A recent trend is the increasing attention by small businesses on building and growing communities online. The word “community” is hot.
Take a look at this Google Trends graph  comparing the terms “online community” (in red) and “online content” (in blue):
Look at the lower third of the chart, which shows the number of news references to both terms. Notice how online content and online community were running neck and neck for several years. Then in 2007 “online community” broke away. It started appearing substantially more often.
While the Google Trends graph is not specific to small businesses, anecdotally I’ve noticed a similar effect among small businesses online.
In one sense you could call the early years of this century the “Age of Content.” Small businesses first discovered email newsletters and then ezine article sites. Starting about 4 or 5 years ago, we small businesses discovered blogs. The ability to cheaply, easily and instantly publish content was a huge lure. Do-it-yourself online publishing was well within the capabilities and budgets of many small businesses. Hence, the focus for many was on building out “content.”
But 3 changes are taking place causing small businesses to begin to focus more on building community, rather than simply pushing out content:
(1) More content competition — As the Web gets more content, and so much of it is free, it becomes harder to stand out by just writing great articles. You have to involve visitors to a website more deeply if you want to differentiate your business and gain a lasting audience. Content alone no longer does it. People want to feel involved — we need an emotional connection.
(2) Search engine algorithm changes — The search engines are a constantly shifting target. Many entrepreneurs and small businesses are finding it risky to rely on search engines exclusively as the main source of Web traffic. Better to have a community of regular, loyal visitors. Then if the search engines change their algorithms, you can still sleep at night. Your Web traffic won’t go completely down the tubes.
(3) Online networking is proven — The technology to allow people to network and develop relationships online is simply better and more available today. The concept is proven, too. The Web has become decidedly social . Small business owners and entrepreneurs have learned that you can develop relationships online and those relationships do lead to real business. It’s not just a theoretical nice idea or an excuse to justify wasting time online. Money is changing hands as a result of online relationships.
My latest Inc Technology article looks at these reasons behind the renewed focus on community. Check out: From Blogs to Online Communities.