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Online Community Expert Margaret Levine Young

Want customers to come back to your site time and again? Instill it with a sense of community.

Stickiness. We've all heard the term, but it's probably still a mystery how to keep your Web site visitors sticking around. Pouring molasses on your keyboard won't help, nor will creating the latest, greatest Flash intro. So what will? Well, start thinking about them, not you. What value can you give your visitors to make them want to stay? Think community.

How can you create a popular gathering spot online? Take the best elements of real world hangouts-the fun, the friends and good conversation-and put them on your site. In Poor Richards's Building Online Communities, authors Margaret Levine Young and John Levine give readers an extensive course on creating a vital Web community. We've asked Margaret to give you a few pointers on how to bring community to your business site.

Entrepreneur.com: Why is it worth a business owners time and the effort to create an online community on a business Web site?

Margaret Levine Young: There are a number of different reasons you might want to create an online community on your Web site, and you really need to figure out what your goal is before you start throwing up a message board or a chat room. It's important to figure out what your business reason is for doing this because [while] there isn't a lot of technical expertise involved, it takes a lot of time to manage and to make sure it's working effectively.

One reason companies decide to add community to their Web sites is to simply add to that stickiness factor. A lot of sites have found that by allowing their visitors to talk to each other, their visitors spend more time on the site and want to come back more often. If part of your business model is to generate revenue from banner ads or other kinds of advertising, stickiness can be one reason you might want to have a community.

I don't like to emphasize that too much because I don't like the idea that community is simply a way to trick visitors into hanging out at your site. I prefer to think that community is a way of adding value [to your site.] So you have to figure out what communication need your community is going to fill so that your visitors are going to want to read messages or type their own message. You can provide tech support for your products. You can provide further information that people want to know. And you can encourage your [Web site's audience] to communicate to each other about that.

"I don't like the idea that community is simply a way to trick visitors into hanging out at your site. I prefer to think that community is a way of adding value [to your site.]"

An organization can also use a community as an ongoing, relatively cheap focus group-a way to get constant feedback from your customers, practically in real time. Rather than setting up a focus group to say, "OK, we made this product change; what do our customers think," you can immediately get feedback to find out what's going on, either by waiting for those customers to bring it up themselves or by asking. So simply getting in direct contact with your customers can be a huge benefit.

Entrepreneur.com: What types of online community systems do you think work most effectively for businesses?

Levine Young: There are two types of things you can add to your site. And I find one is a lot more useful than the other. One is a message board, where people type a message and click, and that message gets posted. The other is a chat room, where your message appears in real time and you're only talking with people who happen to be there at the same moment you are. On a message board, your message goes up and can stay there as long as the Web site decides. For the most part, companies would be better served with a message board than with a real time chat. Occasionally, a real time chat can be neat if you have a famous person in your industry come in to chat, then you can generate a lot of excitement.

Entrepreneur.com: How are mailing lists useful?

Levine Young: A mailing list [can be another] way to communicate very publicly with your customers, and you might want to have archives of those mailings so everybody can read them. But you might also want to have mailing lists that aren't public. For example, a mailing list can be a great way for all your sales reps to communicate among themselves and have camaraderie. You might [want to communicate via a mailing list] with your suppliers or with folks you buy from or the business you sell to. And that's where a mailing list can work a little better than a Web message board. You can have a password-protected message board as well, but a mailing list feels a little more private. People feel like they're sending e-mail to just the people they select; they're not posting a message on the Web for everybody to read.

Entrepreneur.com: What is the role of the community manager? Is this something a sole proprietor can handle?

Levine Young: Unless you have a tremendous amount of traffic, it wouldn't be a full-time job. For a small business, you can decide that you'll have a moderated forum and you'll approve the messages once a day by e-mail or by going to the message boards and approving them there. Or you could also just let people post and go in once a day and delete the ones that don't belong. But, yes, that's definitely something that somebody could do.

With a message board, you need to exert some control about what messages get put up. This isn't a First Amendment, free speech situation. You can decide what the message board is for, and you should clearly put something on the Web page so people know. You don't want people posting garbage or unrelated messages. You don't want people getting into side arguments that are just going to turn everyone else off or confuse everybody.

Once you have a huge message board with hundreds of messages [being posted] each day, you start moving into something that would be a special job for one person. You can get somebody on a consulting basis-paying them for 10 hours a week to manage the boards, for example. There are definitely a lot of smaller consultants out there adding community manager to the portfolio of consulting services they can provide to businesses. You can also have your community manager post messages on your behalf. You want to be able to use that message board as a way to let people know what you're doing and to get whatever positive news you want out about your product or service. Not in a cheesy or kitschy way. If you're too strongly commercial, people will say, "This isn't a discussion group; this is a harangue."

Entrepreneur.com: What mistakes do you see businesses making when creating online communities?

Levine Young: If you don't monitor it, it's going to be a mess. It's embarrassing to see a site where the last message posted was in June 1998. You just think, Are these people in business? What are they doing here? And you certainly wouldn't want to have a site where people were posting messages and you weren't keeping an eye on things. Your Web site appears as something you are publishing, and even though it's clear the messages are from other people, it can be embarrassing if you have stupid messages on your message boards-or critical or unrelated messages. So not monitoring is a bad idea.

Entrepreneur.com: You mentioned earlier that you want to make sure your community is working effectively. How can you tell?

Levine Young: It's very hard to quantify because this is all so new. There aren't established measures, like so many members or postings a month means it's successful. But you can certainly look at what's happened to your Web traffic. Does your company feel like it's getting worthwhile information from the message board? You can look at how many page hits you get for the message board page or how many people signed up for the discussion mailing list. Because this is all so new, some people are doing this just to make sure they're in on whatever's going to be happening in the long run.

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