Building Online Communities Takes Engagement

In This World, Engagement and Relationships Build Online Communities, Not Marriages

Creating relationships in online communities.

In his presentation at the SIPA 2010 session on Building Online Communities, Sift CEO Ben Heald crossed out the word “conversations” from the above slide and put in “relationships.” Conversations aren’t enough anymore, he implied. You need to engage people.

Based in Bristol in the United Kingdom, Sift Media is a leading business-to-business publisher specializing in online, interactive professional communities. It’s comprised of websites such as, and the recently purchased

“The publishing world is changing fast,” Heald said. “Publishers need to change their thinking.” He listed four bullets under that:
– Innovation is key
– ‘Must have’ not ‘nice to have’
– Unique is not enough–think utility
– No one can ignore the conversations

The website for accountingWEB shouts “engagement” much louder than it does “accounting.” Articles flash on top with headlines like, “How do you categorise your Clients” (they’re in the UK, remember), “Top ten annoying workplace habits” and “Global Figures back green reporting drive”—all with fun graphics or photos. There’s an editor’s note on the right, featured blogs on Tabloid Frauds, Networking and IT Compliance, and links to stories like “Old Spice Man goes viral,” “After work drinks? Not any more” and “Simple ways to manage your referral network.”

“Rather than asking what your existing content can do for you, ask yourself what you can do for it,” Heald said. Content providers should look at what consumers want and use the resources, data and reputation at their disposal to create ‘must have’ products.”

He used a pyramid to detail the “The publishing journey” from Google/search/aggregator traffic to direct traffic/dedicated search to registered member to paid subscriber/fully profiled member to champion.

“Conversation involves everyone,” he said—members, customers, clients, regulators and experts. They all surround concepts, content and commerce and at the very core, functionality—and an involved community propels the engagement.

So why do so many community efforts fail, Heald asked.
– More facilitation is needed
– Editors/journalists need new ‘headsets’—write to engage rather than inform
– More commitment and passion are needed
– Community needs to be involved

In that same SIPA 2010 session, John Novack of Quantros talked about what his company learned from their recent attempts to build a new online community (in the medical field, called Clinical Café).

• Identify your value proposition
• Don’t build a clubhouse if you’re going to let it languish or tear it down
• Transparency
• Leverage your assets
• Let go
• Measure, then measure again
• Experiment, then experiment again
• Balance giving need-to-know resources with a light touch.

In building his online community, Novack has several suggestions. One is to find an underserved group, or a lonely and under-appreciated group within the organization. “Any time there are highly regulated areas—such as financial, health care or transportation—there is potential for a big audience,” Novack said. “One reason is that you’re going to have new regulations” to learn.

One caution that he warns against is will your subscriber base want to talk to each other? Although Novack’s days now revolve around medical issues, his model is adaptable to other topics. “It’s about an exchange of information,” he said. “Content—and I say that broadly—can be video, live events, listserves…any focus on topical information. The distribution channels may be new, but it’s still content.”

And it doesn’t all have to be done on your own, Novack insisted. Build substantial relationships with software companies, consultants, other publishers. “And leverage those relationships.”

Engagement and relationships appear to be the buzzwords for Heald and Novack. Building online communities may not be quite as easy as the old “build it and they will come” mantra, but if you have good content or core information, then your company’s field of dreams can begin to take shape.

Download a FREE copy of 7 Ways to Monetize your Portal Audience, and discover how today's top publishers are generating revenue through memberships, events, clubs, sponsorships, and more.

Download a FREE copy of 7 Ways to Monetize your Portal Audience, and discover how today's top publishers are generating revenue through memberships, events, clubs, sponsorships, and more.


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