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

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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Managing Chaos
When controversies arise within your community-as they certainly will-be prepared. They are the norm. Just when you assume that your new contributors will follow and support the veteran members and your M.O. for community, some new development or opinionated newcomer will enter the fray and shake things up. Whatever the topic that is boiling over, watch the online action to learn whether members' criticisms or concerns help support your long-term value proposition. What is there to learn or revise in your business or on your site because of new ideas being raised? Does your corporate direction become more interesting as a result? If the answer to any of these is yes, prepare to regroup, rethink, and adapt. And always let your members know that you're responding to their questions and concerns. There's no avoiding controversy or putting your community on auto-pilot, in other words. Your work is never done. Community is not a "Plug-and-Play" proposition- but then, so few things are.

Editorial Considerations
To exploit the opportunities of your community-focused content, you must have buy-in from the corporate site owners and existing editorial team. Getting the buy-in may be a daunting task, as featuring member-generated content that is compelling and controversial can be a threatening proposition to stakeholders. And doing so might be perceived as competing with the corporate message. Here is some ammunition to support the inclusion of community on a content-driven site:

To exploit the opportunities of your community-focused content, you must have buy-in from the corporate site owners and existing editorial team. Getting the buy-in may be a daunting task, as featuring member-generated content that is compelling and controversial can be a threatening proposition to stakeholders. And doing so might be perceived as competing with the corporate message. Here is some ammunition to support the inclusion of community on a content-driven site:

  • Community-driven content is absolutely free. Of course there are ongoing costs related to the management and development of the community, but if your site is selling community functionality, those costs should already be accounted for and amortized.
  • Aggregate registration data and tracking activity is a valuable resource for product enhancements, marketing, and sales. As trust develops, and members are assured that your site will protect their privacy, adoption increases-and so does the value of the aggregate data.
  • Your overall site content is deeper. Community-based, real-world commentaries and experiences add a contextual level that can't be achieved otherwise. The entire editorial component becomes a dialog, not a dictate.
  • U.S. Web users now mirror the traditional demographics of offline media consumers: They are boomers who often "question authority," as the bumper sticker says, and distrust force-fed corporate media. Carefully crafted corporate, liability-conscious content will always have a stigma attached to it, no matter how free the authors and editors are claimed to be.

By integrating community dialog and exchange, consumers get a reinforcing message: "You have a voice here; we're open to all ideas; we couldn't do it without you."

Linking, Distinguishing, and Email
Where a site like BeliefNet takes a holistic approach by presenting ongoing bits of dialog side by side with other editorial material, you can start off more simply by providing relevant links adjacent to traditional content. That's a good first step.

Engaging quotes from discussions featured as sidebars to the content serve as teasers and give a sense of currency to your site. They signal that this is an interactive space, not a corporate brochure. If there are ideas and topics within content areas that support discussions within your site, be sure to list them all with links on the side or at the bottom of the articles.

As members are getting started in your community, don't make them work too hard up front. They may feel compelled to make comments, for example. Don't stop them at a page listing all your discussions; take them right to the forum they want. Don't crowd the page with too many disclaimers or involved instructions on participating. (Take care of that elsewhere or in advance of their joining.) If your interface is simple enough, there won't be a need to over-explain, just an easy way to participate. This is, by the way, one of the many values of user testing. When done properly, your target audience testers will react to the interface and navigation features, flagging obstacles to community participation.

Your liability issues and the nature of the content will dictate the level at which you should segment the audience and/or make sharp distinctions between content types. If you offer subscription-based medical advice, for example, you will want to create very clear distinctions between the expert opinion, what your advertisers offer, and what members have to say.

In general, it's best to be clear in designing your interface so that information coming from the publisher, the sponsors/ advertisers, and the community is all very clearly understood. The challenge you have is for the site to reflect the whole product. When corporate editorial and member-generated content are presented together, the experience should always be clear enough to understand who or what is the source of every kind of message or content bucket on each page.

If you communicate with your opt-in audience via email newsletter, seek permission from current active members to include teaser quotes from their comments. These encourage interaction and signal that your site is community-friendly. The goal with such newsletters is to get click-throughs to the site from the email. If users see a comment they like, or want to counter with their own, they are more likely to join in by giving you that click.

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