Websites are tools. They can be stores, they can be stories, they can be educational, or they can be feature-driven. They can even be hubs for online communities.
Online communities are not limited to Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites. Ask any blogger with a busy comment stream or a small forum site owner who enjoys online conversation. Many organizations are communities, but the websites representing them sometimes fall flat. To explore how to build a site that truly supports and nurtures your community, we’ll take a closer look at the design decisions and strategies we employed while building the new Delaware Press Association (DPA) website.
1] Focus on the community members
This seems simple enough, right? Many community-based websites miss this crucial rule by focusing on new members rather than providing value to existing members. This imbalance should swing the other way. Favor the current community members because they choose to take part in your organization. The best way to attract new members is to show them the value that the current members get. Show, don’t tell, as your high school English teacher would say.
The DPA site shows its focus on members in multiple ways. The first screen showcases the event or information that is most pertinent to the audience. Below that, you’ll find a breakdown of the benefits of involvement in the organization. Further down, you’ll see recent posts and a featured member. The majority of the content on the site is open for all, with select content restricted to members only. The ‘Login’ button and ‘Join’ page on the main menu clearly communicate that membership is a feature of this organization without focusing too heavily on “selling” to potential members.
2] Facilitate sharing of the site
One of the simplest ways to grow your site’s influence and reach is to promote the people that are already paying attention. When someone is interviewed or given an award, that person wants to share that to his or her entire network. It’s a great opportunity to say “Hey! I’m awesome!” without sounding arrogant. Self-promotion only goes so far, but word of mouth, or its online equivalent – social media, is much more powerful. Finding ways to encourage current visitors to promote your site earnestly and excitedly is a sure-fire way to encourage growth and continued use.
One of the simplest ways to grow your site’s influence and reach is to promote the people that are already paying attention.
The DPA site encourages sharing with the “Featured Member” spotlight on the homepage. This member spotlight will promote and recognize members for their contributions to the community. This serves multiple purposes; it encourages consistent content creation by the DPA team, it encourages new people to share and promote the DPA website over time, and it recognizes the incredible people in the community. It’s a win-win-win!
3] Encourage involvement
A website that supports a community must be useful. That means being maintained, kept up-to-date, and being a trusted resource. All of these things encourage members to be involved and be informed. Whether a member wants to plan his or her calendar in advance, or look up last minute information, having the website available makes it easier to be involved. A few ways to encourage involvement are:
Up-to-date postings about events for the community are critical to organizing a large group. The website should be the hub of information revolving around the events. This means that social promotion, email marketing, print materials, etc. should point to the website as the information source. The user should feel that the best information about the event is on your website, not in an email inbox or a flier that was left on the kitchen table.
The DPA site focuses on events. The events are built as their own custom “post type” in WordPress, which allows the event content to be specialized to what is most useful for members. This also prevents events from being buried by unrelated blog posts in an active blog. While the events are in their promotional period, they can also be displayed on the main homepage slider, which brings focused attention to the event page.
Contact forms are essential on the web for many reasons. The simplest motivation for a contact form is to allow the visitor a low-effort path to ask a question. For example, a visitor has a question about an event, checked on the website, and didn’t find an answer. The easiest way to ask for more information is going to be through the page that’s already loaded on the screen, not through an email or via phone. Both of these require much more effort to reach out. Without a contact form in place, the fear is that the user will leave the site frustrated and not encouraged to reach out. This leaves an unknown, disgruntled visitor. With easy contact methods in place on the site, this is less likely.
The DPA site showcases its belief in communication by having a small contact form on nearly every page. This form has already been used to ask questions about events, membership, etc. Even though this site doesn’t sell product or require a large customer service team, showing this commitment to answering members’ questions, and quickly responding, is impressive.
A Website for a Community
Communities revolve around information, much like any other human effort. A website can support a community without being the next Facebook or any other “typical” entity that comes to mind when talking about web-based communities. Instead the website needs only to show its dedication to the community, provide easily accessible information, and encourage interaction on the site, on the broader web, and offline. Much like the Delaware Press Association site, if you provide usefulness with the least amount of effort your community will benefit.