The Smart Approach To Building Community

Last week, I reviewed some examples of common mistakes made by community sites. This week, I’ll outline some of the best ways to attract users to a community and keep them there.

If you were to decide today to start a community site, you would be pretty late to the party. Already, there are plenty of forums for discussion and for trading thoughts on niche topics. To launch another online community today is to offer something better than your potential competitors, both direct and indirect.

One of the major points that I made last week was that communities by nature have to be focused almost exclusively on their users. In order to focus on your user fully, you have to perform at least two analyses: a competitive analysis and a user needs assessment.

The Competitive Analysis

A competitive analysis is vital if you want to start a community. Last week, we talked about how Yahoo was successful in stealing users from Silicon Investor by offering for free the same services for which SI charged a subscription fee.

This could have been prevented easily by doing some competitive analysis. Not only do you have to assess your site’s offerings against that of other sites, but you have to stack your services up against:

  • Free newsgroups, listservs and bulletin boards
  • Chat communities
  • Topical websites that are recognized within their particular niche
  • Everybody else

Are you planning to offer your services for a fee? Will someone then be able to undercut you by introducing a free, ad-supported model? How does your community site’s usability compare to that of the forums listed above? Is it easier or harder to use your site than to use your competitor’s?

An assessment of the competitive landscape will give you insight into how to best position yourself to remain in the game long-term. The competitive analysis goes hand-in-hand with an assessment of your user’s needs.

The User’s Needs Assessment

With this analysis, you should aim to answer the following questions as honestly as you can:

  • Who is your target user?
  • What does your target user need from your community? Can he or she get it elsewhere? If so, what will make your community stand out and present a superior suite of services?
  • Which offered services will make your user base want to stay?
  • Can an incentive program be implemented that will encourage user retention and prompt switchers to come your way?
  • If you are offering a competitive service, will the offering be compelling enough to get users to switch?

Once you are armed with these two analyses, the pieces will start to fall into place. You will have the best possible idea of competitive offerings and a strategy to pull users away from your competition and keep them with you.

Some Smart Applications Of This Thinking

Remember when GeoCities first started offering free home pages? Now, everybody’s in the game. Other players offered more disk space, enhanced features and more. Why was GeoCities able to retain the vast majority of its user base?

Simple – it’s a royal pain in the butt to move your home page from one place to another. Most users would rather just stick with the status quo. GeoCities instead started offering things like free email in order to retain users. And it worked.

Deja News also found a nice niche. How about those users that wanted USENET newsgroups, but would rather access that information through a web-based interface? (And an easy-to-use interface at that.)

Deja News users found it easier to post and read through Deja News and do searches that weren’t easily accessible through USENET readers. Deja News gave “newbies” USENET newsgroup access, but in an easier-to-use format and with enhanced features. It built a nice user base on that functionality.

These are few applications already working well. What more can you come up with?

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