Building Online Communities by the Numbers

Online communities are growing in this expense-conscious business environment because they provide companies with a cost-effective means to provide presales support, enhance customer loyalty, support the post-purchase process, and gather customer insights. These forums work for a wide variety of product, retail, and small media sites. Here’s a set of guidelines to help your company build an active and effective online community.

Three Online Community Planning Rules

When building an online community, there are three important planning milestones to track to assess your community’s initial growth trajectory. Joe Cothrel, chief community officer at Lithium, a white label community provider, presented them at the recent Online Community Unconference in New York:

  • 90-9-1 rule. Of your audience, 1 percent will actively answer questions and post, 9 percent will comment and ask questions, and 90 percent will passively read the content on your community.

  • 30-10-10 rule. In general, during any 30-day period, about 10 percent of the traffic that sees your community promotion will visit your community area. Of this 10 percent, about 10 percent will register and participate in your forum. (Note: Most sites only require registration to post. Adding registration requirements will lower your participation rate.) It’s critical to note that this indicator will vary based on several factors, such as the type and placement of your promotion. Also, the percentages tend to be lower for highly trafficked sites, such as major media destinations. Business-to-business communities by their nature attract smaller, more targeted audiences.
  • 5-to-10-posts-per-day-per-forum rule. To reach critical mass, visitors must feel that a community is vibrant enough to merit return visits. You need roughly 5 to 10 posts per day per forum to achieve this goal. In the early stages, either a core of fans or company employees may be needed to help get the community going. For a healthy community, there should be about 10 percent to 20 percent growth per month in the number of posts during the community’s first year. Over time, this trend tends to flatten out.

What if you aren’t able to generate sufficient traffic to build an active online community? A blog may be a good an alternative for marketers considering building a social community where there isn’t a large enough visitor base.

Five Ways to Drive Community Participation

Ongoing marketing is needed to build your online community and help it grow over time. To this end, utilize your ongoing marketing to continually drive new visitors to your site. Also, use community-developed content to enhance your marketing.

  • Leverage onsite advertising. Promote your online community by placing visible, persistent links on highly trafficked areas of your Web site. Link from all nonpurchase pages, since users may enter your site in a variety of ways.

  • Use your e-mail. Use your existing e-mail marketing to promote your online community and drive visitors. Also, leverage the content from your community in your e-mailings to provide added benefit to your readers.
  • Deploy other forms of online marketing. This can include social media or contests to entice new visitors to your community.
  • Extend your search marketing. Use both paid and organic search engine marketing to support your community as well as other marketing efforts. If your community content is open, ensure that it’s set up to encourage organic search. Also, buy search terms related to topics of interest to your community to drive more visitors.
  • Integrate offline collateral. Promote your online community in offline collateral where it’s relevant. Use content from your community to provide useful information in your packaging and bills to answer product-related questions more cost-effectively.

Two Types of Community Metrics

When building an online community, track both the health of your community and the financial impact of hosting the community.

Five Community Health Indicators

  • Page views. Indicates the growth of the total community and amount of content being viewed.

  • Registrations. Gives insights into the number of people who post and comment on your site since registration is usually required to contribute content. Track how this group grows over time. Where possible, assess the conversion rates for different marketing efforts.
  • Posts. Examine what the 1 percent of your audience who post roughly 30 percent to 40 percent of the total content is doing. Look at the number of posts as well as the content of the posts. What trends emerge?
  • Searches. Monitor the internal community searches to find out the types of information visitors want. This should give you insights into important trends and help you gather information about the people who don’t register.
  • Time to response. Track the time between a posting and the initial response. Users tend to expect this to take a day. If it’s longer, consider having someone within the company respond. Also, monitor the number of responses to specific posts.

Three Financial Impact Indicators

  • Depending on your forum’s goal, does it generate sales or leads directly or aid in preselling complex products? For many companies, the benefit of online communities is measured in terms of cost avoidance from customer service, sales support, and market research rather than revenue.

  • Costs include direct costs for the technology and support as well as related personnel and marketing.
  • ROI (define) is generally positive because the benefits of the community in terms of revenues generated and/or the costs avoided are less than the direct costs for the forum’s technology and support.

Online communities can be a useful addition to your site. They can help you extend your relationship with your customers and prospects cost-efficiently while developing content that can be used to reduce customer service and content creation costs. Remember, online communities require care and feeding to continue to thrive.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies New York March 23-27 at the Hilton New York. The only major search marketing conference and expo on the East Coast, SES New York will be packed with more than 70 sessions, including a ClickZ track, plus networking events, parties, training days, and more than 150 exhibitors.

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