Designing for the Social Web by Joshua Porter, a Book Review

Designing for the Social Web by Joshua Porter

Joshua Porter had some interesting ideas.

Designing for the Social Web by Joshua Porter was recommended to me by Kevin Palmer as a good read about the fundamentals of creating and perfecting online communities and social software.

Designing for the Social Web by Joshua Porter

Not How, But Why

The book is less of a how-to and more of a why-to, if that makes sense. If you’re looking for code examples, look elsewhere. Instead, the book covers theory and explains how and why certain tasks need to be done.

Essentially, any social site, whether in the shape of forums or something else, faces the following user hurdles:

  1. Pay attention – users need to have an idea that they want your software, product, services, etc.
  2. Decision to sign up
  3. Input personal information
  4. Pay money (if applicable)
  5. Decide for someone else (if applicable)
  6. Give up the old way of doing things

Back Up a Second

Frankly, there’s even one item before #1, call it #0 if you will: the potential user must understand that he or she has a need. And, hand in hand with that, the potential user also needs to decide to fulfill that need online. Hence if a potential user, say, decides that they want support because they’ve just gotten a cancer diagnosis, but they further decide to only get their support via an in-person group and not an online board then, so far as you’re concerned, it’s game over. After all, not everyone “gets” the social aspect of the web.

Get Over Those Hurdles

Joshua Porter covers the handling of some of these basic hurdles, such as designing to favor signing up and hanging around. One main point he makes is: don’t make signing up too arduous a task. And its corollary: don’t ask for information you don’t need. Far too often, sites ask for what ends up being ludicrous levels of granularity of detail. After all, when was the last time that anyone, really, needed your middle name for you to apply for a job? Yet sites ask for this trivial piece of data. And, even if they don’t require it, that begs the question even further. Why is the field even there in the first place if the site so openly acknowledges that it’s just plain unnecessary?

Eight Seconds to Impress

Porter makes the point all too forcefully: the decision to sign up for an online service is made in eight seconds. That’s an awfully short window of opportunity to convince a potential user that his or her time and attention should be paid to you and not your competition.

The book abounds with these kinds of helpful nuggets, and is also chockful of references to blogs and books to support the author’s recommendations. The generous sprinkling of citations was helpful as it was a clear signpost suggesting online readings. It can seem counterintuitive to learn about designing for the web by reading a completely offline book. Porter’s work bridges the gap back to the web and lets the reader in on where to find more information situated a lot closer to where the reader is going to be placing new social software or services.

A Quibble

Finally, Designing for the Social Web does not seem to draw an overall conclusion. Rather, the book instead seems to simply run out of gas in the end. It’s as if the author had run out of what to say. Hence a final upshot or even some words of encouragement would have, I feel, helped. But that’s a small issue with an otherwise interesting and eminently practical work.

Rating

4/5

CLUMPS of SEO

CLUMPS of SEO

CLUMPS is an ugly acronym and I apologize profusely for that. But if you want to build and promote a website and improve your SEO (Search Engine Optimization), you should think in CLUMPS.

CLUMPS of SEO
A clump of day lilies

What are CLUMPS?

I will explain.

Content

C stands for Content, and Content is King. Don’t believe me? Try looking at a site – any site – and picture it instead as a framework with lorem ipsum written all over it. Kinda silly, eh?

How to Search Engine Optimization
How to Search Engine Optimization (Photo credit: SEOPlanter)

So, people need something to read. Or listen to. Or download. Maybe to play. Or discuss. Or purchase. And it could be any other of a number of things that they would want to do with a website. And they need it from you! So make up your mind as to what you want. Plan your content and work on it. Brainstorm what you want to cover, and keep records of that. This helps when the rubber really meets the road and you get writer’s block.

For Instance

For example, let’s say you want to create an episode guide for the old television show, Quantum Leap. The show aired 97 episodes. If you post a new episode every single day, you run out out of content in less than three and a half months. If you instead post twice per week, that covers 48 and a half weeks – almost a full year. Good, but what do you do after that?

So there are a few options. One is to post less frequently. Another is to churn up the content and repost it. However, what you could also branch out. Therefore, post about the actors’ work before and since the show aired. And cover convention appearances. Add photographs. Post or critique fan fiction. Open up the floor for discussions of the show’s philosophy. Maybe you can find a related show to write about, and compare it to the original. It doesn’t matter. Just, recognize that your content might have a finite end to it, so you’ll need to work on extending that.

Furthermore, it can also help to look around the online world. What do others say about your topic? Make a Google Alert for your topic or, better yet, make several, with variations. Follow the news and see what you can comment on. Don’t copy others’ work outright, but commenting on it, linking to it, and expanding on it are all fair game. Always, always, always link back! Speaking of links ….

Links

L stands for Links. You’ve got to get your link out there, and have it linked back to by other sites. Now is not the time to keep it to yourself.

This does not mean spamming! Rather, you need to launch a bit of a campaign. Find like-minded individuals and ask for them to link to you. Offer to link to them in return. Now, it’s better if you’re linked to by pages with good, large followings. How do you find these sites? One way is to do a search on the backlinks for your closest competition. Who’s linking to them? And target those sites.

And be patient! Rising in search results takes some time, although you can promote yourself by buying search, if you like, by using Google AdWords. But if you don’t have a budget to buy listings, don’t worry.You can still have good external visibility. What matters is not being number one. What does matter is getting onto somewhere on the top three pages of search results and then working from there. Of course, the higher the better. But the difference between page 100 and page 1000 of search results is a moot one.

Usability

U stands for Usability. If people cannot find what they are looking for, if your site is slow and unresponsive, or you’re just missing too many vital things, people may come, but they will not stay.

Case in point. I spent some time a few years ago investigating linking certain nursing job sites to various places where backlinks would be welcome. Research was done, and of course nursing schools are a prime potential source of backlinks.

However, for some colleges, finding the link to either their nursing school or their placement office was akin to searching a hay field for sewing implements. I had, more than once, to resort to searching on Google rather than inside a particular school’s own pages, in order to find what I wanted. Sometimes, the pages were poorly named or written (e. g. placement office pages which didn’t have the word “jobs” anywhere in sight). Others had too many unrelated or poorly related or obscure key words (e. g. referring to such an office as the painfully generic  “Student Services”).

It would have been far better to make sure that these pages were dense with correct words that people would use when searching, such as jobs, placement, careers, employment or internships.

Search Issues

Other sites had what I wanted but were painfully slow (that was often a server issue). Or the web developer was so in love with flash that the site has pretty scrolling pictures but it was hard to find where I was actually supposed to be clicking.

So look over your site. Or, better yet, have others do so. And find out from them what works, and what doesn’t. It’s not an occasion for them to tear you down or give you unstinting praise. Rather, it’s an occasion for you to learn what works, and what doesn’t.

Formal Checks

And for formal investigations, try using A/B testing methodologies. A/B testing means essentially serving up one version of a site to one person, and another version to another. And then you check their click behaviors. If these are people you know, talk to them. The difference between the “A” and the “B” versions of a page can be as small as a new color for the background or a different location for the logo versus a complete site overhaul. But it’s the smallest changes that are the easiest to process. Make small changes before you commit to larger ones.

This also goes into the idea of keywords. Keyword stuffing is, of course, a black hat strategy, and it’s the last thing you want to do. But white hat strategy isn’t just setting up a site for the benefit of search engines – it’s also setting it up for the benefit of people.

Metrics

M is for Metrics. If you’re going to do A/B testing, or if you care about whether anyone is visiting your site, you need to start looking at all of that. The best and easiest to use such analytical site is Google Analytics. Google Analytics provides all sorts of data, everything from which is the most popular page on your site to how long users are hanging around. Like many other things, take a little time and get to know the program but also allow it to gather some data. You aren’t going to get a terribly good picture of your site in a month. You need to let this percolate for a while.

Promotions

P is for Promotions. Again, I never advocate spamming. However, I do suggest that you put your link out there via your own Twitter stream, your own Facebook account, via Reddit and Stumbleupon, etc. For this hypothetical Quantum Leap site, you might want to find like-minded tweeters using a service like Triberr. You could look up science fiction, or television nostalgia, etc. and join tribes (groups of tweeters) with similar interests who would be likely to retweet your content. Use Social Oomph or a Google Alert to run regular keyword searches on Twitter for various related terms. For people who are using those terms, they might have an affinity for what you’re doing. Perhaps you can follow them, and see if they will follow you back. And if they are reading your tweets, they are seeing your links. Look for reasonable hashtags and follow them, and start using them.

Check Your Metrics

But check Google Analytics after a while, and budget your time accordingly. If most of your time and effort are going into Twitter, but you get most of your readers from Facebook, you may need to rethink your Twitter strategy. Or, you could even try dropping it for a while, and only concentrating on Facebook.

Again, this is an exercise in patience. These things do take time, particularly if you have a shoestring budget and are essentially only using free services. For not paying, you will need to, instead, invest time.

Shiny New Stuff

S is for Shiny New Stuff. What I mean is, sites that stay the same, year in, year out, are just not that interesting. Plus, things change. Development proceeds at a far rapider pace than most of us know. Take a look at what’s out there, and see if making some changes will help.

For me, I started off creating a site completely from scratch, using HTML. I wanted to learn the language as well as possible, on my own. However, one area where I certainly needed help was in aesthetics. This went on for a couple of years as I had a site with good content, I was working on promotions and garnering linkbacks, and I was keeping it usable and was checking metrics.

I eventually moved the site to WordPress, and used their templates (the content, of course, is wholly my own). The site looks better and functions better. It also gives it a newer look. Plus WordPress fixes a lot of issues with key words. So long as your post is on point and mentions the keywords you want to tout, those key words will be in the page, and will be searchable by Google’s spiders.

Upshot

It’s still a lousy acronym. But I hope you’ll find it continues to hold true. The way to get your site out there, noticed and loved, is to make it as good a site as possible. Consider the sites you love. What they look like, how they work, what content they deliver and how they keep things fresh and interesting. Follow the metrics for your own site but take a leaf from those other sites’ pages. Not to out and out copy, of course, but rather to be inspired. And you can make your own quantum leap to better SEO.

CLUMPS of SEO
Quantum Leap
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Michael Fleischner’s SEO Made Simple, a Book Review

Michael Fleischner’s SEO Made Simple

Michael Fleischner‘s SEO Made Simple is a terrific book about search engine optimization.

Michael Fleischner's SEO Made Simple

First of all, written in a straightforward and engaging style, Mr. Fleischner makes his point: in order to dominate search engine listings, you need to make yourself known. Furthermore, you need to get your keywords into your website (but not stuffed there!) in a logical and natural manner.

Yahoo and MSN

Mr. Fleischner’s sole focus is Google but he does talk a bit about Yahoo and MSN. Furthermore, the reason to zero in on Google is made immediately apparent by the fifteenth page: Google is dominant. Here’s how the percentages of search stack up (he got his numbers from comScore for SearchEngineWatch.com)

  • Google: 43.7%
  • Yahoo: 28.8%
  • MSN: 12.8%
  • AOL: 5.9%
  • Ask: 5.4%
  • Others: 3.4%

Hence Google matters – but so do Yahoo and MSN, particularly when you consider that, combined, their share is nearly identical to Google’s. Yet don’t worry: many of the techniques Mr. Fleischner advocates will help with your placement on those search engines, too.

White Hat

White hat techniques abound, everything from adding unique keywords on each page to making sure that your page’s overall design doesn’t keep the spiders and crawlers from doing their thing. And that’s just on-site optimization. In addition, he also covers off-site optimization, e. g. writing and distributing articles, or generating press releases.

Furthermore, interestingly enough, there is little to no information on working the social media angle, e. g. Tweeting the existence of new blog posts or announcing page updates, adding similar information to one’s LinkedIn or Facebook statuses, or creating a fan page for your work (or, better yet, getting someone else to do that). However, that is, in part, a function of this being a book and not an e-book – there’s a time lag between going to press and the actual production of a paper book. Hence information is sometimes not as fresh as desired.

Instincts

However, there’s still plenty in here, for the serious web entrepreneur and the hobbyist. In addition, for someone like me, one great piece of it was some validation that I’ve got pretty good instincts when it comes to my own social media website. Oh, and if you’re paying attention – you’ll see that I just practiced two of his techniques in this very paragraph.

Dominate Google and get noticed. It’s that simple.

Rating

4/5

Supercharging Your On-Line Presence

Supercharging Your On-Line Presence

Supercharging? Yes! This post is a riff on the February 2011 edition of Law Practice Today

About a thousand (er, twenty) years ago, I used to practice law. And,

supercharging
LinkedIn pen (Photo credit: TheSeafarer)

of course, things were far different then as opposed to now. But I have retained some of my old interests and connections, and would get the paper version of the ABA Journal for years after I had hung up my shingle.

Once a lot of that started to go online, I renewed my interest in any number of facets of law practice, in particular how it collides and dovetails with the Internet and, these days, Social Media.

Viral Marketing Gone Wrong

And I have seen enough tone-deaf Social Media campaigns (Able2know is rife with laughably bad viral marketing attempts, for example) to see the need for a publication like Law Practice Today to try to clear up some misconceptions and get lawyers going in a good — or at least non-harmful — online direction. What is great about this article is that it doesn’t just apply to attorneys.

Get Your Own Domain Name

The first point made in the article is: You need your own internet domain name. Well, yes. And it continues to surprise me when companies and individuals who are attempting to make a splash (or at least not appear to be totally out of it) online don’t do this. C’mon, people, domain names are cheap! Go to GoDaddy and buy one! You can direct WordPress to be posting through a domain name that has naught to do with WordPress. This is not too tough (hell, that’s what I’m doing with my blog), or you can hire someone to do this. It’s a lot, to me, like buying business cards with your actual name on them versus cards that just say “Lawyer”.

Rejuvenate Your Website

The next point is: Rejuvenate Your Website. No argument here. Stale websites are as appealing as stale bread. I am not saying that you need to update every minute or every day or even every week but I see an awful lot of abandoned blogs and websites out there — or at least they appear to be, as their most recent changes occurred in 2010. That means it’s been at least nearly two months since anyone changed them. Surely there is news, or at least even cosmetic changes would give one’s readership/potential clients a feeling that someone was minding the store.

Use a Good Profile Picture

Point number three is: Your picture is worth a thousand words. A good picture is, well, good. You might not be able to afford to hire a professional as the article suggests. That’s okay if you at least get a decent photographer friend to take a lot of pictures. How many? How’s one hundred? Lighting varies. You might not smile perfectly the first time. Your tie might be crooked. Your hair might be flying in your face. You might not be looking directly at the camera. There are any number of reasons why a photo can go wrong. And get your pal to snap photos of you in various places, doing various things, so long as they are germane to the site. For a lawyer, that could be in the office, or in front of a courthouse or in front of the office building or with colleagues or alone. After all, with a good hundred photos, you might end up with several usable ones. If there are choices in different locations, you can use them to make different points on your site.

Fill Out All About Me and Profile Pages

Point number four is: It’s All About Me. That is, create an “About Me” page. There’s a place to put a photograph or two, eh? It doesn’t have to be long, but give it a little personality. Be sensible, of course. This is probably not the place (assuming you’re a lawyer) to tout your ninja skills. But if you play tennis or have two kids or are from Omaha, by all means, those things are perfectly fine here. Otherwise, you’re just nameless, faceless Joe or Jane Lawyer — and I, as your prospective client, can find a million of them.

Give Visitors Take Aways

The next point is: Give visitors something to “take away” from your blog. Me, I write articles and I allow the reprint rights. So if my experiences can help you, then by all means reprint my articles, and I wish you well, so long as you respect my rights in the matter.

Work on SEO

The next point is: Build a (Free) Google Profile. Here’s mine. Meh, I’m not so sure it helps me so much, but that’s probably also because I’ve made SEO efforts elsewhere. Still, for an SEO beginner, or someone with a limited budget, this is easy and free and it takes nearly no time.

Here’s another point: Make Sure You Advertise on Google Local. I felt no need to do this, but I’m not trying to push ecommerce directly through my site and blog. Your mileage will, undoubtedly, vary.

LinkedIn

Next point: Be LinkedIn. Hell yeah. Here’s my LinkedIn profile. Yes, I will link to you – just send me a request. Also, I have found that LinkedIn is an excellent way to get to know people attending an event with you. If you can get a hold of the guest list in advance (and with Eventbrite, evite and others, you can), look those people up on LinkedIn. Hey, you might have something in common with them, their photo might be up so that you can recognize them and they might be someone you’d like to know, either personally or professionally.

Gather Business Intelligence

Then there’s the penultimate point: Use Social Networks To Gather Business Intelligence. People share all sorts of stuff these days. Want to know if someone is moving? Going on vacation? Selling their business? Changing jobs? A lot of that information is out there, free for the taking. And other things are out there, if you know how to dig. I’m not suggesting that you turn yourself into a creepy stalker but if a possible client is tweeting about buying land, and you’ve got a real estate practice, well, do I really have to connect the dots for you?

Tell People the News (About You or Anything Else of Interest)

Here’s the last point: Be the Evening News. The idea is, broadcast youtube-type stuff, either your own or pass along others’. Agreed, but I wouldn’t overdo this, particularly not at the expense of other types of content, which are generally easier for Google to index (and for you to get an SEO bounce from). But by all means, if it adds value (there’s a big if right there. I adore the Old Spice Guy but he does not help me on my site), add it.

The bottom line, I think is: don’t be afraid. Yes, the Internet can bite you. But it can also be quite a good friend to you

supercharging

Community Management Tidbits – Look at Me! Look at Me!

Community Management Tidbits – Look at Me! Look at Me!

Look at Me!

Ah, marketing.

We’ve all seen it done well, and we’ve all seen it done not so well, and even downright poorly. Now let’s look at applying it to your extant community.

Look at Me
English: a chart to describe the search engine market (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A poorly executed marketing strategy cannot only turn off your preexisting users; it can also get your site marked as a Spammer. And the scarlet S can get your site unceremoniously dumped from Google. And that means, essentially, the equivalent of the death of the site.

Long story short: don’t spam

In order to effectively market your community, you need to cover three kinds of SEO/Marketing. Those are onsite, offsite and offline. Onsite will be covered later in this series, and that information will not be repeated herein. Plus, it may seem a tad counter-intuitive, but onsite SEO is not that big of a deal. Yes, you need good keywords and you need good content. But after that, your optimization and marketing efforts need to move offsite.

Offsite Marketing

Offsite can be divided into three areas:

  1. Directories and Search Engines
  2. Social Bookmarking and Networking Sites and
  3. Linkbacks.

Directories and Search Engines

Let’s start with directories and search engines. You must submit your site to Google. However, don’t submit to any other search engines. Why? Because others’ share of the market is virtually nonexistent. Hence this is a waste of your time, and they will likely pick up your site from Google anyway. So don’t use a blasting service. Heavens, no. You don’t need it and it is absolutely not worth it.

Directories are even easier. For general interest sites, you can start with only submitting to two.

  1. Technorati – only use this if you have a blog. Just submit your blog and copy in the code they give you, and
  2. Alexa – this is less vital than the other one and the metrics are not that great, but it is a free and easy thing to do.

Other directories you can submit to (depending upon your site’s overall purpose) include places like Universal Business Listing, Google Places, CitySearch and Yelp. It can be best to do well locally and rise to the top of the search engine rankings for specific search terms like, say, Indiana Relationship Forums, than to attempt to break into the top rankings for a more general terms, such as Relationship Forums. Consider directories in other languages, too!

Social Bookmarking and Networking

Social Bookmarking and Networking are different animals. Much like for search engines, there is a huge panoply out there, plus it’s tempting to just blast out information. Don’t. You don’t need to.

Only submit your site (and your blog, if you have one) to the following social bookmarking sites:

Forget the dozens of others unless there is a very specific and perfect match between your site and what they bookmark. Because they are mostly tiny, they can be spam factories and they are generally just not worth your time and effort.

Social Networks

Social networking implies more interactivity, and not just voting links up or down, perhaps laced with the occasional comment.

While there are international ones (and if you’ve got a perfect match between your content and their focus, then by all means establish a presence thereat), you really only care about the following:

  • Facebook – an official fan page helps for any number of reasons. First of all, it can make your site known to friends, family members, business colleagues and any other connections to your site’s currently existing users. And you can use it to post photographs and links directly back to your site. Furthermore, you can use it as a rallying point during both expected (and unexpected) site outages.
  • Twitter – even if your users are not, generally, on Twitter, it is still a useful marketing tool. Try feeding in a slice of the site via RSS. Just like with Facebook, this can expand the network of persons who know about your site.
  • LinkedIn – if your site is attached to a going concern, then at minimum make sure the company listing on LinkedIn is correct. And make sure all of the company’s employees directly linkg their profiles to it. Furthermore, make sure your site’s blog and Twitter stream are configured to feed it updates.

More Social Networks

  • Pinterest – demographics skew heavily female and over thirty-five. Got a restaurant? A shoe store? Wedding products or services? Go to Pinterest – but only if you’ve got excellent images.
  • Got great images but less of a female-centric slant? Consider Instagram instead.
  • Tumblr – demographics skew heavily under thirty-five and even under twenty-five. Got a video game? An indie film? Go to Tumblr.
  • Snapchat – demographics skew toward teens and tweens? Consider this fast-moving site.
  • Google+ – helpful for more than just communities, Google+ pages can bump up your placement in Google search results.

BackLinking

Backlinking is where you get others to add your site link to their own websites. Back-links help a great deal as Google gives them weight when determining your site’s importance. And that is directly linked to search placement.

Blogs

For your blog, add a blogroll of other sites you admire. Just as importantly, post comments on those sites. This provides value to those other people, so they are more likely to spontaneously wish to link back to you. In addition, don’t leave it all to happenstance. Put a link on your site and approach the webmaster of that site and politely ask for a back-link. Some people are happy to oblige. Others are not, so remove their links from your site after a reasonable amount of time. Some may simply think about it, so give them a little time.

And be reasonable, but also be reasonable with yourself. If you’re not getting link-backs, try to figure out why. Are your requests too aggressive? Or do you ask people with wholly unrelated sites? Do you, perhaps, have no content (or no meaningful content) for them to associate with? Look at your site with a critical eye before throwing in the towel.

Offline Marketing and Optimization

Offline marketing and optimization means going back to techniques used before – shudder – there even was an Internet. Before computers even existed.

Depending upon your budget and your site’s overall purpose, offline marketing can range from something as simple as business cards or baseball caps or tee shirts with the site’s logo to a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl. It can even be completely free. After all, any time you mention your site to someone else, didn’t you just market it?

Look, sitting back and waiting for your site to take off will almost never work. You need to market it, particularly in the beginning. Get your name out there!

Next: Snakes in the Garden

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Community Management Tidbits – Freshening Up

Community Management Tidbits – Freshening Up

Community Management Tidbits – Freshening Up – Communities go through any number of cycles, so it is inevitable — the forum becomes stale.

Community Management Tidbits - Freshening Up
Screenshot of phpbb in use on a games forum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a few things you can do. First off, try to see it coming before it happens.

Say what?

Yes, it’s possible, although it’s not necessarily reliable. How? Check your site metrics. Now, there are natural variations all the time. A bad day or two is not necessarily an indicator of trouble, even if those days come in the same week, or even one right after the other.

Time the Avenger

The real issue is a decline over time. The two main metrics you care about are time on site and the percentage of new users versus returning ones. There is nothing wrong with having a lot of returning users. It’s a forum, and people get comfortable and will to want to keep coming back if the comradery is good. However, you do need to get a relatively constant stream of new users. As for time on site, check the average, and see if it has been declining over time. This is over a significant period of time as in: over the course of about a quarter of a year.

Follow the Bouncing User

Hand in hand with both of these metrics is a third: bounce rate. Bounce rate is defined as a visitor coming to only one page prior to exiting the site. You’re a lot more likely to see a higher bounce rate if you attract a lot of new users (e. g. they see what they want immediately — or don’t — and then depart). A lower bounce rate is generally a more positive metric. Hence, as you can see, in this instance, the converse may be true.

Therefore you should have some notice when things stagnate. Even if you don’t track your metrics too closely, you should follow your users. Are they not making too many new topics of any sort? Or are they complaining? Are they leaving?

But once you know, and it doesn’t matter how you determine that the community is stagnating, what do you do?

Don’t Panic

Don’t panic. This is relatively normal. One thing you should do, though, is determine whether it is a seasonal issue. As the weather improves in the time zone(s) where most of your users live and work, they will go outside and — gasp! — go offline. In that instance, don’t worry, the users will come around again. But there’s no reason why you can’t practice a few of these techniques anyway, in order to be proactive. Fortunately, if that’s what’s going on, it’s far less dire.

So let’s assume that the weather and the season are not factors. Your percentage of new users is down and has been declining. Your users’ time on the site is tanking. They’re leaving. And the ones who are staying are bored, angry and restless. Worse still, they’ve taken to causing trouble in order to entertain themselves.

Techniques

Here are a few techniques:

  • Improve your SEO – attracting more users will help to replace the departing ones.
  • While you’re at it, target your SEO better. E. g. let’s say you have a forum about relationships, but not a lot of gay and lesbian users? Try adding keywords about, getting link-backs from sites that feature, and get listed on directories that cater to: gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender individuals.

Purchasing Another Forum

  • Consider purchasing a smaller forum that caters to the new users you hope to add. There are plenty of small forums out there for sale. Look for not only a targeted forum at a good price, but also an active one. Prepare the forums by telling your original forum that new people are coming. You can even tell them which kind of community they come from. Ask your extant members to be welcoming.
  • As for the board you are absorbing, diplomatically tell them about the transfer. Do this in as many places as possible so that as many people as possible see it. If that forum has a blog or a newsletter, use it to communicate this. Expect consternation, and expect some people to leave without giving the other forum even a chance.

Avoid Duplicate Accounts

  • Check your database, to be sure that you do not bring in what the database will think of as duplicate records. Whether your primary key is username or email address, or something else, compare the extant member list to the member list of the community you’ve purchased. For any duplicates, give the members of the board you’re absorbing the chance to rectify the situation by asking them to select a new username or email account (or whatever else you may be using as your database’s primary key) in advance by sending them a private message. Do not tell them where they are going as you can end up with even more duplicate records if the absorbed users create new accounts at your currently existing forum.

    So keep it on the QT. And, to make it easier on yourself,

    1. have a contingency plan for any records that are still duplicate (e. g. you tell the absorbed user and they fail to timely help you to fix the problem, and,
    2. keep the lead time short, as in less than a month.

New Features

  • Add new features. What kinds of features? Blogs, skins and groups are all great features to add if you don’t already have them. Spread them around and only offer one at any given time so that you have reserve magic rabbits you can pull out of your hat, or
  • Ask your users! Really? Yes. Send out a survey or conduct a poll, or just open up a topic or a blog post, asking: what would you like to see on the site? Some users will be flippant, but many more will take you seriously. And, most importantly, listen to your users! If you can implement any of the changes they request, see if you can do so over time. And if you can implement more than one, do so in stages (with the more important or more requested one being done first) so that the new features can keep coming. If you cannot, explain why. Your users will (mostly) understand. Some of them may even be able to assist you with implementation.

Communities, like anything else, can become a little flat. It’s like any other party. If a party gets dull, and it’s not yet time for everyone to go home, you bring out different foods, change up the music or even break out the board games or call other friends to come over. It’s not much different with an online party. You’ve got to keep it lively.

Next: Get-Togethers

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Community Management Tidbits – From Small Things

Community Management Tidbits – From Small Things

Small Things – Every forum starts out small. Getting started is one thing. How do you get big?

Social Media Influence - Small Things
Social Media Influence (Photo credit: Intersection Consulting)

The secrets to getting big go hand in hand with those for getting started: Search Engine Optimization and content.

SEO

Let’s start with SEO. If you haven’t checked your keywords in three months, check them now. Compare to your competitors, and check Google Adwords. Consider changing up your keywords for a while and see if you can draw more traffic.

The basic principles of offsite SEO apply: get your site listed on other sites which are more popular. Also, consider article marketing (if appropriate) and blogging. Perhaps some of your best content can be repurposed as articles or blog entries. Ask the creator(s) of that content for their permission (even if your Terms of Service say that you own all posts, this is courteous) and update and repackage the content. Articles are a great way to generate interest in your site so long as you add your URL into the “About the Author” section. And make it clear that you allow reprint rights only so long as the article remains completely intact, including the aforementioned “About the Author” section.

Blogging

One good blog deserves another. If you want to see if your better content can be presented on others’ blogs, why not create your own site blog? So at the absolute minimum, you can use it to inform your users of site changes and planned outages. But you can use it for a whole lot more. Because you can showcase and expand better content, announce contests and promotions, and keep important site information front and center. Plus, if you add a blog, you can again make the rounds of basic social media bookmarking sites like Reddit and Stumbleupon. Add another one to your bag of tricks: Technorati, which is a site that, among other things, lists blogs.

Add an RSS feed if you have not already. You can feed it into Twitter and Facebook using a promotional site like HootSuite.

Facebook

Create a Facebook fan page and, at minimum, populate it with the RSS feed. And also use it to assure users if your site goes down, particularly for unexpected outages. Such an outage can make some users nervous. Facebook (and Twitter, too) can be a means by which you reassure them.

Site Redesign

Another area where you might be able to better grow your user base is with some site redesign. Be careful with this as a community can often take (frequently somewhat unfounded) proprietary interest in the site’s look and feel. One way you can ease users into a change is by telling them (don’t ask for permission) that you’re going to be testing some site changes. Consider using A/B testing and compare a few different versions and see which one works better.

Simplified Registration

Consider simplifying your registration process, if you can, and embrace user-centered design. You still want to use a captcha code and you still want to have your members sign up with a real, usable email address.

But look at your process and see if there are any unnecessary hurdles. Are you asking for something like a potential user’s middle name or home city? Isn’t that kind of useless (and many users would feel that the home city information would be excessively intrusive)? Jettison the question and your registrations might increase. Since you’re tinkering with the signup process and not the overall look and feel of the site, your regular membership might not take so much of a proprietary interest. They might not even notice.

Analysis

Check your metrics. Small daily changes are not going to matter too much. But if you’ve got a continuing decline over time, or if membership is staying the same and not really increasing much, you may need to take action. To grow your site, you need to continue to promote fundamental principles: improve your site design and test it; take care to add and promote good, keyword-rich content; and continue good onsite and offsite SEO practices. And be patient as small things become bigger ones. Most communities weren’t built in a day.

Next: Going from a collection of users to a true community

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Community Management Tidbits – Corralling the Cats

Community Management Tidbits – Corralling the Cats

Community Management Tidbits – Corralling the Cats – Oh, they can be the bane of your existence, particularly when you’re just starting out. You want them to zig, they zag. Or you want them to go off topic, they stay on it. You want them to return to topic, and they continue digressing. They are the cats.

Community Management Tidbits - Corralling the Cats
my cats (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And you, you lucky Community Manager, you! You have to herd them.

Don’t Feel So Bad; We All Get This

There is an ebb and flow to natural, organic conversations. The problem is, online communities and forums aren’t, truly, natural or organic conversations. There is, at bottom, some form of a purpose to them, even if that purpose is simply to get your users comfortable with one another.

Therefore, in order to strain the ebb and flow metaphor so far as to break it, the best way for you, as a Community Manager, to keep from tearing your hair out, is to go with the flow. But you must have a plan in the background.

A Fer-Instance

So let us assume that your site covers German Shepherd dogs. Your users talk about care and feeding, but they also go off on tangents where they discuss what they’re having for lunch (your users, not, presumably, their dogs). You can either get upset about the lunch topic, provide other, more appropriate topics as alternatives, direct the lunch subject back on topic (kibble for lunch, anyone?), or scrap the subject altogether. Or, you can join the subject.

Your Move

What you do is going to depend upon not only how much on-subject content you’ve got, but also on your relationship with your users. What sort of tone has been set? If your relationship is a relaxed and whimsical one, then adding to the topic or directing it back on message can both work. If your relationship is more authoritarian, you may find yourself either deleting the topic or restricting user access to it (and users may leave for good over this. Regardless of what your relationship is with your users, use this kind of nuclear option sparingly.). If your relationship is somewhere in the middle, redirection to other topics can work. Creating on-message topics (or encouraging your super users to do so) has the added benefit of adding keyword-rich topics for the purposes of promoting SEO.

It is best to use all of these options. And, get an idea of just how much overall off-message chatter you will permit. If you are going to allow 40% of your topics to be off-message, then that is four out of every ten topics. Some days it will be all ten. Others, it will be one or two, or even none.

Keeping Users Happy

Allowing for these kinds of natural variations will go a long way toward keeping users happy. And it will add to a more organic rhythm and flow on the site. If the percentage of off-message topics goes too high, you can always pull users back by making good, keyword-rich, on-message topics. Not all users will go. These are volunteers and you cannot make them stay on topic. Some people will never go on topic, let alone stay there. It is up to you to decide whether that is tolerable. You may need to cut your losses with some of them.

The more you let the cats decide where they want to go (or, at least, the more you let them think they are deciding such things), the easier they are to herd. They decide where to go; you won’t need to convince them.

As the Community Manager, some times you just have to be the shepherd.

Next: Freshening up a stale forum

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Community Management Tidbits – Let’s Get this Party Started

Community Management Tidbits – Let’s Get this Party Started

Let’s Get this Party Started! You’ve made the decision to have a forum on your website. Great! 

Community Management Tidbits - Let's Get this Party Started

 

It can be for any number of reasons, such as to cut the number of lower level technical support calls, to generate buzz for various advertising campaigns, to generate sales leads, or maybe to bring together people interested in a common cause. And you havea site with forums, done up in Drupal, or maybe using Ning or a PHP application out of the box. Or it might exist on Facebook exclusively. Or perhaps you’ve conjured up your own proprietary software.

And … nothing.

You’ve got no users, no content, no conversations. The community should be a hubbub of activity, a virtual village. Instead, you’re stuck with a ghost town.

Whaddaya do now?

Don’t panic.

Recognize that no one wants to be first attendee at a party. So, you’ve got to get the party started. But how?

Success?

For any website to succeed, you need to be strong in four areas:

So let us operate under the assumption that you’ve got the first two set (and, if you don’t, make sure you fix, perfect and beautify your design as much as possible. If you’re not already getting metrics, go get Google Analytics and Yahoo Site Explorer and get started on Compete (Compete takes a few months to gather data, so get cracking now). Add Alexa and Quantcast if you wish, as well).

Now with those two set, you can, fortunately, work on the other two together. First of all, let’s work on some elementary Search Engine Optimization. SEO divides into optimizing onsite and optimizing offsite. So start with a few basic offsite measures. It used to be that you had to submit your site to the DMOZ Directory. Yahoo runs this human-edited directory. At this point in time, that advice is out of date. Don’t worry about it. You can do just fine with social media and indexing on social bookmarking sites instead.

Submit your site to the follow social bookmarking sites:

There are any number of others but these are the really big ones and give you the most bang for the buck (most readers) versus others out there. You don’t need to pay some service to do this. It will all take you less than half an hour, no lie.

Content

For onsite SEO, let’s move onto Content. Because the two are intimately intertwined. Furthermore, your future users are going to want to see topics. And they are going to want to see them started by a number of different people. You’ll need to pull in some friends for this, and divide the new topics up as much as possible. Be sure to start with topics like this:

  • Welcome to the New Members/Getting to Know You
  • Basic News from outside your company, about you (if you’ve got a company blog or press page already, link to them here and
  • A few (say, half a dozen) topics showcasing your best keywords

Keywords

That brings us to keyword research. Go to your competitors’ sites, right-click and select “View Source”. Which keywords are they using? Consider using similar if not the same ones. So if your site is about, say, infant and child care, your main keywords and key phrases are probably going to be words and phrases like infant, child, child care, childcare, children, baby, babies, pregnancy. Do Google searches using these keywords and key phrases, with and without the words forum or community added. Look at those sites’ keywords and key phrases as well. Because you want to keep thinking of terms that your target audience will use for their own searches. Incorporate these words into your site and into the titles of some of your first topics.

Specifics

Don’t be afraid to be specific, for the child care site, try topics on such subjects as teething, sibling rivalry and readiness for kindergarten. Keep the keywords in the titles if you can logically and grammatically put them there.

Now, you’ve got some content, and you’re getting some SEO, even if your still low in rankings (don’t worry, it’s percolating). But you still need users. Here’s where invitations come in. You, me, all of us – we have online networks. We’ve got friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter and a network on LinkedIn, and a whole host of other groups of online acquaintances. Plus we’ve got friend and family email addresses.

Invitations

So craft an invitation. Make it polite, pleasant, simple and short. Be definite about what your forums are about (e. g. write more than “Please check out my site.”). In particular, if you know people who like forums (perhaps you already regularly post on some other forums site, even if the main subject is radically different), invite those people. And do this in small doses, say, 30 people at a time. This will keep you from getting overwhelmed. And you can greet everyone personally. Furthermore, it will add to the feeling of exclusivity that a small site can engender. Don’t worry if people start inviting others to your site, even people you’ve never heard of before. Because this is a good thing. You want them to do this.

So look for sites to link to you, and be sure to get reciprocal links. Consider adding Google News Reader, and a blog to provide directed quality content. Furthermore, it will keep your users updated as to outages and new features as you add them. Add a Facebook fan page for your site, although I’d recommend waiting at least a little while after launching. After all, if no one likes you on Facebook, you’ll have the same issue. It’s trying to attract people who don’t want to be first. Furthermore, you’ll need at least 30 Facebook fans (that number may rise in the future) to get metrics. And then you can really get this party started.

But above all, have fun. And get this party started!

Next: Look at Me! Look at Me!

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SEO, continued

SEO continued (Search Engine Optimization) Strategy)

Yesterday I put together more of an SEO strategy.

SEO continued (Search Engine Optimization) Strategy)

This is tabs and tabs of an Excel spreadsheet as I think about what I really want to do with all of this.

It’s becoming more obvious is that I’ve got major ambitions and there aren’t enough hours in a day in which I can accomplish them. To really make a good site, a beautifully designed one with awesome SEO and kick-bun content, means engaging something like 50 people to do it.

Egad. I’m organized and I’m energetic and I’ve got time these days, but I’m not 50 people.

This is a source of a bit of stress, to be sure, but it’s also a challenge. How can I leverage what I’ve already got? How can I use my organizational skills to make things easier on myself? How can I set up some things which will run on their own, thereby saving me time? What’s the timing of, well, of all of it?

I’m very excited about this whole venture. I actually got a little Google traffic yesterday! Yay!

I’ve only been on Google for maybe 3 days. Holy cow. This stuff really works.

I have a billion things to do. Oh and I’m running in a 5K in a week. If I could do web development while running, I would.

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