Before you start planning to integrate community content, there are important questions to ask your technology team:
- Interoperability with your publishing system. Does regular site publication and updating work well with member-generated content? If you use a publishing system to generate pages, can you define and manipulate areas of the page for currency, or to highlight selected member content? Can developers create editable text blocks where a producer or editor could manually insert links and/or quotes from members?
- Flexibility of your data. Can the community content be archived? Can you search this content, by date, topic, or keywords? Can you find like-minded members based on their profiles, activity, and associations? Are discussions threaded or strictly chronological?
- Online identity creation. Registering a member name is the starting point; can it be made linkable to an editable member profile? Remember, profiles also become content. If you don't have the engineering resources to create this functionality, consider a community-building software toolkit that offers this feature.
- Privacy. Don't underestimate the importance of being both clear and consistent with your approach to member privacy. Create a permission structure for revealing information through the profile and what, if anything, your site will do with the information. Don't ever bend on your policy-it will be noticed, and you will lose credibility and members.
Testing and Innovating
Before Microsoft launched Windows 95, it engaged some 50,000 beta testers around the world. A million additional users at some 400,000 sites used beta copies as part of the Windows 95 preview program. As a result of this testing and feedback, the product was delayed six months, but the end result was a release of Windows 95 based more fully on what actual users wanted. While most user testing is rarely this extensive, planning for it inevitably improves a product and leads to new product ideas. By engaging your members in ongoing product testing, and by empowering them through actively listening to their feedback, you will have an invaluable resource and gain greater trust from your audience. Information and user research firms charge a good deal to insert user testing/feedback processes into product development. Why not plan to build it in and make use of it throughout your site's life cycle?
One of the most active discussion areas in the early days of E*Trade community was called E*Trade Sucks. Every corporate flaw, every movement in the company's own stock price, was laid bare for all to see in that forum-but the producers, editors, and product managers began to rely on this tremendous body of feedback and alerts from which to innovate and improve the customer experience. Over time, the dialog in the E*Trade Sucks discussion became more civilized and constructive as the product reflected response to feedback. The publisher and the membership had become co-developers. The dialog had become part of the content.
The honesty you will get through offering the safety of online identity to your members is invaluable and more direct and immediate than you would get in intermittent, expensive, controlled testing environments. Of course it can be risky to offer the opportunity to underscore your flaws in a public forum. (It's not for either the faint-hearted or the control freak, certainly.) The importance of communicating with new product contributors can't be underestimated. Both private and public acknowledgment will lead to greater participation and loyalty.
Many Provisos, One Positive Result
If your site's overall topic is one that naturally lends itself to sharing experiences (and most subjects do, if the audience is correctly defined); if your arena is subject to opinion and lively debate; and if you have the stomach for letting controversy happen, consider introducing community content to your offering. If you already offer online discussions and community functionality and have located it to a distant tab, consider making it more visible, giving your audience multiple points of entry, and adding a new, rich level of experience to your site.
While it's important to visually segment corporate content from user-generated material, the lasting impression for most users is of a whole-the company, publishers, advertisers, writers, and members, all of whom participate in the ongoing site. If it's built and managed well, your members will thank you-and so will your bottom line.