A web community is a web site (or group of web sites) that is a virtual community. Web communities in recent times commonly take the form of a social network service, such as Facebook, Upcoming and Last.fm, an Internet forum, a group of blogs such as WordPress.com and Blogger, or another kind of social software web application.
But what makes up a web community; what makes them successful? Below I discuss the four C’s of community: Content, Context, Connectivity and Community.
A current meme when organising or building a website is the catchphrase
Content is King. A big shift in the web in recent years has been the way websites are constructed. Today it’s a necessity, and indeed best practice, to separate form from content. In one hand you have the compelling content, whilst in the other you have the presentation, be it in the form of HTML and CSS, Flash or RSS, amongst others.
Quality content is one way in which you can make your website stand out. It is also a great way to attract the people who are needed to form the elusive community that your brand is hoping build. When considering community initiatives, there are three questions to ask: Where will the content come from; for example community driven or syndication? Does it provide indisputable value; does it have a unique selling point (USP)? Can a regular flow of quality content be maintained? Even pre-Web 2.0 initiatives have to focus on keeping the content itself fresh and relevant.
Web accessibility and search engine optimisation are also vital, so having content completely separated from presentation means a number of assistive technologies can make better use of the content, whilst the web robots can also readily consume the information.
Context means understanding how people use your website, where they are in the user-journey and serving them the right experience at the right time. Well-designed applications and functionality have great opportunities to deliver on context.
For example, FriendFeed‘s iPhone version, which is simply a re-worked web interface, is perfectly designed for contextual usage on the go. Similarly, Remember The Milk updates the interface explicitly for mobile and iPhone users, whilst also syndicating the content to applications such as Google Calendar. (It is questionable whether user-agent switching is good practice, but that is a whole new blog post.) Conversely, Delicious makes no attempt at changing the user interface for iPhone or Nokia N95 users since the iPhone and N95 have full web-capabilities through their respective web browsers.
In some instances the context in which the content is displayed will require reduced functionality. For example, the Last.fm mobile site does not allow you to play music, but simply search music listings, view recommendations, events and friend listings, and edit settings. However, through its API, Last.fm is able to offer its data and platform to third party developers to aid the building of new applications and communities, thus changing its context.
Connectivity is the ability of a system, whether that is a web-based community or a device like the iPhone, to connect with little or no modification. In the realm of communities, the ability to easily connect to your peers is the Holy Grail of the application.
Successful communities thrive on fluid, hard-to-measure activities that are, in the purest sense, relationship-based. It’s not all about mass communications — although Twitter and YouTube are both bucking this trend — but more about the micro-interactions. Designing experiences that support thousands of micro-interactions means that the community is able to function, unhindered, almost indefinitely. Facebook lends itself expertly to micro-interactions through the user’s ‘wall’.
Companies are turning to communities as the new customer relationship management (CRM), but this requires people to mind them. Organisations such as 37Signals and WildBit very effectively use Twitter to broadcast service updates and sometimes apologies, whilst the BBC and The Guardian online use it to broadcast links to new content.
People often don’t like change, but communities that thrive often do so though evolution to meet the needs of users. Communities need to be flexible to evolve while still providing a valuable and consistent user experience which can be sustained. Too much of a radical change will almost certainly have a detrimental impact upon visits, at least initially.
Building communities is the new marketing for a brand, whether that is through wholely-owned properties or 3rd party social media services such as Twitter, WordPress or Ning. The starting point to any community is finding a niche that is currently underserved and serving that community better than anyone else. But Brands need to know a few things before they head down the community path. The web is saturated with communities. Some are thriving, while others have come and gone. Creating a community is not like your average marketing campaign that you can ditch it is a failure. If the community is successful the four C’s of content, contect, connectivity and continuity will have to be maintained and indeed, developed.