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6 ways to engage your online community

With over three quarters of Australian online adults using now social technologies, it is clear that businesses have to shift the way they communicate their message to their audience.

Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, forums, social networking sites (Facebook and MySpace), microblogging tool (Twitter), photosharing sites (Flickr) and video aggregators (YouTube, GoFish, Vimeo) are having a tremendous impact on how people search, connect and interact online. This has dramatically expanded the amount of new media available and new business models are emerging in response to this shift.

As the user-generated content (UGC) phenomenon grows unabated, now is an opportune time for businesses to evaluate the best options for starting, developing and capturing an online community that has their audiences at the core. These tools will help facilitate the supply and dissemination of the content submitted by users creating a dynamic interaction between the business and its community.

There are six key business fundamentals to consider when looking to monetise a growing online community. The following tips will determine how you conduct successful business:

  1. Passion is the glue
  2. Innovation is imperative
  3. Communication counts triple
  4. Outsource to the crowd
  5. IT is king
  6. Flexible focus is the foundation

Passion
Owners of UGC businesses must remember it’s personal. Every decision made evokes an immediate response so it is critical to establish a growing trust between consumer, contributor and business.

Passion trickles down from business leader to employees and users and an entrepreneur fueled by passion will trounce one whose only motive is profit.

Business leaders and employees need to continually participate in the community. Employees who participate in the community the business serves add to the passion, drive and success of the company. The understanding gained and passion fed, places the community at the core of the business.

Innovation
Innovation is important to a company’s continued growth but it must play to its core strengths and adhere to its fundamental business model.

Passion provides the drive but experience provides the wisdom for innovation. This is another reason why staff need to be encouraged to stay current in their various areas of expertise.

While your community will give you some great suggestions, most of the new details and features that add value to your business will come from the personal experience of your staff. Continually adding and tweaking details is a subtle – yet important – way to signal to customers that you are part of, and value, the community.

Communication
Clear and consistent communication to an enthusiastic community is the foundation for success. Make sure to take time and consider how your messages are delivered to your community.

If changes are being made within the business, the community should be informed of these business developments before – or at the same time as – other stakeholders. This advanced notice enables it to adjust to change, affording them a sense of control.

Most of the time, the community will agree with new innovations or changes once they understand what you are doing.

Outsource
Outsourcing to the crowd is a great way to include the community in the business and site operation. For example, delegating ownership to the community by enlisting global ‘inspectors’ – people who are valued users – to inspect and approve creative submissions can help to foster an environment for self and peer-to-peer education. If a submission is rejected, inspectors provide constructive and detailed feedback.

IT is king
The motivating factor behind monetising many user-generated content sites is IT-related. In the online world, growth can be difficult to predict. Having too much bandwidth is costly, but not having enough can be disastrous.

It is difficult for internet businesses to plan for growth. It can be explosive and unanticipated so when constructing your site, plan for your own best-case scenario but allow a reasonable margin of error and have a strong contingency plan in place in case you are wrong.

Flexible focus
Focus on executing the basics flawlessly. The excitement that UGC businesses offer can lead to many innovations but often the community would prefer a well performing site to one with all the bells and whistles.

The key is a delicate balance between the new and exciting and the fundamentals. The business needs to be adaptable and flexible and comfortable with discomfort.

Remember, content is endless and so are the opportunities. It takes sensitivity to the environment in which you operate and, good, scientifically rigorous market intelligence can help. Timing is crucial, like a surfer catching a wave: get paddling as the swell rises up; it’s too late if the thing’s about to crash on top of you.

– Kelly Thompson is Chief Operating Officer of iStockphoto www.istockphoto.com

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Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson

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