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  Community Tools and Patronage?
I have built a site that has built a respectably sized community. What other features can I add to ensure their patronage? I already have:

1. Message Boards
2. Chat Rooms
3. Articles
4. Polls
5. Match-making Features

It sounds like you have the community tools well covered from the technology and facility point of view. You might also consider a monthly newsletter relating new features on the site, new discussions, events, anything that would draw interest and get them involved. Keeping members informed is a great way to encourage their patronage.

However, there are many successful communities on the Internet which employ perhaps only one or two of the features you have present on your site. So, clearly there is more to community than simply the tools involved. What those sites tend to achieve at is in understanding the basic premise of the community. This involves being able to find out and respond to community members’ needs. People patronize communities where they gain a sense of belonging and care, not only for the site itself, but also for those they engage with.

What binds the provision of the tools allowing people to communicate and exchange into a fully-fledged community is a reason to participate. This can include engaging information, interesting members to communicate with, mutual respect and a feeling of value. This is what at root turns an assemblage of features into a community.

With that in mind, take a good look at your community from the point of view of a participant in it. How do the tools you have at your disposal contribute to meeting the needs of the participants? How do participants benefit? If you are at all unclear on these questions then asking your participants directly is an excellent way to gain useful insight and ensure patronage.

Aside from the tools themselves, there are two other major issues that will help to retain users and encourage their patronage. First, is simply how your community is presented on the site itself. Are you providing your users with visible and compelling reasons to utilize the tools? This might include highlighting content from the site and posing teasers to pique the curiosity of visitors or inviting their opinions on a matter which is already being discussed on the site. Look around your site and maximize the links to and from your community areas. Second, and related, is the extent to which you are using human resources to guide and encourage participation. Moderators or other defined participants are a tremendous way to encourage interaction and a sense of belonging. If you do not already have in place some individuals who you feel are good ambassadors for your site, then consider “promoting” several knowledgeable and communicative members of the community. They can spur use of the features you have on the site, be valuable assistance when it comes to resources and information, and can act as your eyes and ears within the community.

Please do feel free to also check out the following past questions and answers for ideas on how to encourage patronage. Best of success with your community!

Community Rewards and Indentity

Community Promotion

Encouraging Visitors

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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