How do you run a healthy community?
It’s one of the questions I’m asked most often as the Chief Branding Officer of an Internet marketing company. Once you get people on your site, how do you show them it’s a safe place to engage? How do you encourage them to interact with one another? How do you grow this “community” thing, anyway?
While your process for community building will change depending on your site and your goals, there are a few questions I always ask myself when evaluating a potential client’s site. There are a few key areas that, if focused on, can really increase the “socialness” of a small business Website. You may want to ask yourself the same questions when evaluating your own site.
Do You Have Comment/Site Guidelines?
This is the page on your site that tells people how they should act/behave while they are there. While just having it doesn’t mean people will adhere to it, this is your chance to state, in public, what kind of a community you’re looking to grow. By laying out the actions you will and will not tolerate, you show people what you’re about and the rules they need to adhere to in order to play. It also gives you a leg to stand on when trying to enforce order and boot someone out. (Not that you want to do that.)
Do You Moderate Comments?
When I land on a new blog, the first thing I scope out is the comments section. I want to see how vigilantly they’re being moderated. As the blog owner, do you allow people to keyword-stuff their names for link juice? Are you displaying spammy trackbacks? Or do you strictly moderate all of that to keep your community clean? Users don’t want to waste their time navigating through a cesspool or reading crap. The cleaner you keep your water, the more likely they’ll be to dip their toes in.
Do You Highlight Your Best Contributors?
Strong communities are based on strong contributors. As the community owner, do you show your appreciation by highlighting these people? Do you call out your most active commenters through your Twitter feed, posts or sidebar? Do you send e-mails to thank people for starting good discussions or invite them to try out new products and services? Are you doing anything to validate their contributions and show them that you care? If you’re not, what incentive are you giving them to come back? People want to feel appreciated. Help them feel that way.
Do You Participate in Comments?
One of the biggest turnoffs for a blog reader is an author who ignores his/her community. It’s a clear sign that they don’t care about the community and are just there to spout their opinion. If you can’t take the time to participate in your own community and interact with the people who land on your site, why would they stick around? If you do comment, do you have a way to set your comments apart from everyone else’s? It’s not just important to participate in your community, it’s important that people can see you participating.
Does Your Site/Blog Look Like Times Square?
Another thing that can send people running from your community is when landing on your blog results in sensory overload. Take a look at your site. Is it covered in social media widgets? Are you displaying badges for every social media profile that you’ve created? Are you using more than one “share this” application and stuffing them all in the footer of your posts? The more cluttered your blog looks, the more intimidating it is to someone just landing on the page. Keep it clean and tidy.
Do You Require a Sign-Up?
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to require users to sign up before leaving a comment in your community. However, the more hoops you make someone jump through, the less likely it is that they’ll continue to jump. If you’re using the sign-up as a way to deter spam, consider seeking alternatives. Most new users won’t register to leave a comment unless they’re really fired up over something (and in that case, you may not want them to comment!). Make the barrier for entry into your community low enough that people don’t have to strain themselves to get in.
Do You Encourage Debate?
What is the vibe on your community like? Do you encourage commenters to disagree and bring alternative points of view, or do you react defensively? How does your community handle dissent? If they react poorly, realize they’re taking their cue from you. When you raise your voice or get angry, you give others permission to do the same. No one wants to step into an angry community that may attack them. If that’s the tone you’re setting, you may have a big problem.
Do You Give People Subscription Options?
Not everyone will prefer to subscribe to your blog via RSS. Not everyone is comfortable with RSS. If you’re serious about growing your community, are you providing them with other options? Can they subscribe through e-mail; download an audio version; or find your posts through their favorite social media channels like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.? Are you taking the time to find out how they want to recieve updates?
Do You Ask for Their Input?
One of the last things I look at when evaluating a community is whether or not they seek opinions/ideas from the people they’re trying to reach. Do you use surveys or polls to get ideas as to what types of content users are interested in, what they want to read about, what they want to see from you? If not, how are you coming up with your content ideas?
A lot goes into building a strong and healthy community. However, addressing the questions listed above can give you a head start and make sure you’re moving in the right direction.