From The Art Of Community by O'Reilly (http://www.artofcommunityonline.org) by Jono Bacon
Setting Up Your Base
Many see buzz as a one-way street, analogous to television. They see it as a broadcasted message that people consume. They also see our primary goal as producing a message to be consumed. This is really only half of the goal.
When building buzz, we need to understand what we want. Our buzz is about our community and what our community achieves. When people experience our carefully crafted messages, what do we want them to do? What is their next step? What is our next step?
A website is essential to achieve this. Whether your community is focused around technology, knitting, animal welfare, supporting the poor, or otherwise, a website is a critical resource that you should build and maintain. The ubiquity of the Internet and the low cost of equipment to view it have made an online presence the storefront for your community. If someone hears about your community, the first step he will take is to search for it.
Whether someone hits your website because he stumbled upon it or whether he read about it as part of your buzz, now is the time to grab his attention. You need to enthuse him and pump him up, and while he is engaged, get them up the ramp to be a contributor as easily as possible. Unfortunately, many communities don’t do this very well.
Some still see the Web as a largely static medium. You put up a web page and once it is up, it never changes. These folks see websites merely as electronic information leaflets. My brother Martin used to be like this.
Martin is heavily involved in conservation, and he runs an organization in Northern England called Rotters (http://www.rotters.org/ ). He and his family worked hard to secure land and set up facilities to perform community composting, train ex-prisoners and unemployed members of the local area, and to run events. One such event is his woodland festival: a cornucopia of rural attractions, including metalwork, chainsaw tree sculpture, performance art, and live music.
Martin is an outdoorsy guy. He spends all day every day outside with his work. He is the kind of guy who just enjoys being knee-deep in mud and soaked to the skin on a cold English day. Yes, he is mad. Martin was never much of a computer guy. His organization’s website was a fairly boring-looking page with information that was once current but never got updated.
But computers became more intrinsic to his life and his organization. He started keeping accounts there, printing fliers and other publicity material, and using eBay to buy and sell equipment. Before long, he and his team rebuilt the website into a vibrant resource about the organization. It had pictures, stories, news, and more. Since the website has been refreshed, Rotters has received more publicity, members, and interest.
Your website is your community’s Embassy of Buzz. Make it rock.
Building a great website may seem a daunting process. The foundation, though, is simple. Your website should seek to satisfy the following aim:
- Provide a current resource that answers questions and maintains a relationship with the reader.
Write this down and stick it on your wall. Tattoo your children with it if you need to. Let’s break this down into key areas. Bear these aspects in mind when considering how to build your site:
- If I visit your website, I want to be able to get an overview of the community, its goals, and how to get involved, all within the space of a few minutes. This information should be up-front, easy to access, and easy to read, and should have a simple web address that you can point people to (e.g., www.myproject.com/overview).
- Your website should provide documentation and guidance for all aspects of your community. This will always be an ongoing process, but you should consider which aspects of your community are most important and need to be documented. As an example, the process that new members follow to join your community should be a priority.
- You should ensure that it is really easy for people to get in touch with you with questions,
suggestions, and feedback. I would recommend that as a minimum you have an email address that is easy to access. This is a notable problem with many blogs. Many blogging tools (such as WordPress at the time of this writing) do not provide an easy-to-access contact link, and this can make it impossible to get in touch with the author of the blog.
Building a website is a little like painting a picture or writing a song: it is never finished. Creative types always want to add a last fleck of paint or final flourish on the guitar. With a seemingly endless stream of possibility with your website, you need to prioritize. To do this, write down a list of everything you want to achieve, and then order it by what you consider most critical. Naturally, elements such as the contributor ramp should be near the top of the list.
The most important element in any website is content, and the most important golden rule with content is that it needs to be current and accurate. Of course, the two terms are somewhat intermingled: content about your community that is on your website from 1998 is probably not going to be all that accurate any more.
Creating current content is a two-part process. First, your community processes and methodologies need to be up-to-date. There is nothing more frustrating than joining a community, following the published guidelines to get involved, and then being told that the guidelines are out of date and that you need to adjust your work. That is a surefire way of annoying new contributors.
The second area, and the area that fits in neatly with buzz, is news and updates. Your site needs to be a window to exciting content about the community, and this window needs to be updated regularly. If you want people to keep coming back to your website, you need to give them a reason. That reason is fresh content.
You should build a strategy for publishing news. This in itself may seem like a simple task. I know what you are thinking: “Jono, I will just regularly post something new to the website. Simple!” Not quite.
Many communities struggle with regular updates. People simply get busy. People get distracted. Other priorities in the community take over. If all of your news gets posted by one person, and that person decides to spend evenings redecorating a house instead, you lose. When people get busy, they tend to drop nonessential and nonfun tasks. News updates are often one of these first casualties.
So divide this work between a number of contributors. Find three or four people who are happy to update the news site, and talk to each other about what news you are going to post.
Posting news is one way to keep a website current. There is, however, another approach to keep your site alive: conversation. The Internet has become an incredible place to have conversations. Countless forums, websites, and blogs have provided a medium in which anything and everything can be discussed. You should ensure your website is in on the action.
Conversation and commenting facilities are an incredible way of making visitors feel that they have input in to the community. These facilities are typically fairly simple: a blog or news entry is posted, and readers can leave a comment underneath the content to share their thoughts. This has two benefits:
- Regular content
Conversation is content that other people provide to your website. Your visitors will come back to participate in the conversation, and your website will always be fresh and full of new and interesting things to read.
Allowing any visitor to the website to post an opinion or comment is an incredible statement about engagement. Providing this facility says to all of your visitors that your site is open and always welcoming comments.
These two features in themselves are justification enough for having these facilities on your website, but there is one even more important reason: community.
If you allow people to participate on your website, building a reputation tied to their name, community will thrive on your website. Community growth is our end game, and growth happens around conversations.
I have experienced this in a number of places, with the most personal being my own website at http://www.jonobacon.org/. For a number of years I have had comment facilities on my site, and over the years I have developed a regular readership that comes back to contribute to the topics of the posts. If this is possible on an individual’s website, just imagine what is possible on a community’s website!
KEEPING THE CONVERSATION FLOWING
Providing commenting facilities is only the beginning of growing community on your website. To do this you will need to be more proactive than normal in encouraging conversation. Here are some quick tips:
- Be responsive. View every comment to your website as seeking a response. Respond and ask questions to keep the comments coming in.
- Write news that generates discussion. In your news items, you should explicitly ask for feedback and responses.
- Be thankful. Regularly thank your contributors for great comments and feedback.
- Reward the regulars. You should think carefully about how to reward your regular contributors. One approach I have taken with my own blog is to give the top three contributors a gift, such as a DVD or book. This shows everyone that you really care about their participation. At the beginning of growing your community, you will need to be proactive, but as conversation
within the community grows, you can take a step back.
Fortunately, you don’t need to have super-technical skills to get a great website with conversation facilities up and running. There are a number of preexisting tools that will do the job perfectly. The easiest method of getting going is to use a blogging engine.
A blogging engine is a software tool that lives on a website and provides a simple interface for you to publish an article. You can use an editor to format the article in different ways (make parts bold, italic, underlined, different headings, links, images, etc.), and you can also split the posts into different categories. These systems do not require any programming abilities.
There are many free online services for setting up blogs, and with them you can get up and running quickly. They allow you to publish your blog entries and ensure they are indexed by popular search engines, such as Google. Unfortunately, many of these services don’t allow you to have your blog at your own web address.
If you would prefer the blog to be on the same domain as your website, you can install your own blogging engine. There are many free and commercial blogging engines available, but I would personally recommend WordPress (http://www.wordpress.org/ ). WordPress offers an excellent, easy-to-use, and powerful framework for publishing content easily. To install your own WordPress website, you will need to have your own server, which you can purchase from a hosting company. They will provide a place to install the software, and you can set it up. Many hosting companies also offer preinstalled WordPress, Drupal, and other systems.
ROLL YOUR OWN VERSUS PREEXISTING ENGINE
When the need for a new website arises, some people prefer to install an engine such as WordPress, and some prefer to write a site from scratch.
I highly recommend that, where possible, you use a preexisting engine. Years ago I wrote my own website engine, and it just wasn’t as good as something such as WordPress. It’s fairly simple to see why: a project such as WordPress has hundreds of developers creating new features and fixing problems. This nets more functionality and a more stable experience in general.
If you really feel the need to have your own custom website, ensure that you have the resources to maintain it for a long time. When you invest in that website today, you will need to be able to still invest in its maintenance in a year, in two years, or more. Think carefully about this decision: if you go with a preexisting engine such as WordPress, that maintenance is done for you.
In the last five years there has been a change in how people access content on the Internet. Traditionally, the only way you could get updates from a website was to repeatedly visit the website to check for new content or features. This meant having a number of bookmarks in your web browser and cycling through them hunting for updates. Fortunately, a solution to this problem has been developed, known as syndicated feeds. Once the forte of the techie, they are now popular across the Internet.
When you use a blogging website engine (such as WordPress), each time you add a new entry, a special feed will be updated with the content. This feed sits on the same website. Your readers can then use a piece of software called a feed reader to subscribe to the feed.
As an example, on my website at http://www.jonobacon.org/, I have a feed available at http: //www.jonobacon.org/feed/. This is a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed.
A good introduction to these feeds is on the BBC website at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/help/3223484.stm.
With most websites providing these feeds, you can subscribe to a number of your favorite websites in your feed reader. Each time you load the reader, it will check each of the feeds for updates and indicate if there is new content. This is not only a hugely efficient way of reading lots of websites, but the feeds typically don’t include all of the website imagery and design. This means you just get the content and don’t have to download all of the other fluff.
You should ensure your website provides these feeds. Most engines (such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla!, and others) provide support for these feeds by default, making it really easy to include this functionality on your website.
Syndication feeds also allow people to take your content and merge it into their own website. This has been happening more and more in recent years. Tools can easily embed feeds into the sidebar of a website, for example.
There is also a new kind of website appearing called a planet. These websites take a number of syndication feeds about related subjects and show the posts in the correct order. This produces a rolling collection of interesting content: readers simply visit the planet and then read a large number of related websites that they were probably unaware of. A great example of this is Planet Ubuntu (http://planet.ubuntu.com).
You should seek to get your feed syndicated to these other sites. It can drive some incredible traffic to your site and get your words out further afield.
Search Engine Optimization
A popular buzzword in the online world is search engine optimization (SEO). It is the science of how to ensure that your website appears at the top of search engines. It is a large and complex science, but I want to give you just a few quick tips that will get you started:
- Using preexisting engines can make this easier. When you use a blogging engine, the creators
of the engine have likely already thought about optimizing for SEO. This will automatically get you higher rankings.
- Make sure titles and headings (which factor heavily in searches) are meaningful and contain
the words people will look for. It’s OK to have a cutesy title like “Why I’m tired this morning,” but also include some meaningful indicator of the content, such as “...because I finished the Bike for MS research fundraiser.”
- When posting images inside your news/blog posts, ensure that you specify some text to
describe the image. This is done in the altattribute of the image tag. For example: <img alt="My Dog" src="dog.jpg">
- Comment and conversation facilities will increase your SEO by bringing regular traffic to your
website and encouraging links. The key to SEO is having great content that attracts regular traffic. Focus your efforts on getting more people to your website, and your SEO rating will flourish.
In recent years the Twitter phenomenon has taken over the Internet, creating what many call microblogs. While other alternatives to Twitter exist, such as the open source identi.ca and Facebook’s status facility, Twitter continues to rule the roost.
For those of you who have no idea what on earth I am talking about, let me explain using Twitter as the primary example.
When you sign up to Twitter, you get a user account that you can point people to. As an example, mine is http://www.twitter.com/jonobacon. I can then type in a short message of no more than 140 letters, and it appears on that page. These messages are quick bursts of what is in that person’s mind at the time, and typically contains what they are doing at the moment, interesting thoughts or links on the Internet, random musings, and other content. As an example, here are my last five messages at the time of writing:
Up where I was born in North Yorkshire seeing family, having a wonderful time. Heading out tonight for a bit of a gathering. Fun.
!ubuntu !ubuntulocoteams !ubuntudevelopers Folks, remember to send me over the photos from your release parties -http://tinyurl.com/d2uh3s
At the office. Tired after a busy week and the release party last night. Rolling sleeves up to attack the inbox. This is going to get ugly.
Ubuntu 9.04 is out! Thanks for everyone’s hard work on a fantastic release !ubuntu ! ubuntudevelopers !ubuntulocoteams
Btw folks, point your beady ones at http://www.jonobacon.org/2009/04/22/ayatana/ - new Design focused desktop love in the form of Ayatana.
Some of these messages contain some words beginning with an exclamation point (e.g., !ubuntulocoteams). This is a feature in the identi.ca service (an open source equivalent to Twitter) that sends the message to a group that users can subscribe to. This gets your message out to more people.
Using Twitter, you can then subscribe to someone’s messages, or they can subscribe to yours. This is called following. This provides a means to see a chronological list of thoughts from people you are interested in.
Many of you will be wondering why on earth anyone would care about this. When I first heard about Twitter, I was no different. In fact, I was bullied into Twitter when a few friends of mine registered an account under my name and started posting joke messages. When they finally surrendered the account to me, I decided to give it a whirl and have been hooked ever since. Microblogging offers many benefits:
Microblogging messages seem to get everywhere. People read your messages and decide to subscribe, others point to your messages, they appear on search engines, and many microbloggers have a widget that shows their latest messages on their website.
Lots of content
Microblogging requires far less time to engage in than wider structured articles, such as conventional blog entries. As such, you generally see far more content.
Many people watch their microblogging feeds throughout the day. This currency has been demonstrated in many cases. As an example, a friend of mine went to San Jose and tweeted asking for a great seafood restaurant and had multiple recommendations within minutes.
Great messaging medium
When people start subscribing to your messages, it provides an excellent channel to send content to.
The last item is the most interesting part of microblogging. If you make use of microblogging effectively, you have the opportunity to build an audience to regularly send content to. Many assume that Twitter is the only option here, but there are others you should sign up for, too. The three I primarily use are Twitter, identi.ca, and Facebook. These three resources have become a compelling audience for my content. As an example, at the time of writing I have 2,000+ Twitter subscribers, 800+ identi.ca subscribers, and 1,400+ Facebook friends. This is significant group of people who can read my content whenever I send it out.
To make this easier, you can use tools to cross-post content to each of these resources. I use a tool called Gwibber (https://edge.launchpad.net/gwibber) in which my message is posted to both Twitter and identi.ca, and I have installed a Facebook application that posts my Twitter messages as status updates in Facebook. Finally, I have included Twitter messages on my blog so that my audience there can read them.
Whether you have a single Twitter account or the chained-together system that I just described, there are some hints and tips that you should bear in mind when using microblogging to build buzz:
Much of the reason why microblogging has taken off is that it is perfectly acceptable to post a quick one-liner with something that is in your head. Not everything needs to be carefully considered.
For most people I know who are fans of microblogging, they love how it offers an insight into the lives of the microblogger. As such, feel free to mix together multiple topics. It’s perfectly fine to wake up in the morning and send a message about your awesome cup of coffee, then to mention a cool project in your community, share a great link to something you read on someone’s blog, complain about the terrible service at lunch, and then point your community to a website where you want to gather their feedback.
Many newcomers to microblogging hear that it is comparable to SMS text messaging and then write in txt speak (e.g., “Gr8 time at comedy show. Much lols. Thx Mary :-)”). Feel free to use full, normal words that the rest of us understand.
If you are talking about your community, link to something where the reader can find out more. Microblogging is a great springboard to your community resources, so feel free to share them.
When something cool in your community happens, microblog it. Encourage others to do the same. This not only spreads the word, but also acts as a rather nice public pat on the back to the folks who did the cool thing.
Microblogging is a fantastic method of gathering feedback. This is something I used while writing The Art of Community. I used it to ask my subscribers for their thoughts and opinions on given subjects that I was writing about, and I got some fantastic responses. Due to the medium being limited to 140 characters per response, ensure that you ask for very specific feedback so people can fit it in.
If you have an event scheduled, such as an online meeting, microblog when the meeting is announced and also when it is an hour away. Many people will read the message and join. I discovered the power of this when I did my first videocast. I switched the camera on and microblogged it, and within minutes 24 people were watching.
As you can see, there are many advantages to microblogging, and although it seems redundant at first, give it a whirl. I am willing to bet you find it useful in your community.