Pros and Cons of an Online Community

March 1st, 2003


Originally published in Unlimited

In 1994, I set up WritersNet, an online community for writers and publishing professionals. It’s a raging success by the old dot-com criteria – heaps of traffic (140,000 visitors a month) and average visit times of over seven minutes. But it’s a dud as a business venture. It has operated at a loss every year.

In 1994, I was a full-blown supporter of online communities. In 2003, my support is more muted. Still, they can be worthwhile if you think visitors could benefit from interacting with each other (and you don’t mind paying to organise it) or they have valuable information and advice to contribute to your site. There are a number of forms:

Discussion forums/message boards. A US-based furniture restoration supplies company successfully employed discussion forums on its ecommerce site to make its site “stickier” to its target audience. Due to longer and more frequent visits, visitors bought more. Furniture restorers appreciated having a place to communicate with their peers and the supplies company gets some free content.

Email lists. A US bed-and-breakfast innkeepers association offers two email discussion lists – one for members and one for prospective innkeepers. Participants post thousands of messages a year to these lists. Members see the email list as a key benefit of membership.

Chat rooms. Chat doesn’t make sense for business. It’s usually ephemeral and requires users to be online at the same time. Unless it’s a chat event with an industry expert with significant drawing power, don’t bother.

Instant messaging. IM is hot, particularly with teenagers, but does it have a place in business? I think so. My employees, spread across three countries, use ICQ to communicate with each other and with clients. It’s much faster than waiting for an email response. Try free IM software like ICQ or MSN Messenger to converse in real time.

Here are some tips to a successful, and hopefully profitable, online community:

  • Have a discussion forums moderator to keep the posts on-topic and spam-free. If you have a chat event, have a moderator filter the questions to the celebrity or expert.
  • Build a critical mass by having friends and colleagues populate discussion forums early. Nobody wants to be first to a party.
  • Keep it active. If the latest post is months old, your online community screams “deadweb”. Post your own messages to stimulate discussion.
  • Choose the date and time of a chat event carefully. Obviously 4pm on a Friday is a bad time. Archive the chat session for those who miss it.
  • Discussion posts will be chock full of good keywords. Ensure search engine spiders can find your forums.
  • My favourite discussion forum software is Phorum. It’s a great product, it’s open source and, best of all, it’s free.

Keen for more? Read Design for Community by Derek Powazek.

By Stephan Spencer. This article first appeared on Unlimited in March 2003.