So, you know you want community features on your website. But what features would be best suited to your site? WHY do you want them on your site? HOW will you implement them, and WHEN?
Let's first get the most important question out of the way: why do you want community features on your site?
A community is not an easy thing to run. Very few sites manage to just turn on a forum, and have people flock to it instantly, and continue to stick around. It just doesn't happen for most of us. It takes work; and for a lot of sites, some tools just don't suit, or are quickie solutions that don't do the site justice. Knowing WHY you want a community on your site will go some way to answering the following HOW and WHEN questions.
So, why is it? Is it because you see community contributions as 'easy, free content'? If so, turn off your computer, and go watch television. Community is not, and should not, be considered 'free content'. Community is - in one way - your site's audience expressing itself; and it deserves respect.
Why else do you want community? Do you have a nice amount of traffic that you want to stick around longer than they are already? Do you want to garner feedback from them beyond a simple feedback form? Do you want to bring them together so they can share their stories, and see your hub as a central part of their time online? Good - we're getting somewhere!
There are many reasons why, to be honest, but it should always boil down to the user connecting (however tenuously) to your site.
How will you implement your community? It naturally depends on the tools you're going to use (and now is when you decide what you want to have!).
Choosing the right tool means understanding your audience. Don't feel you have to whack a forum on just because everyone else has one. That's a great way of giving yourself a lot of work, when you could instead use other tools to introduce your audience to your site's interactivity, and eventually - maybe! - bring onboard a forum.
Think about your site's subject. Take a look at your audience. Look at the tools I mentioned in Part 1, and see which 1 or 2 would do well at the beginning of your community.An Example - WorldOver Travels.
Let's imagine you run a site called WorldOver Travels that has affiliate links to holiday companies, offering package vacations around the world. You might have small articles on different destinations just so you have some content to accompany your affiliate links. Your traffic levels are ok, but it could always do better.Do you have a mailing list? Why not? Let your users sign up for fortnightly updates on the latest travel deals, as well as destination spotlights and anything else you'd like to have on your site. Remind them what's good about your site - remind them there's someone behind the site who isn't just there to cash in on commission payments! Sign the mailings off with your name, and let them know their feedback is appreciated (you probably won't get any to begin with, but it's worth a shot).
But a mailing list isn't going to set the world on fire; it will get return visitors to your site, but they won't stay for long if you don't give them something to do.
Next I would suggest either opening comments on your articles, or reviews of destinations, service providers, and hotels. The first is simple, easy-to-implement, and relatively inobtrusive. The reviews are a little more advanced, but allow your site to become something of a resource, open up trust between your site and its users (particularly if you allow negative (though inoffensive) reviews). You could even have ratings with the reviews, and encourage others to say if they agree or disagree (or if the ratings/reviews were helpfull). There's a reason Amazon does this.
There are more options available to WorldOver Travels, but we'll leave it as is for now. Because we have to decide WHEN they will be implemented.
For the mailing list, I would add it as soon as a decent body of articles is online; enough that people would think of your site as not just another flash in the pan. People don't sign up to be notified of when this empty website is going to actually have content. They want to know when there is new content, just like this great stuff they just read!
For the reviews, that's different. You could kick the entire site off as a come-and-review-your-holiday site. Or, you could plug it into an already-busy site and harness the knowledge of your users.
As with everything online, timing is everything. Opening your community too soon could see it struggle, and may dishearten you. Opening it when your site is boiling, and ready for the next step, could mean a strong and substantial community will grow out of it.
Establish a timeframe of when you want to implement your community - it doesn't need to be set in stone, but do pace yourself. If you rush it, you'll only trip up.
Your community is not something you can put together without first considering your options, how they will affect your site's audience, and how best to piece it together. Remember, your users are people - not just a revenue or content source. Every change you make will affect them - always put your users first. Always think two steps ahead - every community is different; every group of people are different.
If you do things right, your community will become a family. With this comes other issues (coping with changes, members leaving, new members joining), and growing pains are something you will need to deal with as a community owner. Respect is key; planning is essential.