Steps to a Successful Online Community Website

Submitted by annieshreff on Sat, 06/05/2010 – 8:43pm

Session Convenor: Sonya Bernard-Hollins

Session Reporter: Annie Shreffler

Discussion Participants:

Maria Rojas, Bill Mitchell, Maureen Federo, Aracely Vasquez, Alice A. Tait

This was a follow up session for Sonya, who had convened a session on Friday to gather more technical help on website support and maintenance. Today she wanted to focus on community engagement.

Before we tackled ways to encourage visitors to interact with her site, Community News, which she hopes will serve a Western Michigan audience, we gave her more practical feedback.

Invitation: where on the site is an invitation for visitors to submit writing, vote for stories, participate in a poll or add content? Those tools have to be prominent in order to be welcoming.

Identify your goal. Sonya’s is to make Community News an interactive nws site. She currently has 8 columnists adding content, but no citizen participation.

Have a Snapshot of Enterprise: what’s your business plan? What’s your target audience. We gave Sonya many examples of ways to tackle this problem. She may choose to organize her site around a general topic, or a smaller region.

Community News used to be an African American bi-weekly publication. Sonya acquired it 3 months ago and wants it to be more things to more people. We encouraged her to do so, but with a more sharp focus or niche, so she doesn’t get overwhelmed or overload visitors. Coming at community reporting (Sonya has 20 yrs. experience) from a specific angle doesn’t prevent reporting out all kinds of stories that would fit under tabs similar to the ones she has now: Education, Faith, College Life etc.

What about branding? Changing up the site to fit Sonya’s style better is one solution–with phrases she’d use and design that reflect her. That’s one way to build an audience, though it’s the harder way, according to Bill. Becoming a reliable, go-to source for whatever area of interest or angle Sonya chooses is a simpler way.

Avoid the “website on steroids” complex. Too many options, bells, whistles or categories make a visitor’s experience uncomfortable. The home page should be inviting and welcoming. I can have drop-down menues, but should have tons of choices on top.

Bringing in the audience: there are so many options for welcoming contributors to participate on a community site. The spectrum runs from open forum to highly selective editorial process. Sonya want’s to fall somewhere toward the latter with full story contributors, but liked the notion of including more open crowdsourcing projects within specific areas, as well as utilizing interactive widgets such as polls or Flickr stream displays.

What about Facebook? (Collective groan fm. participants). Sure, it’s important to allow readers to share content on their OWN profiles–it’s a form of endorsement and affirmation. But DON’T make another news fan page that just spits your content out. It distracts from your own site and …well, newsy Facebook pages are annoying.

Harold dropped in and we asked a few more practical questions about WordPress vs. Drupal. He advised that if you want to get more creative, Drupal will allow you more options. He finds WP’s pages/blog stream system limiting. With Drupal you have more options when giving admins permissions and you can ask visitors to register with your site, so you know who your members are (but it’s not required for the whole site experience).

We didn’t get through the goal to create 12 steps, but here are a few:

1. Stick to an angle you know and care about

2. Identify and understand your audience

3. Think about community participation on many levels, from article submissions to sound-offs or comments.

5. Make sure tools you ask contributors to use are easy to understand. Use them yourself and seed the crowdsourcing project with your own work to set the tone.

4. Google maps are fun. Visitors like to interact with and contribute to them.

5. You don’t need to reinvent tools for interactivity. There’s a widget for everything. Look in WordPress or Drupal help sites for links to more tools to employ.

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