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Featured Insight
Building Online Communities

By: Ranjan S. Chari
02/20/2011

An "online community", can be defined as a place on the internet where a certain group of people visit and interact with in regular intervals.

Over the last 12 months, Big Apple Design Group has had the opportunity to build several online communities.

These communities can be "open" or "closed" as in open to the world or restricted to a certain group of people for example a company community/intranet community.

The lessons learned from building and maintaining these communities are summarized below:

1. Niche communities seem to do well
If one targets a niche such as say "Llama breeders of North America", there is a general likelihood that this community will secure highly targeted traffic and repeat visitors. This is especially true if you're the first one to setup such a niche community.

The only caveat being that the community should look like its managed by a serious group of people, it should look professional and there should be enough 'seed' content that provides a reasonable base for people to visit the site.

2. Participants of niche communities are more involved
After speaking with a few people who post regularly on niche communities, we found that these people are more vocal in commenting, participating in discussions and generally being more active than on generic social networking sites.

3. Communities that relate to work seem to attract more loyal community members
While the majority of the traffic on the internet "seems" to be more inclined towards entertainment, a more seriously purposed community seems to get a better behaved, more involved user base. For example a community for “ESL/English Teachers” seems to get recurring traffic with people participating actively and intelligently and more frequently as compared to people on a photo or video sharing community.

4. Forums can still be the backbone of a community
The good old discussion boards are still the easiest way for people to engage in an online community. People indicate that forums are easy to use and enable an intelligent and extensive discussion to occur. For example programmers looking to solve a problem prefer a discussion board format with extensive content posting options. Forums also seems to work fine with sites where people trade files over the internet.

5. Drupal and Wordpress for building online communities
Drupal and Wordpress can both be used for building online communities and especially for those situations where you require a forum and extensive customization. Drupal is still ahead in supplying features that can be utilized to build very specific communities but requires more programming and customization expertise as compared to Wordpress.

With Wordpress 3, there have been huge gains made with respect to custom post types, multi-user installations and generally Wordpress seems to be borrowing some of the best ideas from Drupal. So depending on how much programming expertise you can afford/stomach go with either one.

The best thing about building your own community rather than using Facebook or Ning  is that you are building something unique and which can be totally customized for your audience. There are other solutions available for building online communities like PHPFox which are also quite extensive but as is the case with Drupal and Wordpress, the quality of your online community is dependent on how capable and motivated your designer and programmer are towards making your community stand-out from the crowd. A really nice looking community can take upwards of 400 hours to design, program, secured and seed with content.

6. Organic Traffic
Organic search engine traffic for niche sites has been seen to be outstanding. For example a niche site, online for 3 weeks, gets about 200 unique visitors per day from Google alone. Many of these 200 unique visitors turn into regular visitors. And you don't need an SEO company to make sure that your site is search engine friendly. Just follow some basic SEO guidelines and you can get this traffic with a zero PR rank. Stay away from auto-bloggers and other too-good-to-be-true ideas. In general repeat content will not help you in terms of getting organic search traffic.

7. A Good Backup Policy
Chances are your website is hosted on a virtual hosting account. Sometimes these companies shut down sites with absolutely no warning if a particular site interferes with the quality of services of other websites on the same server. You need to be able to backup data every day or at least every week so that in case of a hack, or your website being removed of a server, you still have your community information more or less intact and can look for other options.

8. Company Intranets
The importance of building a community feeling within an enterprise cannot be stressed enough. Its very common to usually see a very unhealthy form of competition withiin most companies.

For example say there are 2 salesmen in a company. Salesman #1 has closed a large deal with a shipping company. The deal involved multiple rounds of presentations, proposal development and various interactions with the shipping company executives. Now a few months later, there is an opportunity to participate in another deal but this time the inquiry comes to the second salesman. Its often the case, that even though the first salesman has documents and intelligence gathered from the first deal, this information will never be shared with the second salesman due to office politics. An intranet can be used to ameliorate the negative effects of office politics by:

  • Setting up a policy of sharing documents in well defined areas on the intranet with a logical classification and tagging system.
  • Setting up a method to publicly acknowledge participation and contributions in wins for a company. What this does is encourage employees to help others even when its not a direct benefit to them to do so.
  • Setting up incentives for people to share all assets on the intranet that a company has paid for. For example, presentations, stock photos, graphic assets, intelligence reports etc.

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