In basic terms, a community is a group of people with like-minded interests. This could be the traditional idea of a community, being the population of a town, village, suburb or street. Or, in internet terms, the audience of a website, newsgroup, or mailing list.
Your community would be defined as: the people who like your site.
That is, people who keep coming back; they may on your mailing list, or they may simply have your site bookmarked or remember your URL. People who hit your site once and never return are not part of your community (although there's potential there - more on that later).
A community is also the way in which your "audience" is harnassed. It could be a mailing list; it could be a forum. It could also be a 'shoutbox', blog comment page, guestbook, or those who attend live events organised by your website. The idea of community is hard to define in some ways, but easy to nail down in others.
For the sake of this series of articles, I am assuming that you currently have no community 'tools' on your site (ways of harnassing your users into a group), or you're in the early stages of implementing them. Choosing the right tool(s) for your community is important; misjudging your audience could turn them away and, worst of all, leave your site with off-putting empty community features (like an empty forum!).
I am recommending the following tools for use on your site, in whichever way you feel fit, to begin with. These tools are:
Now, I'm sure I can say with some certainty that not ALL sites will be suitable to use ALL of these listings. You may be lucky, and able to do so - but most of you will do well to select the core tools that would do your site/s the most justice.
First of all, let me clarify what these tools actually are (if you already know, skip ahead).
(And for what it's worth, all of these tools have worked for me in the past, on different sites and projects)
Discussion board, bulletin board, forum, whatever you want to call it, these could be the best or worst thing to ever add to your site - all depending on your site of course!A forum is where users can register to post new discussions, questions or information, and can in turn respond to other users' discussions, questions and information. They can be tremendously 'sticky' (meaning people will keep coming back), BUT they can also be extremely difficult to launch effectively, and to also manage from an administration point of view.
We'll get onto the subject of forums in more depth in a later article.
Surely this is too one-sided to be a community tool? NO! A mailing list can be an essential tool in harnassing your userbase - they do not necessarily need to interact in this instance to feel part of a community. Keeping people updated, and talking directly to them via email, is not only a great way of promoting your site, it also connects them to your site.
Being able to read feedback and comments from fellow consumers and users is important for anyone seeking to purchase a product, or take part in a site. Offer the ability to leave comments on your product pages, or your articles, and you will be giving people a voice, and offering them a chance to be part of your site. But, remember to POLICE THE COMMENTS EFFECTIVELY!
Letting people upload images to a gallery, and in effect share photos with like-minded users - and feel part of your site - is a great tool. Tie this in with the comment system mentioned earlier, and you could have an awesome addition to your site!
Not for everyone, but for those who have a site with a core audience, and a catchy domain that people can relate to, offering free (or even low-cost) webmail accounts is a great way of retaining return visitors, offering something back to your audience, AND promoting your site (through a URL in every sent email's signature!). Don't think that the likes of Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail have you beat - THEY DON'T HAVE YOUR DOMAIN NAME!
I've used this personally to great affect in the past - if the site suits it, it DOES work.
Similar to the comments section, but more in line with promoting your products through positive/constructive feedback, AND building trust within your userbase, and also as a cool resource to boot.
Definitely not something suitable for everyone, but if you have - for example - a site focussed on a sporting team, arranging meet-ups with fellow users before a game is an excellent way of harmonising your community, getting to know the people beyond the monitor, and also having your site in the forefront of their minds on that day, and the days leading up to it. This has worked for me for both websites, and chat rooms.
Not an entirely interactive community tool, but a fine one nonetheless. It could be a nice revenue earner, but more importantly it's another tool that could create a 'hub' within your site, a destination for like-minded users who're seeking information or looking to purchases products related to your site's topic.
Everyone exchanges links (or should). But one way of promoting your site even better is to develop what I call 'narrow link exchanges', where you swap links with similar or related sites, with a limit on the number of link members, and then promote that exchange as a form of 'partnership'. Maybe you run a Ferrari fansite? Imagine linking to similar fansites from other countries, and them doing the same; very similar to the Webring concept, but even more narrowly focussed, and self-promoting; and a great way to network with other webmasters.