Harnessing the Power of Community to Grow Your Business

It is safe to assume the vast majority of Web-based businesses are using myriad tools and tactics designed to build brand, drive customer acquisition, and increase sales. Yet, when it comes to the term, "community," most sales-driven companies roll their virtual eyes. Communities can be difficult to develop, manage, and benefit from, right? Not necessarily. While the online community concept wasn't developed yesterday, it's only been in the last couple of years that technology has started living up to its promise, enabling the power of influence to take hold. Companies that realize this and encourage their customers to interact with others in an open forum online can and are reaping rich rewards. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> If you have decided that harnessing the power of community interactivity on your site to engage with customers, prospects, partners, and everyone else who comes into contact with your company is the right path for you, you have taken an important first step. In fact, you likely already have begun the process through tools such as blogs, share widgets, presence on social sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook, contests, tagging, chat or messaging capabilities, and/or user-generated reviews. The next logical step is making sense of the social hubbub through your community&#x2014;a true extension of your Web presence designed to take you to social nirvana. Here are things to consider on the way there: <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>Build from scratch or buy a standard platform?</b><br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> You may think choosing the technology to run your community is an IT job, but the involvement of the digital marketer will pay dividends. After all, it will be you who is responsible for updating content, populating the community, administrating the various features, and marketing the ROI internally. Software for setting up and running communities is available. However, you must be careful to choose the community template that is right for you.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> Remember, don't treat your community and existing Website as separate entities. Combining them will result in a much better user experience. And, be sure your community software is already&#x2014;or can be easily&#x2014;integrated with your existing content management system (CMS).<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>The role of the CMS in the community</b><br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> Of course, you need to get the back end right. Some social features (such as social bookmarking) are fairly low touch. Others require a significant amount of back-end programming and integration. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> The CMS you use will make a big difference in the success of your social Web initiatives. The right CMS will not only make it much easier to introduce social features&#x2014;it also will make for richer, simpler, easier-to-use social Web experiences. <br clear="none" /> Ideally, you need a CMS that is:<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Social-centric:</i> Not every CMS is built to handle the more challenging social features. If social media is not in the DNA of your CMS, shop around. Ask to see the community templates.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Editor-friendly:</i> Social sites take more editing and administration than static sites. You need a CMS that makes it easy for non-technical editors to add content, create pages, and moderate comments. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> You also will need to populate your community areas with great content from your CMS to keep people interested, involved and coming back for more. An editor should be able to upload relevant articles and link to different forums. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Developer-friendly:</i> Developers shouldn't have to learn a whole new language just to create social features for your site. You need a CMS based on a standard, open platform with lots of tools and templates to accelerate development.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Modular:</i> Your CMS always should be growing by letting you snap on new modules as they're developed.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Widely used:</i> A popular CMS has an active developer community to contribute modules, ideas, advice, and experience.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Actively supported:</i> Open source is great, but when the going gets social, you'll want a CMS that has someone standing behind it&#x2014;for support, development, training, and advice.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Performance based:</i> Social sites make much greater demands on your servers than simple content sites&#x2014;especially if user-generated photos and videos are involved. You may need a platform that can handle millions of users of and billions of page views per month. If your CMS can't scale to the demands of the social Web, you risk frustrating (or losing) your users.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Analytics focused:</i> You need to be able to actively monitor and measure all activities on your social pages in real time just as you would on the rest of your site. Make sure rich reporting and analysis of your community will be possible. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Includes e-mail integration:</i> No doubt you will want to collect the e-mail addresses of community users easily&#x2014;and segment them before e-mailing selected members. This sounds easy, but many packages don't include it.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>Community in action</b><br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> In August 2009, not-for-profit organization MyGoodDeed launched 911DayOfService.org, an online community site developed to further engage Americans and organizations in service and good deeds on September 11. Since its inception in 2002, MyGoodDeed prompted supporters from all over the world to pledge acts of service, but the company knew an online community would bring even greater numbers of people together to promote its important cause. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> The 911DayOfService.org site was launched initially as a BtoB community focused on recruiting organizations&#x2014;other nonprofits and businesses&#x2014;to promote 9/11 as a day of service within their own communities. Key to its success has been the ability for users to create their own September 11 projects and recruit others, research and align with projects already underway, and donate funds to 911DayOfService. And all content on the site is easily searchable by geography or interest areas.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> Only four months after its launch, the site had generated nearly 100,000 unique visitors; more than 300,000 page views; and thousands of contributors pledging their time and good deeds&#x2014;impressive momentum for a BtoB site. The organization expects to expand its community features and its audience reach in the coming months.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> All too often, businesses remain secluded from their customers, prospects, and partners, never realizing the potential of alliances that could be built by engaging them. Those companies that take a more open approach by finding the right way to develop and maintain a flexible, compelling, and measurable online community can build a strong network of influence that will promote success, loyalty, and leadership.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>As President of EPiServer's North American organization, A.J. Harring has more than 17 years of IT software sales and management experience. Prior to joining EPiServer, A.J. led teams at leading companies like Check Point Software Technologies, Pointsec Software Technologies, Compuware, and Platinum Technology. Contact: <a href="mailto:aj.harring@episerver.com">aj.harring@episerver.com</a>.</i>