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Eight tips for fostering community with content

Organizations have discovered that community-driven web sites can engage supporters, stakeholders and members of the public. The most effective community sites build critical mass quickly -- and compelling content remains the easiest way to attract users. The good news is that a community-based approach gives you a wealth of options for effectively creating, shaping and organizing content.

Invest in content. Spend at least as much time and money on creating content as you do on technology. Remember, nearly every community contributor will begin as a viewer -- so even if you expect your community's content to be mainly user-created, you need to seed the ground with examples of the kind of compelling content you hope they'll offer.

Wag your long tail. The bad news: you probably can't compete head-on with MySpace or Facebook. The good news: you don't need to. Your community has distinct needs and interests; understand your niche and appeal to it. Give your community members the kind of information and material they can't find elsewhere, and they'll keep coming back.

Tear down the wall. Your community doesn't begin and end on your own domain. Bringing in tagged content, interacting with open APIs and aggregating news feeds allow you to move conversations onto and off of your site -- inviting people and content into your community and broadening your reach.

If you don't know, ask. You can probably make a good guess about much of what your users want -- but their guess is probably better. Keep a close eye on three separate indicators of user interests: most viewed pages, most commented-on blog posts, and most linked-to blog posts. Or ask for more direct input via surveys, quick polls and blog posts.

Vive la différence. Read what your users are saying and contributing, and build profiles for various segments that are emerging in your community (or that you'd like to see). Be sure there's something to appeal to each segment. And remember there's a lot of variation in technological skill and comfort.

Promote your users. Share editorial responsibilities -- like selecting front-page stories, moderating comments, and approving blog posts -- with your most loyal users. It increases their commitment and broadens the editorial perspective of your site.

Titles matter. Featured content will help build traffic to your site if you make it easy to find. Search engines like descriptive blog titles: "Top nonprofit podcasts". And people like titles that make a promise ("Raise money while your donors sleep" ) or include numbers ("Ten ways to save the rainforest with e-mail").

Let your hair down. Don't take the site or yourself too seriously; give staff, moderators and users plenty of opportunity to express their personalities. Relaxing your grip allows the community to flourish.

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