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  Stepping Stone Communities?
I understand the value of community, but what can I do in the short term and within a limited budget to act as a stepping stone to a full community?

Thank you for your question. In the current climate it's not surprising to find that commitment to a longer-term investment and return of a fully-fledged community is not an easy decision to make. You are right to think about the means by which you can implement some community functions and we hope that the following will assist.

When we talk about community in its fullest forms we are really talking about venues and media which allow web site visitors to have a say, to be able to share and exchange with one other. There are a number of ways you can achieve this without the commitment of a full community. Let's look at the following four as examples: Live Events, Polls and Surveys, Newsletters, and Comment Tools. Each of these examples is relatively cheap to implement, will bring short-term gains to you and your users, but will also set the stage for a more in-depth community offering in the future.

Live Events (one-off chats or small series).

As an alternative to an "always-open" chatroom facility, one-off Live Events provide a cost-effective means to "connect" to your community of users. There are several providers of such chat facilities which enable you to hire out chat rooms (and often additional services such as moderation) on an as-needed basis. You can use Live Events for example, to invite Guest Speakers to be asked questions in an auditorium-style environment or simply as scheduled open chats. Such chats can be tied into particular themes which may have an e-commerce call to action, such as promoting a product which is available for purchase.

Polls and Surveys.

Polls and Surveys enable your visitors to share opinions with you in a straightforward format, usually simply by clicking on pre-selected answers to a chosen question. Easily implemented, such facilities provide you with the means to involve individuals in your site and also provide you with information which can then form the basis for future content. Most polls and survey components allow you to rotate the current question(s) and produce resultant data which you can feedback to your users. Polls and Surveys are also a good springboard to and from discussion components (comment tools or message boards). For example, an editorial article could feature a poll or survey to solicit answers to a key question or answers as to how useful the article was to the reader.

Newsletters.

Newsletters which have an interactive element to them are a key means of recognizing a community of interest. Written carefully and used selectively, a newsletter is a sublte means of reinforcing a sense of community. A couple of tips when producing a newsletter with this end in mind:

1. Write your newsletter as conversationally as possible, as if you are addressing a group of people who know one another.

2. Stress the things that bond your recipients together and highlight issues or content which promotes that sense of "belonging" to a group.

3. Provide a venue for feedback to be gained; whether that is a website form where people can enter their comments or an e-mail address.

Comment Tools (sometimes called "Scribbleboards")

Providing your users with the means to add their own contributions to your content fulfills several aims of community. On the one hand it provides the means for users to "see their name in lights" and on the other it allows them to contribute their thoughts and opinions to others and to you. Many relatively simple content management systems provide the ability for others to add their comments to content, often with a moderation facility which means that nothing untoward will ever be published. Comment solutions are a powerful way to introduce the concept of user interaction. They are also a suitable stepping stone towards fully-fledged message boards where users can more directly interact with one another.

We hope that those examples and ideas assist you. In sum, there are ways and means of more actively engaging your consumers or users in a more "community-centric" way despite the limits placed by time and budget. In addition, the above suggestions should have a more or less immediate impact on your web site. Most importantly, your visitors will see that you take their involvement seriously and wish to provide the means for them to interact. This will set a good root for future potential community participation.

Best of luck!

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
http://communityanswers.com
http://cornerways.com
http://cwlive.com
 
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