Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2002

Part 2:  Building and Maintaining Your Community

Community-based marketing is really the only economical way to achieve market education, build credibility, and establish grass-roots visibility.  It's the way to start word of mouth on the web.  It is an awesome force that can make a big difference for architectural or infrastructure sales cycles ranging from digital video systems to enterprise software products.

In part one, you launched a community with seed information and a call to action to draw initial membership.  The goal now is to grow the size and loyalty of your community so it can become a core asset:  your #1 source of ongoing business.  Communities of interest are by definition voluntary.  The topics, tastes, preferences and workings of communities are very specific to the membership.  So the only absolute rule is that you need to listen to the community as you build it -- most of the details will come from them.  You'll find that effective community building only starts when you give up your theories and predispositions, replacing them with community feedback and their objectives.

Communities of interest can be rapidly developed around hardware and software products, ASPs, and professional services -- but there must be some need for specialized domain knowledge to attract members.  It is pretty hard to get a community going around commodity hardware even if there are millions of users because there isn't enough important domain information to make community participation worthwhile.  But community  marketing has been used exquisitely in hardware (Avid/Digital Tools), games (The Sims), open source (Linux), services (ATT mLife) and, recently, politics (both the right and the left wings).

Because each community's domain interests, tastes, and preferences differ, there is no software package that can do the job of building, evolving, and maintaining a community.  While there are many parts you can buy -- user registration, portal/content engines, mail blasters, newsgroups, Webex, code sharing, site metrics -- your key success factor will be the person who designs, guides, and project-manages the evolution of the community. 

This person may never be visible (in the way a moderator is), but they must maintain the personality and pacing of the community. The key is providing the information, events, and "goodies" that keep make community membership more worthwhile, focused, and attractive.   Like an editor in chief, this person is responsible for building the audience size and loyalty.  The unforgivable sins:

  • not intimately knowing the community,
  • being out of touch with the community's needs, and
  • being inflexible / bureaucratic in responding to them.

The rules of the road for each type of community evolve differently, but the following things are universal to building trust and community dynamics:

  • The information value must be worthwhile.  Community members are there to get enough content, advice, or entertainment to justify their time.   Give them the information and access they ask for.  In most cases, this is technology-rich white papers, best-practices, code samples, or how-to guides.  Spam is death. 
  • Consistency is important.  Values, goals, look & feel, and tone must not jump around or contradict each other  Every communication with your community must be obviously from you and must mention the community by name  Erratic behaviors undermine both your credibility and the coherence of the community you are trying to encourage.  The small things count.
  • Regularity matters. Updates, newsletters, and events must happen on a predictable schedule.  The community should know to come back to you at least monthly for new information.  Some communities will tolerate even daily updates, but vendor-driven communities usually run with weekly updates.  Rhythm matters.
  • You get only 30 seconds.  People are amazingly impatient, so you need to obsess about saving their time.  Concentrate on navigation, search, intuitive organization, and tight writing.  Don't ask them to do anything (e.g., surveys) requiring more than 60 seconds per incident.  It's usually pays to have multiple "front doors" to your website to optimize the user experience for subgroups.  Don't be surprised if even your loyal users visit for only 3 minutes.  Think ADD.
  • Break things up, and build in an "auto-return."  Since the most valuable content (e.g., training) must take more than 30 seconds, deliver that content in chapter form with a tether that brings the user back.  Each chapter needs links that pull users back to your site for the next installment.  If you already have small "doses" of content, deliver small increments more frequently rather than large bundles infrequently.  Use automatic follow-up emails or "come on back" incentives.  Boomerangs work.
  • Vary the medium / forum.  Although you'll start on the web, doing just internet-based communities isn't enough anymore. At least every few months, find a different way of interacting with your community.  It can be something as simple as a phone conference, a contest, or a beer bash.  As your community "ripens," you'll want to make your first commercial offers via one of these changes of venue.  Communities need social events.
  • Levels of membership help. Whether it's newbie-pro-guru, prospect-customer-partner, or silver-gold-platinum, having natural subgroups helps your community gauge its own level of interest.  Even more, it helps you make different levels of investment in the most valuable parts of the community. 
  • Listen.   Ask for feedback from the outset, and react quickly when people provide it. Invite the audience to participate in user surveys. Make it obvious that you've incorporated input.
  • Size matters.   Typically, communities must be in the thousands to be vibrant, self-sustaining, and profitable.  In some markets, it has to be 100,000...but in Enterprise Software, there just aren't that many who care about, say, rule engines or UDDI repositories.  No matter what, your community must be a measurable percentage of the overall possible audience to be commercially interesting.
  • Pointers and URLs matter. The URL and name of your community must be on every contribution, article, email, and page.  Every item relating to your community must have a link pointing back to your site both to raise your Google rating and to make sure potential users never have an excuse for drifting away from your community. Syndicate (with permission) copies of other people's content instead of doing link-farms that send people away.

In building your community, loyalty and repeated interaction are more important than raw "membership size."  Almost always, monetizing your community is not possible until members have participated in the community at least 6 times.  (Participation includes reading a newsletter, logging in to the site, making a newsgroup posting, or downloading something.) 

Since repeated exposure and interaction are so important, you'll need to set up metrics for:

  • number of page views
  • number and growth rate of registrations
  • size of opt-in mail list
  • number of information / product downloads
  • number of newsgroup postings
  • page viewing / downloading patterns
  • number of repeat visitors
  • user willingness to graduate to next level of participation
  • conversion ratios (curiosity / prospect / purchase / upsell).

Before you can harvest your community, you'll need to have a well-defined path for community members to become lead-generation candidates.  As part of your community registration process, your form must clearly state how the user's info will be used, and in Europe you must provide an opt-out option.  You'll need to automatically feed new registrants to your SFA database. Have a unique "source" or "type" code for registrants so you can track them (and treat them) differently from other leads. 

Entire books have been written about web-based communities, search-engine optimization, and loyalty marketing.  While the laws of physics don't change, the nuances of these techniques must evolve quickly to stay effective.  Make sure to get current expertise in building audiences that are similar to your intended customers.

(Epilogue:  In 2004, Howard Dean showed the world the power of internet-based communities.  But tragically, he also demonstrated that vibrant, powerful communities are mainly about loyalty and deeper interactions -- they do not really help increase the reach or breadth of your following.  More about the cross-over of politics and marketing coming in future newsletters.)

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