Making the Most of Online Communities

Last Updated Oct 18, 2007 7:48 PM EDT

Online communities allow consumers to engage with each other and with your organization through interactive tools like email, discussion boards, and chat software. By facilitating conversations, these communities give you a feel on the consumer pulse which helps you generate unique content that will help build consumer loyalty.

As stand-alone businesses, online communities generally haven't done well; they work best when they provide an organization with ongoing feedback. Since different people have different perspectives, you'll want to provide various options for interaction.

What You Need to KnowWhat are the most common tools for online communication?

Among the most common tools are email mail lists, discussion boards, weblogs, and online chat. Each of these is discussed below.

What are the steps to establishing and maintaining email mailing lists?

An email mailing list works like this:

  • A moderator establishes a list with mailing list software (this can be bought or rented; renting is usually the best option).
  • The theme and focus of the list is published, and people join, using a web site form and/or email address.
  • The moderator invites contributions, which are published by email.
  • Members react to the initial publication with their opinions and feedback; a selection of these reactions is then published in the next email sent out.
  • If successful, a feedback and opinion loop is created, with new topics of discussion being introduced as older topics are sufficiently covered.
What to DoModerate the Action

To make an online community successful, assign a moderator who combines editorial and chairperson-type skills. The moderator should be:

  • enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the subjects being discussed
  • genuinely interested in encouraging debate and quality discussion
  • Aware of legal (particularly libel and copyright) issues
  • able to handle negative situations such as an angry member.
Set Up Email Mailing Lists

These provide an excellent way to discuss complex topics over a longer period of time. Members can be drawn from anywhere in the world and come together to share information and experience on a particular theme or subject area. Success depends on the skill of the moderator and the quality of the contributions.

Set Up Discussion Boards

Discussion boards (also known as newsgroups, discussion groups, or bulletin boards) are areas on a web site that allow people to contribute ideas, opinions, and announcements. The necessary software is relatively inexpensive and easy to install. Discussion boards are different from email mailing lists in that the content is more general, exchanges are more casual, and less commitment is required to participate. People can review a discussion without subscribing, although they do need to subscribe if they want to contribute their opinions.

Set Up a Weblog

A weblog (or blog) is a regularly updated web site, usually written and managed by one person. A substantial number of weblogs cover business-related topics, and some are written by executives on behalf of their companies. One example is the GM Fastlane Blog (http://fastlane.gmblogs.com), written by the company's vice chairman and concentrating on the company's range of cars and trucks. Another is the blog written by Robert Scoble, chief product evangelist in Microsoft (http://scobleizer.wordpress.com), covering all the products that Microsoft offers. Both of these weblogs receive a large amount of constructive customer feedback about the companies' products and plans. The blog content provides a focus for the community that builds up around it. And the personality behind the blog provides a bridge for comments and feedback to the organization.

Set Up Online Chat

Online chat is real-time, text-based communication. Again, the software is relatively inexpensive and easy to install. Online chat can be effective when there is a specific event occurring that is of interest to people and/or an expert can be made available to talk about a subject or product.

Monitor and Engage With Other Online Communities

Your online community of customers and users does not exist in a vacuum. You also need to monitor and if appropriate interact with users on other web sites and mailing lists where your product is discussed. If you interact with customers in this way, it's very important to be courteous and not to misrepresent yourself in any way. Don't use someone else's discussion board to make an open sales approach—in fact, the rules of the discussion board may explicitly forbid your doing so.

What to AvoidYou Presume That Automation Will Handle the Work

Mechanisms such as online communities rarely work if you simply install some software on a web site and walk away. The conversation will either dry up, or drift off to content that has nothing to do with the organization, and may well be libelous or illegal. You need a moderator and usually other support staff to succeed.

While a moderator is not essential to a discussion board, it is important to watch out for the emergence of "off-topic" subjects, contributions that are unnecessarily negative and perhaps libelous, and copyright infringement. A prime example of the success of the discussion board is Amazon.com allowing consumers to publish book reviews.

You Fail to Keep Activities Limited and Personal

If your online mechanisms involve lots of people or are otherwise perceived as big and impersonal, they become self-defeating. For example, a mechanism such as online chat is suited to smaller groups of people (2 to 20) at any one time, in addition to requiring a skilled moderator to be productive for participants. Commit to mechanisms only if you're also willing to commit to adequate staffing and support that keeps things at a personal scale.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Krug, Steve. Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. 2nd ed. New Riders, 2005.

McGovern, Gerry. Killer Web Content. A & C Black, 2007.

Rosenfeld, Louis, and Peter Morville. Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites. 3rd ed. O'Reilly Media, 2006.

Web Sites:

Corporate Blogging: www.corporateblogging.info

Sitepoint: www.sitepoint.com

Thomason, Larisa. "Web Site Usability Checklist": www.netmechanic.com/news/vol7/design_no4.htm

U.S. Government usability site: www.usability.gov