Using Community to Build Advertising Effectiveness

Last week, we discussed some of the challenges of selling advertising on community-focused sites. This week, we turn to the positives of community features and their benefits for ad sales.

As we noted then, community sites are much more than chat rooms and bulletin boards. They’re about creating a sense of inclusion, shared passions, and trust. Defining “community” in this broader sense, many web sites have effectively incorporated community-type features without some of the negatives associated with being labeled a community site.

When used to build a sense of connection and trust, community features can foster factors that are key to building web traffic: virulence and stickiness. Sites that are viral spread rapidly by word of mouth. “Stickiness” refers to a site’s ability to encourage users to spend time at the site as well as facilitate frequent return. Sites that foster communication among users on topics about which they are passionate tend to be both highly viral and sticky.

The prototypical viral site is Hotmail, the free email site that puts an ad for itself at the bottom of each email sent through its service, seeding its own phenomenal growth at very little cost. (In fact, Hotmail is credited with the fastest user-adoption curve in history – 10 million users in seven months.)

The trick, it seems to us, both for sites that are seen as community sites as well as for those that are incorporating community-type features, is to develop strategies that intentionally create “communities of interest” for advertisers.

Let’s look at two imaginary sites to make the point. On the one hand, we have a site that allows you to build your own web site and share photos. There is no registration required, and the service is quite handy and easy for visitors to use. Anyone who comes to the site can upload pictures, then share them with family and friends or the whole world via his or her personal site. This would be a very viral and sticky site if there were enough people willing to spread the word about the online photos, and if everyone who sees another’s photos uploads and shares his or her own. A very compelling concept for building traffic, it would seem.

But where is the community of interest for advertisers? Once you get past a small number of digital camera manufacturers, how many advertisers can you find who want to reach an audience with no other distinguishing or differentiating feature than a shared interest in photos? For most advertisers, this “screen” doesn’t filter sufficiently to allow the audience to be seen as anything but an undifferentiated mass market. And, if advertisers want a mass market, they can generally get huge coverage very inexpensively from the ad networks or the portal sites’ run-of-site inventory… this new site, though possibly compelling to visitors, has no significant added value for most advertisers.

Now we look at a very different site, one at the opposite end of the advertising-value spectrum. This site is again a community-oriented site, designed and maximized to serve the needs and interests of parents of young children. This site allows some photo functionality, too (though perhaps not as rich as the photo-specific site), but it’s set up to allow parents and relatives to feel secure about putting their children’s pictures online for the grandparents to see. It has lots of articles about using the Net safely for your kid pics. It also has chat rooms and bulletin boards for parents to share ideas on all kinds of child-rearing topics: special ed, teaching babies to swim, sign language for infants, getting through the teething years, learning to live without sleep, getting ready for preschool, how to pick a pediatrician, how to form a babysitting co-op… the topics are endless.

This site uses the photo and community features to spread the word, to build the business by being both viral and sticky, but it also uses the community functionality to define a community of interest that is a natural draw for advertisers. From diapers and clothes and formula to car seats and strollers, marketers of baby products want to reach parents of young children, and they’ll pay a premium to screen out the childless from their advertising audiences. In this example, the community features add significant advertiser value, while building traffic and user loyalty.

While both these mythical sites use community-building features to grow traffic, only the second site maximizes community to serve its other important constituency, the advertiser. In doing so, it also serves its employees and investors well by building a media property with a lasting value proposition for advertisers and audience alike.

Get the picture? We’d love to hear from both sites and advertisers/agencies about your favorite examples of web sites using community features to provide advertiser value. We’ll share the most creative examples with our readers in this space.

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