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  Turning Visits into Participation?
I'm building a new online community, and while I've experienced a good number of "hits", the number of posts is near zero. I feel my community just needs to get started, then it will thrive on it's own, but how do I do that? Advertising brings them in, but they seem to quickly leave when they see no activity.

Many thanks for your question!

There are a number of issues to consider when you start off with a new community and it does not appear to be as active as you would wish. In many instances it is not lack of traffic which stifles participation but rather some key areas which might need some attention. Perhaps the most important of these are the following:

1. Visibility - is your community visible enough? Do your visitors know how to find it? Can new visitors quickly view the activity within your community?

2. Content and Continuity - are you providing reasons for return visits? Is your community and site content piquing interest? Have you taken static content and turned it into interactive content?

Taking each in turn:

1. Visibility - when a restaurant opens for an evening of trade often they will employ particular tactics for the arrangement of diners. At the start of the evening they often seat new diners at or near the publicly visible areas of the restaurant, at the windows or in good view of passers-by. There are good reasons for this. Ask yourself a question. Would you be more likely to try a restaurant which already has people eating there than one which does not? Most likely you will answer "yes", since the presence of others gives us confidence that the restaurant is popular and reassures us of the quality of food and service. At the very least it piques our curiosity.

The same is true for any online community, except possible more so, since the very fluidity and transience of movement between web sites means you have to make that good impression clearly and quickly or else your visitors will depart to other destinations. If you are able to show visitors that there is activity and do so within the first few seconds of them viewing the web site then you stand a good chance of retaining interest and encouraging participation. There are several ways you can do this, all of which serve to bring your community up to the forefront of your web site. Here are some easy examples:

a) highlight posts from your message boards on the opening page of your site with a tagline or prompt to encourage replies. You may find that you have to do this manually by copying the post from your boards and placing a link to it from your main page, but with some scripting assistance it should be possible to automate this to cut down on administration time.

b) choose a community participant and profile them on the opening page of your site. People tend to be interested in other people and that interest often leads to further involvement.

c) make it clear on the site that your site is indeed a place where visitors can talk and share. Sometimes a relabeling of your message board forum might do the trick, from for example "Forums" to something a little more inviting like "The Lounge" or "Come and Chat" or intriguing like "Talking Shop", "The Buzz Zone" or "The Grapevine".

You should also make sure that your web site layout and colours are conducive and give you ample opportunity to promote what the site is and does. Ensure that your site navigation is clear, that you make distinctions between functional (permanent) links and promotional (temporary) links, since those are crucial in providing signposts for new visitors and consistency in function.

2. Content and Continuity - Continuing with the restaurant analogy, sometimes what draws a person into a restaurant is the menu and reputation for service, often with their knowledge coming from word-of-mouth recommendations. An interesting and enticing menu, supported by consistent, quality service is bound to keep patrons returning and recommending that restaurant to others.

In your community, you want to be sure that your content is inviting, and that it offers something stimulating for your target audience to participate in. As just one example, you might take news articles and link them to a topic on the boards. Not only would you then provide topical content but also your members would have both a reason and a venue to express their opinions on what they have read.

It is important to ensure that the topics you offer are interesting and thought provoking. It is also important that your signposts, namely your descriptions and seeder posts (first post in the board), clearly define the topic and ask stimulating questions to get the topics rolling. The more thought provoking your topics are the more interest they will generate and the more traffic they will draw.

If you are concerned that people are not posting because they do not see posts from others, ask your friends if they would not mind logging on to post. Helping to ensure that there is stimulating conversation will encourage your visitors to post and become more active participants.

For more information that is related to your question, please do feel free to visit some of our past answers:

Community Tools and Patronage

Community Promotion

We wish you the best of luck and remember, a great community requires nurturing effort and time to grow, but with ongoing attention the results will speak for themselves. Remember, even the most successful community will require longer-term commitment and efforts to enable it to thrive.

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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