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How to attract members to your online community

Community bulletin boardAuthor Maria Perez is director of news operations at ProfNet, a free service that helps journalists find sources.

I recently attended BlogWorld & New Media Expo, a three-day conference and tradeshow for bloggers, podcasters, Web content creators and social media innovators. I was able to listen in on several content creation and blogging sessions, and have been sharing highlights from a few of my favorites. [See also: "7 deadly social sins," "8 ways to master the list post," "40 content creation ideas for your blog" and "7 don'ts of online community management."]

In this session, four experts discussed their strategies for creating and building a community people will participate in — without spending a lot of money.

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We heard from Lynette Young, CEO of Purple Stripe Productions and founder of Women of Google+; Rob Ludlow, owner of a portfolio of websites that generate over 12 million pageviews a month, including BackYardChickens.com; David Risley, founder and CEO of PC Media; and Scott Fox, founder of the lifestyle entrepreneur coaching community ClickMillionaires.com.

Creating and Building a Community

Be remarkable. “Content is king, but engagement is queen,” said Ludlow. Think of what you can say that is remarkable, that people will comment on. Make sure any time you’re developing content, you’re passionate about it.

Look at your community as a cohesive whole. Risley suggests using a blog to build up the community. Most people overlook the importance of using an email list to get people on the site and interact on it, he added. Use an email newsletter to keep members up-to-date on what’s happening on the site. Otherwise, you’re just counting on them to remember to come back to the site.

Show your personality.  Letting a part of your personality show through is key to getting users to share your content, said Young. Share pieces of you that are not all work all the time. “That is so boring.”

Admit failure. “If content is king and engagement is queen, then trust is the emperor,” said Young. Openly admit failure and defeat online. People want to help. Sometimes, by showing the blemish, it shows you’re willing to not be perfect. As long as you can gracefully recover from that, they’ll respect you more.” Don’t let fear of failure hold you back. Added Fox: “If plan A doesn’t work out, there are 25 more letters.”

Reaching your community, Bloggers
ATTRACTING TRAFFIC

Email users. According to Risley, email is the best way to get users on the site. For example, including a “Hot Forum Discussions” section in your weekly email can help pique users’ interest and get them back on the site. You can also see who hasn’t been active on the site in a while and send them an email reminding them of the site and updating the on any changes.

Reach out beyond your immediate circle. There are pieces of your community that have different interests than you do, which means they have different circles that aren’t connected to you. Give them information and knowledge they will want to share with those circles, and you will expand yours.

Try new things. It’s important to throw things at the wall and see what sticks, said Ludlow – but you have to monitor and see what really sticks, and then build on those.

CONTENT IDEAS THAT ATTRACT TRAFFIC

Get to know your community. You have to get to know your community, said Risley. That’s how you figure out the hot buttons. Then, when things get quiet, “light the spark that will open up debate and get people talking and engaging.”

Seek out user-generated content. “User-generated content is one of the sleeping giants of the industry,” said Fox. “And it makes your job so much easier.”

Ludlow agrees. “One of the best things about communities is user-generated content,” he said. Every three months, BackYardChickens.com hosts a design contest for chicken coops people have made. The people in his community love this, because they love to be recognized. In turn, they share on their social networks, which increases awareness of his website. In addition, because people have to register to post their chicken coops, Ludlow then has their email address and can continue to re-engage them.

Google+ iTunes appCrowdsource. Young likes to engage with her community. When she was considering choosing a charity her users could donate to, she asked her community to vote. In addition to getting the community involved, it also takes the onus off of her.

Incentivize members. Give members an incentive to submit content, like recipes. Motivate people to vote on the content, and then package and sell the content (as an e-book, a calendar, etc.). You’re not only generating content and motivating your audience, but you’re also selling that content and monetizing your efforts.

SOCIAL MEDIA TOOLS

Look at your stats. Ludlow said that Pinterest is driving half as much traffic to his site as Facebook, yet he hasn’t even done anything on Pinterest. “That shows me I have to pay more attention to Pinterest,” he said.

Go where your audience is. “Yes, I’m a Google+ fangirl,” said Young. “But I don’t believe there’s any one type of place. It depends on the type of media that best engages your audience.” Find that out, and then use it. For example, does your audience respond to pictures? Then use Pinterest. “I don’t care so much about the platform as I do about sharing the content in the way your audience wants it.”

Ultimately, you have to remember your audience and why they’re there.

“You have to get your mindset away from it being a platform for you to being a platform for your community,” said Fox.

You can read more from Maria Perez at her blog on ProfNet Connect.

About the Author

I am director of news operations for ProfNet (http://www.profnet.com), a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. You can also find me on Twitter at @profnet

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