When it comes to building a successful site, never underestimate the power of community tools. Most commercial sites turn out being static pages with little or no user interaction, this means users come for one thing and one thing alone, to check out your sales pitch. This seems fine but in truth it is not. Community features not only keep users coming to your site but they also help bring in new users. If your site focuses on travel and you have 200 people a day posting about travel that means you have 200 potential clients who you can advertise to for free. If you are uncertain of the value of a community driven site just look at coffee stores; Starbucks, Pete's and most every other coffee house have thrived for years by harnessing the power of a community setting. At this moment hundreds of people are crammed around small tables doing all sorts of things. Some people come and study for hours, others chat with friends, while some simply walk in for a quick purchase. By allowing people to relax and chat Starbucks has increased every customer's visit duration. Online or offline a higher visit duration means more sales. Customers who walk into a Starbucks intending just chat with a friend will likely end up buying something before they leave. People coming to the store for a buy-and-go sale will feel more comfortable in the relaxed environment and are far more likely to come back again.
Online you are not limited to mere chat and studying; Internet community tools can provide users with multitudes of features. Message boards, chat systems and email lists are used to connect users interested in your niche; classified ads attract people already looking to purchase; free email or web pages brands your name with every message or page view and the list goes on. While there are nearly an endless number of community tools that a site can use to keep users coming back they can all be broken down into two general categories.
- Your first set of community tools allow users to interact with each other. From message boards to chat rooms, email lists, classifieds ads, polls, and much more, users create a very visible community. As your community grows, more and more users come to your site to participate. If the community is good, users may spend hours on your site which means hours seeing your ads and your name. A well planned community is run by the site owners in a passive way -- administrators never push the company name too hard or get in the way of the community's growth but through their involvement and assistance, they too become a part of the system. The more the administrators give, the more respect they get. Overtime a great deal of trust is built up, trust converts to loyalty, and loyalty means sales, sales and more sales. In the end what started out as a small site for idea exchange becomes a way to gain consumer confidence and create profit.
- The second type of community tools are individual tools such as free email, web pages, photo albums and so forth. These tools do not actually connect users together in a visible manner; instead they allow users to communicate indirectly. Individual tools create branding on an unimaginable level -- instead of trying to advertise your name all over your users end up sending it out in emails, webpages and chat systems. From tag lines to page banners these tools are affordable but productive in creating free advertising for your site. Of course as the years tick by many companies have discovered that ad driven services such as these are not as profitable as standalone business but they are still very useful when done right. Instead of trying to sell another company's random product or service, smart sites run smaller services targeted to their niche; niche marketing means highly targeted users and highly targeted results. With only a little investment these services create branding and advertising that can increase a site's image and help pull in more leads.
Sales and branding are not the only benefits to a community site. Communities, especially those with open forums can actually benefit a site's search engine placement. A forum can draw users into lengthy discussions which result in long posts with detailed, sophisticated answers. If the site is setup properly the search engines will pickup on these posts and include them in their spider. More pages means more content -- more content means more results. Community systems of all types also increase inbound links; users on other community systems or websites often link to communities they like which once again helps to not only brand your name but increase your rankings as well.
A community will not make you money overnight nor is it a guaranteed success. Many sites try and run a community before they have the traffic they need to get users; this generally ends up in a very slow and painful growth process which often ends before it really gets a chance to start. A community can also be ruined by being over worked or under utilized. If you want to run a successful community site, wait until you have a good traffic flow, open your service and find good members to act as volunteer moderators. This will help keep you your name clean and also shows users that some big bad company won't be telling them what to do. Once your site starts growing be sure you or someone from your company is actively involved. Company users should of course remain professional and perhaps a bit mysterious but also be friendly and respected. By carving out a place for yourself in your community you will gain respect and trust from your users. Creating trust will let you push users towards your product with ease. Just remember, your users do not want to be hounded with tons of emails or banners promoting your service so keep ads visible but not overdone.
No matter what your site's focus is, a community is a great way to bring user's to your site and keep them coming back. With all the options and tools our there running a community has never been easier or more affordable so why not give it a try today... after all, what do you have to loose?