How to Optimize and Improve Online Communities

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improve online communitiesOnline communities are starting to take over the internet, and are now even more popular than blogs. From the giant online communities like Facebook and MySpace, to smaller niche online communities like Marketing 2.0 or my very own Classic Rockers Network. In fact now anyone can fairly easily create their own online community social network for free by using great tools like Ning.com or KickApps.com.

But even though its pretty easy to setup an online community, its entirely much harder to make a successful online community. So given my experiences, I thought I would put together some best practices for helping to optimize and improve online communities. So let’s get started…

– Customize the look and feel of your online community. Even though Ning  and KickApps offer plenty of themes for communities, in order to really brand your community and set it apart from others, you have to stylize it, particularly a good header graphic – if you aren’t good at design yourself, there are plenty of cheap options out there for web design. But don’t try and wing out though – trust me, image is HUGE for a community.

– Create your online community’s value proposition – then clearly state it on your home page and near your logo. For example, my Classic Rockers Network online community states clearly ‘The Only Online Community for Classic Rock Fans’ – in other words, don’t make your visitors guess at the true value of your website – make them easily understand why they should join your community – or you may not get a second chance to convert them into a happy repeat visitor!

– Think of a great, catchy domain name for your community – this goes a long way to making your community seem more authentic – don’t use the subdomains that you get given to begin with. Domain names are very cheap these days and go a long way to help branding your community.

– Create original content for your online community members. Give members a reason to come back to your website by coming up with your own original content. Here are many ideas for creating great content – interviews, polls, reviews, latest news, contests, commentary on hot issues, user guides etc. Another great idea is to do a series of related posts, as these will encourage people to come back and read the latest.

– Add fun interactive web 2.0-like content to your community. Don’t just offer regular text content – add videos of related content (find and embed from YouTube or even create your own), add related photos, and even add widgets (but don’t go overboard!) You can even add music if your website is music-orientated.

– Customize the member profile questions to match your theme. Don’t just stick with the generic ‘age’, ‘gender’, ‘location’ questions – come up with some fun community related profile questions that will spark conversation between members. For example, if you have a movie online community, you should add profile questions like ‘What are your top 5 movies?’, or ‘Who are your favorite actors?’. It works remarkably well!

– Send personal comments to your new members. Treat your new members like gold. One of the best ways to do that is to send each new member (particularly in the beginning) a personal welcome comment, thanking them and telling them what they can do on your social network. Trust me – this is great way of introducing yourself and the site, and to start community friendships.

– Customize the welcome email that gets sent to your new members. Its very important that new members understand what they can do on your community. The best way to remind them is via the auto-welcome email, but its usually just generic to begin with. Find out how you edit this on your community, and customize it to mention the first things that a user should do your on your community, thank them for joining, and ask them to invite their friends!

– Send regular ‘broadcast’ messages to your members to stay in touch – a great way to stay in contact with your members is to email them with your latest community news and your latest great new content. Always encourage them to come back for the latest and greatest – its easier to get existing members to come back than to get new members. Don’t send more than a couple of emails a week though – you don’t want to come off as a spammer and lose members!

– Run a refer a friend contest to get more members. Getting new members to join is often very hard – particularly in the infancy of your community. One of the best ways to get more members is to encourage your existing members to invite their like-minded friends to join up – a great incentive for them to refer their friends is to set up a contest, where the person who refers the most members wins a prize (gift certificates, or something appropriate to your community).

– Use RSS feeds to add to freshness to your community. If you don’t have time to create regular new content, a great way to keep your online community fresher is by finding a related blog and put the RSS for it up on your site. Remember to ask permission from the blog owner – chances are they will be grateful for the extra traffic and exposure to their blog!

– Search engine optimize your community! This is where it gets a little tougher, but there are some important things you should do to help increase your rankings in the search engines (thus generating your free targeted traffic). Firstly you should pick and place your target keywords in the description of your community, as these usually form your page title and meta tags. Secondly, think of your target keywords while writing new content – always try and use target keywords in the content title, and in the body text and even in the image ALT tag. Then lastly – start building links from other sites – reaching out to related blogs for link exchange definitely helps. All this helps build your search engine rankings.

– And lastly… advertise your community on Facebook. What better place to find new community members than to advertise on a place that is full of people who understand and love communities – Facebook! The Facebook advertising platform is fairly new, and it allows you to easily target your advertising by keywords and demographics. Its really worked for me, and I have personally found that its much cheaper than Google Adwords too.

So there we have it – hopefully this guide helped all the budding online community builders out there to improve and optimize! And if you don’t have your own social network yet, I suggest you create one about one of your passions (I personally recommend using ning.com). Its great fun – and could make you some great money on the side, and some great friends/contacts!

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