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Developing an Online Community–What Brings Users Back?

April 30, 2009

To use social media for marketing, a business must take into account where online its customers are most likely to congregate. If you sell to college students, Facebook might do the trick. Twitter requires little time to update and monitoring is easy with tools like TweetDeck, but depending on your business sometimes you need to go into more detail. More and more often, it makes more sense for companies to start their own online communities in the form of blogs, message boards, or networking sites. Every company’s needs are different, but no matter the platform there is a basic set of factors that keep users coming back—or drive them away for good.

Keep it simple.

No, really. Everybody.

We’re all well aware that MySpace has practically fallen off the map. One of the main reasons is all the clutter – between moving backgrounds, sparkling glitter letter graphics, custom cursors, embedded pictures and video, and music that starts automatically, the average MySpace profile is quite the adventure. Make no mistake: this enrages people (take it from me, an ex-MySpace user who hasn’t checked his profile in two years for exactly this reason).

Keep it concise. The internet is chock-full of people who believe that others care what they have to say. The vast majority of them are wrong. A huge factor in Twitter’s success is that it eliminates rambling. When you post information, get in, get to the point, and get out. This doesn’t mean you should skip important details, but unless your community is based around literature it’s unlikely anyone’s there to read your prose.

Keep it focused. If you’ve decided to build your company’s own online community, it’s likely because you are catering to a client base that doesn’t really fit the user base of any of the existing ones; you’re not trying to build the next Facebook. Figure out what ties your clients to your business and to each other, and focus on that. The Portland TrailBlazers’ fan networking site,, does a great job of building around the common trait among its user base – a passion for Blazer basketball. This may seem obvious, but far too often those trying to build online communities focus on implementing the features that other sites have rather than figuring out what’s best for their own.

Add some depth. While superficial clutter should be avoided at all costs, that doesn’t mean you should skimp on the important features. In his article, “There Are Only Four Things that People Do on the Web,” Dirk Knemeyer explains that people go online to learn, to feel, to connect or to trade. The most successful online communities allow users to do more than one (or even all) of these things.

Avoid unnecessary changes. Unless you’re making a serious improvement, change will usually cause discord. Facebook got a ton of bad publicity when it changed its format to “the new Facebook,” which some users eventually got used to but many still despise.  A lateral move is a move not worth making – other than with obvious improvements, you’re always going to have a fair number of people who want the old version back. These people will complain incessantly.

There is no one formula that will work for every business, and nothing that could be written here could 100% guarantee success. However, following these rules will eliminate a lot of the stumbling blocks that so often lead to failed ventures.

Tyler Bernstein

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