By Joshua Lucas

Issue # 7

Wednesday, April 15, 1998


As the Web is becoming more mainstream, there has been a movement to try and bring a better sense of community to web sites. The reason is that when people feel comfortable within a community, they are more likely to stay there and support the community economically. This would translate to the Web by return customers to your site and possibly the purchase of items via the Web. While there is no "perfect way" to build this community within a web site, there are some things you can do to make it easier.

A simple, yet effective way of building community is to be "newbie-friendly". A newbie is a term given to people just beginning to make their way on-line. Many sites have turned their backs on newbies by falling into the trap of using technology for technology’s sake. This can be detrimental to a site because I’ve found that when newbies feel overwhelmed by a site, they are less likely to return to it.

The good thing is that the opposite is also true; when a newbie feels comfortable with a site, they will support it whole-heartedly. Being newbie-friendly is really just as easy as making some smart design choices for your site. Things like having a standard navigational system throughout your site or having some sort of way for visitors to know where they are can make a newbie feel at home at your site and will give them the confidence they need to return to your site.

Another way to build your community is to make a commitment to interactivity. This doesn't mean filling your site with a lot of high tech "javascript games", but instead refers to the constant flow of new and useful information (Editor's Note: Like on the Sideroad, perhaps?) There is nothing worse on the Web than a stale site. Visitors can pick up quickly whether or not a site has any life in it.

This does not mean that you have to change your content daily. Maybe a weekly or monthly schedule is better for you. Personally, I think a week is about the longest a site should go without updating the information. From my experience, I have found that people will tend to forget about the site because there's simply so much that the web has to offer.

The key to the updating is consistency. If you have taught your visitors to expect new information every day then by not keeping with that schedule you will quickly alienate your visitors. And you've given them little reason to return.

A second way to bring interactivity to your site is to answer those e-mail messages you will receive. Be prepared for questions which will make you laugh, cry, or make you angry.

"Lucas, Joshua Lucas". . .writes for a living. By day he writes software, and by night he weaves words. Josh has coded in Java, C, C++, and Perl for some of the hippest and most recognizable companies in the US, including The Gap, Starbucks, Nike, and Nordstroms. Josh's rich experience, coupled with his diligent daily research, places him as close to the "cutting edge" as you can get without falling off. He and his wife recently moved from Los Angeles, CA to Boston, MA.

What can YOU do to build a community on your site, on your topic? Is there information you can update weekly? Do you have the plans or provisions to answer e-mails rapidly?

Take a few moments to figure out who on your staff could fill such a role (if not yourself) and what additional training they (or you) might need.

And don't forget to keep sending me topics you'd like to learn more about!

Generally, visitors don’t necessarily care what site they are at in order to ask a question.

When I worked at EarthLink, I wrote code for the backend of the web site. My name wasn’t on any of the outside pages, or so I thought. . . Somehow, customers would find my address and ask me all sorts of questions, from how to download Netscape to what the cost was to fly to Ireland. But I always answered them with professionalism and courtesy (which, by the way, doesn’t mean you *have* to answer the question if it is too outlandish.)

I never tried to find out how much it cost to fly to the Emerald Isle but I tried to point out some sites that would contain the information.

If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed with the messages, just post a note on the site as to how long it will take to receive an answer. This will give the customer the information, which will put their minds at ease. Be aware, though, that many large companies insist that questions or queries be answered within 48 hours. Answering on the same day if possible is the sign of a really sharp web-based customer service.

Communities cannot be created overnight nor can they be created by intense manipulation. But by updating your content regularly, and answering e-mails quickly, you'll take the first major steps toward achieving this goal.

NEXT WEEK: What Community Can Do For Your Traffic and Your Business

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