Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Come. Stay. Speak. Three Ways to Make Your Site More Sociable

By Tim Kane, Makovsky + Company

So you've been eyeing this new social media trend, taking in all the buzz, and you're starting to wonder if it's time to get your company into the game. Maybe a new website, or an addition to your existing one. Maybe a blog, maybe a forum, maybe some kind of knowledge sharing vehicle ...

The short answer is, yes, absolutely. There are a lot of potential advantages, and really only one obstacle. It's not mastering the technology, which is getting simpler all the time. And it's not the cost, which comes down a bit more every day.

No, your biggest issue is making sure your social site is, well ... sociable.

I was reminded of this last Sunday, when I took my dog, Oscar, to the New Castle Bulldog Club's very first Bulldog Social. The idea was terrific, at least on paper: Some twenty families and their bullies would gather in a beautiful field in a beautiful park on a beautiful day, take off the leashes, and hilarity would ensue.

And that's pretty much how it worked - for the first five minutes.

After a brief interlude of mutual sphincter sniffing, the dogs took off. Some charged into the woods, some chased after other, non-bulldog dogs (one little Wheaton terrier in particular will never be the same), while Oscar -- always the loner -- set out to systematically mark every tree, bush, rock, twig and slow-moving squirrel in the park.

We tried to call them back, but the dogs weren't buying it. As we stood in the now-empty field, wondering what to do next, one tearful little boy summed up the whole problem. "But don't they understand?" he sniffed. "We did this for them!"

This is exactly the kind of behavior you see with new social sites. People may come, they may sniff around -- but they don't contribute. Even though you've specifically designed the site around their interests and their issues, they still don't seem to be interested in participating in the community.

It can be very mystifying and frustrating - we did this for them! - but fortunately, there are some steps you can take, some features you can design into your site that will help keep potential members from wandering off into the woods.

First, it helps to understand why people contribute to online communities. In his 1999 study, "The Economics of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace," Peter Kollok outlined three fundamental motivations:

1. Anticipated reciprocity: You contribute something when you expect to get something in return.
2. Increased recognition: You contribute if it will increase your personal prestige, or build your reputation.
3. Sense of efficacy: You contribute when you believe it will have an impact on the community.

To jumpstart the process of participation in your website, you need to incorporate features and functions that build off these basic drivers. For example:

* Measure contributions (increased recognition). Like eBay and its star system, sites that count and display the number of contributions tend to have a more active and committed membership. And when those contributions count towards increasing levels of recognition (yellow stars vs blue stars, "New Member" vs "Heavyweight Member") the effect is magnified.
* Encourage responses (anticipated reciprocity). Adding a rate-and-respond feature to each posting not only gives contributors an immediate quid pro quo, it also gives newer, and more timid, members of the community a low risk opportunity to begin making their own contributions.
* Trust the members (sense of efficacy). Sites aimed at a younger or a broader audience may need an active administrator pre-vetting the content. But for most business sites, where the audience is made up of professionals with a higher level of maturity, allowing a greater degree of freedom will spark a greater degree of participation. Key word filtering and peer moderation will still be important, but other than that, why not let them post whatever's on their mind?

Now, most people will tell you that when designing a website, content is king. But in an online community, content is driven by contributions. So your first concern must be to construct a website that actively encourages and consistently rewards participation by its members.

And as for the next Bulldog Social, I'll be there -- with a pocket full of Pupperoni.

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