Almost all publishers I speak with lately have placed "community" high on their agenda this year. Well, right after video, which seems to have become everyone's pet obsession online. The problem with community is that it is not really a feature. You can't just slap community onto a site the way you would an AJAX front-end or (dare I say) video. Community is an organic phenomenon. You don't make it. You don't build it. At best, you cultivate it, and many publishers are finding it hard to break ground.
I talk to a lot of business publishers working across many verticals, and the one thing I have found is that community involvement is very industry-specific. The first piece of advice I give them is not to expect every business segment to be very talkative. Oddly enough, in the media space where I have worked, there is very little feedback from readers, either in direct exchanges or in forum settings. In the PR vertical, well, it is hard to get those guys to shut up online. (OK, it is hard to get them to shut up anywhere.) Industries like agriculture have long cultural traditions of trading tips and comparing ideas about markets and technologies, and this pattern is apparent at sites like AgWeb.com and Agriculture.com, where the community areas drive overall traffic. In the defense industries? Forget it. They could talk to you, but then they would have to kill you.
Many, many publishers complain that they simply cannot get a rise out of readers. Like a comedian who never gets a laugh, we know the readers are out there: We can hear them breathing (i.e., subscribing), but no one is talking. One of the keys to cultivating community of some sort is personality. For instance, FierceMarkets, which is a very successful B2B publisher of FierceWireless, FierceBioTech, and other publications, it has learned to put its editors' faces and voices front and center as a way to invite a more intimate relationship. CEO Jeff Giesea tells me that this approach may not move people to discuss things with one another online but it does generate a lot of email to the editors. I hear from several publishers that they can get readers to talk to them but not necessarily to one another. A sharp editor, however, can seize that opportunity by quoting those letters in her next message to readers. There is a conversation going on there, but it needs to surface.
And nothing gets people involved more than the invitation to vent frustration. One of the smartest community tools I have seen lately is Jeff Foster's "GripeLine" blog at InfoWorld's site. By inviting IT managers to complain about vendors, he turns a reader's advocacy column into a fun collection of tech dweebs grumbling publicly about some of their own partners. Imagine a cluster of Dilberts bearing pitchforks. I always recommend that B2B publishers not only survey the blogs in their segment but also examine the patterns at trade shows to see how and where the best conversations take place. Try to make formats online that replicate tradeshow banter.
Of course, there is another more direct path to adding community to a site. Just dig into your wallet and buy it. There are times when simply purchasing a community makes the most sense for publishers. A couple of years ago, Penton surveyed the market in the contracting vertical it serves with Contracting Business magazine and its associated website, and saw that HVAC-Talk.com was already thriving with professionals discussing their trade. Rather than try to erect a competing village out of whole cloth, Penton made two smart decisions. First, it bought the forum. Second, it didn't screw up the village feel by grafting it onto the ContractingBusiness.com site. The publisher understood that in a good community people take ownership of the space and will resent a new owner renovating everything. As a result, HVAC-Talk has the same rough-hewn message base look and feel it always had, even though Penton surely has the money to rebuild it. ContractingBusiness.com links and co-brands the site, but it is careful not to be overbearing.
Ultimately, online community makes everyone in traditional publishing face the hard fact of interactivity. We are no longer in a top-down world of delivering information. We have to learn to be hosts now, not just editors.