In the Key of C: Content and Community Co-mingle

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When E*Trade launched its online community in the summer of 1998, it found itself in uncharted waters. No financial brokerage had ever given voice to its customers in such a public forum. The risks were great, but E*Trade wanted to strengthen the notion that financial matters are integrated into our lives: We share experiences, offer advice, commiserate, speculate. Despite the risks (e.g., liability issues, potential for censorship, and the complex rules governing corporate financial information), E*Trade's online community began as a general set of discussions on topics like retirement planning, Internet stocks, and mutual funds.

#IMAGE ID=11532, T=100#One of the first members to take an active role was a personable Texan who went by the screen name "Losure." She exhibited a natural passion for trading Internet stocks and wanted to talk about it. She had a distinctive online persona, and was supportive of other members who posted their thoughts. E*Trade started communicating with Losure, acknowledging her comments and encouraging her to pose new questions and offer up her opinions. She did so, becoming not only more engaged but also a community celebrity. By elevating her status (highlighting her remarks, clashes, and wisdom so others would read and respond), she became another reason to log on. Over time, her "content" was featured prominently on a level equal to both corporate and syndicated content on the E*Trade site.

Losure's following contributed to the flow of information visible on E*Trade, and the community was positioned alongside the more "official" consumer messaging. This mix of information-news, feature stories, how-tos, instructional text, background material-was greatly strengthened by adding consumer voices.

At E*Trade, blurring the line between standard forms of content (information, news, reportage) with more personal and quirky comments created a richer and more contextual experience that people valued and returned to regularly. As a fairly new brand name and product line, E*Trade needed the kind of "street cred" that community brought it.

Of course, it's not an either-or situation: user-generated content complements existing material, and vice versa. An obvious example is the appealing mix of canned descriptions and reviews (from corporate publicists and databases) of books, music, and films on Amazon.com that appear on the same pages as user reviews and comments. You see it all: What the official take is, and what a knowledgeable person in the "real world" thinks.

By balancing a real-world point of view from regular Joes and Janes with corporate content, a non-corporate voice emerges-and credibility grows. The 1999 book The ClueTrain Manifesto (www.cluetrain.com) whose subtitle is, appropriately enough, "The End of Business As Usual," observes that audiences mistrust predictable and remote corporate voices; meaningful engagement only happens when publishers and merchants open up their properties to dialogs from real consumers. In short: Markets are

Member Profiles as Content
There are features inherent in the most engaging of online communities that enable trustworthy and discreet communication between members, and by default add another layer of content and value. One of these is the member profile. Self-created profiles are key to giving each member a place to tell the world about themselves, and to give others a way to find out more about other people at the site. In making member profiles most usable and valuable, it's best to offer the option of adding keywords (snowboarding, eBay, adventure travel) that can reveal interests or experiences (NASCAR fan, Harvard grad, cancer survivor). Featuring these member-crafted bios in addition to corporate content elevates them beyond what is all too often considered "community"-skimpy message boards, archived Q&A, and sluggish chat rooms.

The most usable profiles include the following elements, all of which enhance the user experience and the potential for participation:

  • Member profile. This should indicate email address/screen name; city/state/region/country; favorite Web sites and/or hobbies and/or interests. If possible, a member's photo should be part of the profile.
  • Recent activity. A profile should enumerate recent online participation, e.g., the last five postings.
  • Reputation at-a-glance. A value-added element is some kind of quick indicator of the member's reputation (e.g., how an eBay buyer or seller is viewed).
  • Real-time presence. With instant messaging or other presence-indicator technology, it is possible to reveal members' current online availability. This gives a sense of life to your site.

Supporting Your Value Proposition
Nurturing members requires a delicate touch-and a diplomatic and ongoing selection process. Watch their behavior closely before communicating with them, and when you do, use one-to-one email and not the public communication tools on your site. Once a dialog is established and you believe you and selected members are on the same wavelength, you can elevate their privileges and stature.

Once engaged, your members are often on the front lines, marketing your service and offerings and acting as evangelists to their outside network. With their influence and voice invested in your property, they have much at stake in inviting others into the fold. Besides, nothing succeeds like word-of-mouth recommendations.

Don't forget to reward your stalwarts with giveaways-T-shirts, caps, mugs, keychains-for their help. You'll need to build "community promotion" into your operating budget, and you'll be rewarded with customer loyalty. Never underestimate the power of an inexpensive branded item for the word-of-mouth, one-to-one marketing clout it can bring.

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