social outlets already? Even with passion-provoking topics, not all sites will be able to attract communities. In many cases, potential joiners might be loyal to other places already. Or, there might be others who chose not to join active communities. Figure out how to appeal to prospects, with unique offerings.
What To Do
While all of this sounds pretty logical, we are living in a social sharing era: Set up sharing tools or blogs and your traffic problems are cured! Open up a MySpace page and create more link love! Act now.
These are common tactics that appear on "must do" search engine optimization lists, but it's not a cookie-cutter world. At the SES Travel conference earlier this year, it's worth noting that even travel competitors had different ideas about what level of social functionality belonged on (or off) their domains.
With your unique community goals in mind, you should be able to create a comfortable balance between content and community. Decide which social tactics you want to try out. Like all optimization efforts, there's a mix of art, science and testing ahead.
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