On company Web sites everywhere, community sections are popping up—both a cause and an effect of a climate in which more and more marketing directors and brand managers are being asked by their companies, "Why don't we do something 2.0?"

Although an online community can bring innumerable benefits to a brand, launching one is a project that should be considered carefully, to ensure that your efforts will have the desired results.

What Is an Online Community?

Often, the designated community sections of corporate and e-commerce Web sites do not actually function as online communities. Instead, they are pages where the company posts content for its customers, or they are message boards where visitors can publish comments on specific topics.

Online communities are about the formation of relationships among Web site users. To achieve that kind of interaction, certain factors have to be present:

  1. The members have to be visible to each other.
  2. The members have to have a way interact with each other directly on the Web site and a reason to do so.
  3. Members need to visit the Web site regularly over a period of time in order to get to know each other.

The third factor is the hardest to achieve. Normally, you need to establish a minimum activity level on the Web site. And until you reach this minimum threshold, visitors to the Web site are likely to find themselves alone there; and if they return a second time, they are likely to find that not much has changed since their last visit. They therefore have little reason to keep coming back. The dilemma is circular: you need activity in order to generate activity.

Accordingly, the launch phase of a community can be particularly difficult. You may have to invest money in member recruitment, offer incentives to members for participating, and artificially inflate the activity level on the Web site until you can reach the necessary momentum. All of this requires resources. Above all, it takes time.

So Why Bother?

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Nancy Strauss is the owner of William Victor Marketing Translations (www.williamvictor.net) and the author, with Anna Buss, of Online Communities Handbook (www.onlinecommunitieshandbook.com).