Improving Your Online Community

Photo: diego_cervo

Business News Daily outlines an interesting study by Gallup on local economies. In the three-year study, 26 American cities were researched on factors of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The study had a crucial finding that pertains to those of us with small businesses online (and offline): "Communities with highest levels of resident attachment — a person's passion for where he or she lives — also had the highest rates of GDP growth over time."

“Our theory is that when a community’s residents are highly attached, they will spend more time there, spend more money; they’re more productive and tend to be more entrepreneurial,” says Gallup deputy director Jon Clifton.

How to Apply the Study to Your Website

There are some key concepts that translate from this study of local communities to our site's communities. After all, community is community, whether you're online or off. Your site is (over time) going to get the most boost from "regulars." Regulars:

  • Share your articles with friends and social networks
  • Provide comments and insightful conversations
  • Send you encouragement, ideas, and advice
  • Most importantly, continually buy your products

When it comes to small business, often your "rabid" customers and fans are the ones who continually buy your products. So if you want to improve sales and overall interaction on your website, attracting more of a local feel is a fantastic method. Here are a few ways to do just that:

1. Immediately provide ways to join the community

As soon as a visitor lands on your site, you want to provide them with ways that they can join your little community. Obvious newsletter subscriptions forms, boxes for joining Facebook pages and groups, even subscribing to RSS feeds give the casual visitor a way to instantly turn into a "member" of your community. While it's never a good practice to clutter your design with too many choices, make it clear right away that you want them as part of your community, and make it as easy as possible for them to make the first step towards joining.

2. Make your visitors feel welcome

This isn't easy, but it's very important. If the user hasn't been to your site before, you could provide them with a message that says you're glad they're here and where they can learn more about what your site is all about. On a more aesthetic front, take care of the design of your site. Is it easy to navigate? Is it cluttered? Does your site look good in all current browsers? You'd be surprised how often site designs are broken in different browsers. I lost over 200,000 potential subscribers because I didn't pay attention to how my site looked in some browsers. Utilize services like BrowserShots to ensure your site design is consistent for every visitor.

3. Give them responsibility

Communities thrive because they provide ways for members to get involved. This provides a sense of ownership and makes a strong tie to your brand. You never know what each community member might find satisfying. Some might have a "civic duty" and find it their call to moderate comments. Large online forums often have moderators who are key to the community. Most of these moderators aren't paid for their work, either. They do it because they are so deeply-rooted into the community. While every website is different, there are plenty of opportunities to give your community members some responsibility.

4. Stop trying to please everyone

Trying to please every site visitor is a terrible idea, but it's a mistake almost all of us small business owners make. Not everyone is going to stay in your community or will want to join in the first place. You have to stay true to your community. Digg is a social news website that has faltered greatly because over time they stopped trying to please their core community (technology fans) and branched out providing news for wider audiences in hopes of bringing in more eyeballs. The result: Digg is sliding, losing core community members left and right. Just like a tiny knitting shop isn't going to appeal to the whole town, your site isn't going to appeal to every person on the Web. Embrace your niche, and foster your little community. It will grow on it's own, without shifting your focus.

5. Appeal to the community

Every once in a while, communities need a goal or something to rise up against. What's a good community without a little activism? Showing that your organization does more than make widgets is powerful. Build a well for a real-life community without clean water. Pool resources to fight slavery (yes, that still exists in the world). The goal is to accomplish something as a community that couldn't be accomplished by an individual.

6. Reward them!

This should be your favorite thing to do. Give back to your faithful community! Coupons, rewards, free products or downloads, anything you can give away. When they sign up for your newsletter, give them something. When they reach a milestone, give them something. When they're not expecting anything, give them something! Think of your site like a local bar. There's always a contingent of regular customers who come in on a daily or weekly basis. These return customers are the most valuable to any bar, and the bartender knows this and will often reward them with cheaper drinks. You can't afford to be stingy. Your generosity will be rewarded many times over. There's no better PR than goodwill.

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