Building an Online Community

So a slight changes of plans. I didn’t realize I had set myself up to cover the same session twice (I’m a genius) so instead of recovering the Creating Conversations session that we gave you yesterday, I hopped on over to the Building an Online Community panel. I’m sure we’ll learn lots of great information.

This session features Wendy Piersall, Dave Nalle, and Matt Colebourne (greatest accent ever.).

Wendy says the session will be a conversation between us and them. Wendy asks what we’re expecting and what burning questions we have.

Here’s what the audience wants to know:

  • Overall expectations of how long things take. Rules of thumb as to what we can expect.
  • The issue of censorship and whether or not it should be done/allowed. How do you deal with that?
  • Are there any good numbers in terms of percentage of comments you should have for each posts?
  • How do we know our online community is growing? How do you analyze those numbers?
  • By joining in conversation on social networks, can you rank well in Google. Using conversations to enhance search engine optimization?
  • What’s the best way to start a community from scratch and make it profitable?
  • How can we leverage a community or comments?
  • How do keep the comment conversation civil and on track?
  • Tools or technical tips on how to get more of your readers to comment.

Matt kicks things off with some numbers. What’s the norm for comment/post percentages? The best figure he’s seen for the number of comments per post is about 3.2-3.3. If you’re doing better than that on your blog you’re ahead of the average. On coComment, they have 650,000 users. The average comment per post is 11.8. That’s not surprising. Who would use a comment tool if they don’t intend to comment? Obviously their numbers will be high.

In case you’re not familiar with Matt’s company, coComment tracks conversation. A user can track all the comments they’ve left from a single location. They’re a window into the comment-osphere (did I really just type that?).

Dave says not to get discouraged if people aren’t leaving comments. Articles can generate interest, awareness and education without generating comments.

Wendy talks about posts she’s written that she thought would generate a comment storm and flopped. On the contrary, sometimes she’ll throw up a quick post and she’ll get 40 comments out of the gate. Sometimes you don’t want users to comment. That’s not always what you need. Not all posts are conversation posts. Conversation is a medium. It’s not necessarily the medium that’s going to meet all your goals.

Matt talks to a lot of media sites trying to catch up with the blogosphere. They’re scared about mean comments and get themselves into a situation where they try and presuppose which posts which get negative comments and then disable them. His advice is to put the capability to comment on every post. If you’re going to allow conversation on your site, then put it everywhere. If you’re not, then don’t. You don’t know where you’re going to get an active conversation. That article that you think is going to get people jumping can just as easily spark nothing. What’s exciting is when you get comments that move the conversation forward. It becomes almost disputational. He’s seen people post the comments they get as a second follow-up piece.

Dave agrees and says comments can be used to feed the conversation, as well. A lot of the times it’s the best articles that don’t get comments. If you want comments, it’s easy to get them. If you’re a political blogger, all you have to do is say something about Ron Paul. Heh. Controversy brings people in but it can also bring chaos. You walk a fine line. Humor helps a lot, too.

An audience member asks Wendy what success criteria she uses, if any.

Wendy responds that it depends on the goals for that post. There are definitely posts that she writes as link bait, stuff she hopes will get a lot of conversation and a lot of links too. She could get no inbound links except one from iVillage. Would that be a success? Yes! She balances it on a growth projectory. There are going to be ups and downs, but as long as things are growing and getting better, she’s cool.

Dave starts talking about censorship. Bloggers have had an ongoing issue with censorship because many of us are foul-mouthed and/or psychotic. The key thing to making comments work is that you can’t take yourself too seriously, nor can you take anyone else too seriously either. You don’t want to get to the point where you get so offended by people’s comments that you end up shutting them down. Treat everyone with respect and let them say their piece. Most of the time this will make them respect you and encourage them to play nicely with others. He used to have a policy where he never censored anyone but eventually he was pushed into allowing some censorship because people got out of hand.

One other thing that is effective is to be very active in your own comment section. He uses his own comments to guide the discussion in a positive way. If you get enough people interested in promoting that kind of environment, the result is that eventually the good comments overwhelm the bad comments and people tend to go along with the flow.

To put a slightly different perspective on it, Matt says he went around and talked to a lot of big media sites. He found that the legal frameworks in those places are different in terms of your liability as a publisher of content. There is an international aspect, too. If you’re operating in the US, you have a lot more protection because of our freedom of expression.

He says that as a company that provides a tool to outsource comments, he has started to take a different view. The issues involved with editing are that (a) you put yourself on the firing line and (b) you run into the same problem that newspapers do where you don’t have enough bodies to moderate all the comments coming in. They’ve started looking at ways to build tools that will help site owners. As a tech provider, they want to give tools to users so they can just ignore people and not even have to view what the idiots are saying.

One audience member asks Matt if his platform also allows individual or agencies to have multiple blogs to moderate conversations.

Other tools exist to do that. He’s just solely focused on the comments.

Wendy steps in and says she’s never had to ban a user or moderate comments in her life. She believes the reason she has a successful community is because of the tone that she sets there. She also has a very strong comment policy, as well. The tone that she sets in the post is extremely personal. It’s a business blog but she gets as personal as she possibly can while still staying relevant. It helps show readers that there’s a real human behind that blog. As a result, people are very respectful of not only her, but of each other. That personal aspect has encouraged people to join the conversation more. When she shares personal things, people are touched emotionally. Of course they want to comment, it’s not just about business anymore.

In doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. The more personal you can get, the more people are going to talk.

One audience member says he works for a laser tattoo removal company. His medical director is the star of Dr. 90210. He went out and saw there are a lot of Dr Will Kirby fans and they had to hit them head on. It was good to have these people on the site to defend the doctor when people left negative comments, but he also has to make sure the site doesn’t become a Dr. Will Kirby fan site. How does he do this?

Dave says you have to keep people on topic. The philosophy he takes is that you can only expect a certain number of relevant comments and most of them will come early on in the discussion. If a comment stream is going on for a week or more, it’s already gotten all the exposure you’re going to get. You don’t have to worry if the comments get off topic. People are probably only coming back to read those comments anyway.

Matt suggests pushing them to other relevant content.

One thing that drives comments is to have a snippet of the most recent comments on your blog. They may come for one reason and end up talking about something else. He calls it essential for branding your blog.

When you have a small community, as it grows how can you encourage the new users who don’t feel part of that community to participate?

Wendy recommends that any time you do see a new comment come in to make a quick stop and reply to their comment or shoot them an email. One of the things she did was to make her blog user friendly for varying experience levels. She put something in her side bar especially for new visitors to give them a user’s guide to her blog.

Matt chips in that you shouldn’t make them register. People don’t like having to register.

Another audience member says she rewards the top commenter by either using a Top Commenters widget, offering up monetary prizes, etc.

What’s your take on requiring registration and validation of members?

Matt says there’s an interesting Facebook group about the Todeka Project that is looking into how you can confirm someone’s identity online. He says that requiring someone to register on your site is not going to prevent people from pretending to be you somewhere else. Highlight the positive.

Wendy talks about pushing your readers to talk to one another so that they can answer each other’s questions. She also encourages group writing and group research projects where blog readers have to work together for a common goal (oh sweet Jesus, do people really do that?). Within your own niche there’s always ways to make sure your readers are connecting with each other. Highlight certain readers, write a post about a frequent commenter. Put them in the spotlight.

When you think about starting the conversation among people, what about adding forum-type setups to your blog?

Dave says he hasn’t had success with that. If you want to have sub-communities, it’s better to split them off and start a whole new thing focused on that new topic. From what he’s seen from forums, the level of comments is almost worse than the level of quality of blog comments.

Wendy thinks blogs are a more powerful tool because the readers get more of a spotlight because it’s not about you, it’s about them. As long as you keep making it about them, they’ll want to keep coming back and participating.

Dave says profitability on a blog is a wonderful dream but it won’t come to most of us immediately. It typically takes 2 years to make your blog into something.

Wendy says she had a bit of an "a ha" moment when Shoemoney (there’s your link, Shoe! Now leave me alone! :) ) said the stickier that your blog is, the more readers are invested in the content, and the less likely they are to be invested in your ads. Building your community and monetizing your blog don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Sometimes you have to make a choice. The best way to monetize a blog is through direct advertising or if you’re selling your own products.

Matt says the way around that is for bloggers to group together. You’re a blogger, you’re into a business development. Trying to monetize your own site through AdSense is going to make you a lot of money.

Wendy says that’s exactly what she did. She launched 6 new blogs on the site so now she has other people to drive up traffic and increase page views.

Dave says that one way to be successful to become associated with a bigger site.

Can you explain "sticky" vs "monetized content"?

Wendy says basically if you have readers that are extremely engaged in your content and they want to stick around and they want to stay. When they leave your site they’re going to go to related sites to continue the conversation.

If you’re writing monetized content, they’re coming for information. They want to know what the author thinks about a company or a product. She’s just saying, this is a great product, you should check it out.

Other than good content, how have you built your community?.

Matt says the number one thing he did was to create ways for people to bring other people into conversations.

Dave says that if you have more than one person writing for the blog, show the interaction between those people. (Hi, Susan!) [Hello, Lisa. –Susan]

Wendy says to be as open and as honest and as personal as you can. People aren’t on your blog just to read content. They’re there to connect with you.

Lisa Barone is a writer, content marketer & VP of strategy at Overit Media. She's also a very active Twitterer, much to the dismay of the rest of the world.

See Lisa's author page for links to connect on social media.

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5 Replies to “Building an Online Community”

Thanks for the notes on these and all the sessions!

Love this article. I have been looking for some new ways of building online community before I give up.

Really thorough coverage – you caught all of the highlights. Also attended/summarized this session, but in less detail. Good to compare notes.

Thanks for the notes on these and all the sessions!

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