Standing Out Head and Shoulders Above the Rest

Using Online Communities to Differentiate Your Website

As a young girl I remember how "cool" it was to dress like my friends; we wore our hair the same way, listened to the same music and even talked the same. The message we got was, "It is important to fit in."

Today, aspiring to "fit in" in the business world is not the way to get ahead or even get noticed. In order to make our way and to create a name for ourselves as entrepreneurs and business owners, we can't be like our competitors; we have to strive to be different. That means taking chances, being unique and carving out our niche through innovative action and creative thought.

Over the years I have seen many websites profess what makes their services the best, most efficient and effective. They often use the same approach as their competitors; using a similar tone and language. All the while forgetting to give us a look inside as to what makes them good at what they do. Perhaps this approach works for some, but can we run the risk that it will work for us? Personally, I am not willing to take the chance.

As an entrepreneur, I think it is important to take a close look at your competition and then ask yourself, "What am I willing and able to offer that my competitors don't?" One offering I've found to work well is the very thing that drives me and has become a passion; online community. By providing the means for consumers to be in direct contact with you and with other consumers, you are daring to be different.

While online communities have existed for over 15 years, they are still an under-utilized resource. They are not something to fear or something to avoid, but rather a dynamic solution for assisting in driving and growing a business and online presence. They don't require draining your bank account or adding numerous software applications to your website. Building an online community can consist of a listserv or no-cost message board for your visitors to use.

Not only does community help you to gain exposure, but it provides you with the following benefits:

1. A sense of consumer loyalty and bonding to your website and the services or products you provide. A consumer who feels closely connected to your business/services is more likely to initiate and then continue to purchase services/products from you and participate in spreading the word about you. Community participants are also more inclined to share their experiences with other consumers via word of mouth, which is a prolific form of viral marketing. We all know that services and products that are talked about tend to sell.

2. Repeat visits. Community members re-visit their communities more often and they also, according to research, are more likely to purchase and purchase in greater quantities than single-visit users.

3. Interactivity. Community components are an excellent way to promote services/products available on your website. Consumers may be unaware of what you offer and the experience behind that offering, so you can utilize a current conversation within chat or on a message board to share with members, as well as point them in the direction of a service/product that would be of assistance.

4. A growing resource for your website. Community also serves as an excellent means to encourage a member's response to static content on your website. This can be done by sharing links to articles on your message boards or listserv to encourage discussion. Members can then revisit the community to gain helpful information from the content generated.

5. Member "buy-in" to your website. Members who have a place to connect and share gain a sense of belonging. This especially occurs when members are spotlighted on the website for the contributions they make in the community, for example, highlighting a member's message board post on the main page of your website. Not only will this encourage a member to continue to participate, but will spur further conversation among new and regular visitors.

Think of it this way...a website oftentimes is very similar to a high-color, glossy brochure or business card, which shares a bit of what you do with those who read it. (That is, if people really read thoroughly what you have presented.) Adding community to a website takes that high-color, glossy brochure and gives it a voice, attracting others to share in that voice; and more importantly listen.

Regardless, long gone are the days of being alike. As entrepreneurs, we no longer have to subscribe to the notion of "fitting in". We can dare to be different and stand out head and shoulders above the rest, especially in developing an online presence.

Copyright 2003, Pam Thomas

Pam Thomas is a co-founder of CornerWays, an Internet production company providing quality online community building and design services. CornerWays can help you shape your corner of the online world through dynamic, personalised Internet solutions.

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