Building Online Communities for High-Profile Internet Sites
Lee M. LEVITT <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Corporate Internet sites, entertainment sites, and online services are all moving away from the static presentation of information to interactive communities, involving the members of the community in ongoing public dialog. The benefits to the site are twofold. First, the involvement engages the user more deeply with the site, bringing visitors back more often and keeping them on the site longer. Second, the users themselves can generate a substantial portion of the site's content.
However, while community-building activities bolster the potential payback and profitability of advertising-supported sites and contribute to the brand development for sites that support products or services, they also present a number of social and technical challenges.
This paper and presentation explore these social and technical challenges inherent in designing, building, and managing online communities. The discussion is based in part on the News Corporation experiences in building and managing such communities for several high-visibility sites, including TV Guide (http://www.tvguide.com) and the UK online service LineOne (http://www.lineone.net).
Site owners today are looking to increase traffic to their sites and to encourage people to both linger at the sites and return on a frequent basis. Tactics for increasing traffic include giveaways, spiffy graphics, targeted or personalized content, and community building. Each of these tactics has both benefits and drawbacks. Giveaways and contests, for instance, are relatively easy to implement but don't necessarily add substantive value to the site or provide a continuing flow of traffic once the contest is over. Similarly, complex graphics or other visual effects may fail to add significant value to the site, keep some users from getting to the site content (if they're on a low-speed connection), and interestingly, with as much as a third of surfers browsing with images turned off, simply go unseen.
Targeted or personalized content tends to build more repeat traffic, as the user can customize the content to more directly match his or her needs. Visitors to the TV Guide site, for instance, can view television listings for their local area and set a profile that calls up any show with specific criteria -- "Show me any movie with Dom DeLuise" or "List all reruns of Star Trek." Visitors to SmartMoney Interactive, or any number of other financial sites, can input their stock holdings and return periodically to check on the current worth of their portfolio, with stock prices automatically updated in near real time.
Online communities can provide some of the most compelling reasons for visitors to return to a site. First, the user has direct involvement in the site because he or she is providing a portion of the content. In addition, the user may become involved in an ongoing dialog or discussion with other users and will want to return to view others' comments and to respond.
Communities are organic in nature and site owners can't make them successful or force them to grow. A site owner can only provide the fertile ground on which a community may grow and then provide some gentle guidance to help the group thrive. Much of the challenge in fostering an online community is social rather than technical.
The social challenges include creating an environment in which members want to participate, with sufficient freedom from censorship, loss of privacy, or other hindrances to free expression. At the same time, members do not want other participants to be rude, impolite, or disruptive. As a result, they desire some amount of guidance and focus of content.
This paper will present our recommendations on how to manage these activities most effectively, balancing the difficult line between broad subscriber freedom and firm editorial control.
The technical challenges surface in two key areas -- user interface and back-end management and performance. While some users may want a simple Web interface to read and post text messages, others will want to read the discussions offline or post multimedia content to the group. Similarly, behind the scenes, group moderators must monitor the group activities closely enough to stop disruptions as they occur. For large sites, a limited number of moderators may have responsibilities for a large number of ongoing and concurrent discussions.
In addition, large sites may suffer from severe performance limitations unless the site is designed from the outset for large user populations and spikes in activities. Migrating an active online community from one platform and application to another is virtually impossible. Therefore, it is imperative that the appropriate applications are evaluated and selected prior to launch.
The paper and presentation will also discuss the related issues of subscriber and participant management and other forms of community building, including e-mail.
Designed and conducted effectively, community building tools can add value to most Internet sites. Readers of this paper and attendees of the presentation will come away with a thorough understanding of the basic issues in community building and approaches, tips, tools, and techniques that help resolve these issues.
Community sites face a number of social challenges. Importantly, the site must provide a balance between the fostering of an open environment for the sharing of ideas and at the same time maintain sufficient control so that the group remains focused. In this manner, the group must remain supportive of the corporation's business goals, and no individual participants are allowed to materially distract the group with flaming or other antisocial behavior.
Ultimately the goal of the site must be supported by the focus of the virtual community; i.e., there must be some relevance between the business offerings of the site owner and the activities of the community. For a sporting goods manufacturer, it would be entirely appropriate for the community to focus on fitness and training issues. It would be incongruous, however, for the group to focus on the technical issues of managing mail servers. A value exists for the site owner to "sponsor" the relevant group (give it a home), but the tie-in must exist between the business owner and the subject of the group.
Moderation of online communities is critical to their success. Moderation styles range from a complete laissez-faire approach to heavy-handed oversight or moderation of all posted content. Moderation policies are a contentious topic in online communities and can create damaging dissension within a community if handled poorly. Policies must be well thought out and communicated clearly and frequently to members.
Some level of moderation is important for legal reasons as well as for public relations. A site run by a large company could expose the company to the risk of a lawsuit if a user posted obscene material or libelous messages or conducted illegal activities on the site. A clearly communicated policy and demonstrated "best efforts" enforcement can mitigate or minimize the risk for the site provider.
Moderators should be topical experts as well, providing not only guidance but also sage advice on occasion. However, a moderator must also allow others in the group to provide answers; otherwise, the group will come to expect all answers to be provided by the moderator, and the community will fall apart. Where an inexperienced moderator may rush to provide answers in an effort to please the community or to keep the group moving forward, a more experienced moderator may have a private conversation with one of the active group members to get that member to provide a useful response. In this manner, the pool of visible experts in the community is enlarged, and the community itself is perceived to have greater overall value.
Finally, site moderators themselves must have excellent communication skills and should have prior experience in managing online communities. Frequently, their moderation activities will be conducted behind the scenes in private e-mail to offending participants. It is equally important to staff this function adequately, so that any offensive activities are caught right away. Lack of moderation, intermittent and spotty communication, or lack of sensitivity to the needs and desires of the community can turn a community from an asset into a liability.
Moderation responsibilities should be assigned to multiple people who can coordinate shifts and coverage of the group. They must remain constantly in touch with one another so that topics or troublesome participants can be handled efficiently and consistently. Additionally, they must have sufficient autonomy to make community policy decisions and have access to other corporate decision-makers for quick resolution of corporate issues.
Sites that operate community services must remain actively involved. Bulletin boards and chat rooms have the potential for harassment and thus require both tools and manpower to keep online discussions civil. For high-profile sites this is a particular concern, since companies with public images and visibility typically run them. Often the site provider's desire to ensure the propriety of all information presented on the site leads to a tension between the corporate goals and the Internet culture of free speech.
Important aspects of managing a community are ongoing moderation of user activity, response to member feedback, confidentiality of information, and handling abusive users.
For a typical online community, the ratio of active participants to "lurkers" may be 1 to 100. Similarly, in this active group, a small percentage of the users will be considered the "core membership," providing not only content but also assistance to other members. Over time, new participants will join the core, and longstanding members will drift away. This self-appointed group is the heart of the online community and must be carefully fostered and encouraged. Formal community moderators must actively identify the core membership and establish rapport with them.
All sites should have one or more methods of gathering user feedback. This can be done via a bulletin board thread, a Web form, or an e-mail address for sending feedback to the site operators. The member feedback should be acknowledged promptly and acted upon as rapidly as possible. When users see that their feedback is valued and leads to changes in site management or policies, they feel like important members of the community. Feedback of concerned members can be a strong force to improve the site.
One of the largest concerns users have when they provide information to a site is the confidentiality of that information. Users have several concerns regarding confidentiality:
The best way for a site provider to handle these concerns is to explicitly state policies regarding the potential sharing of information and to give the user the option to release or withhold the information for each public disclosure. Educating members and giving them the ability to decide how the information may be used will allay the concerns of most individuals.
Even seemingly innocuous disclosures of information can cause consternation, anger, or harm to the user. A good example of this problem is a member directory that lists the user name, real name, and e-mail address of the user. Unfortunately, this directory would allow a user intent on harassing women to identify likely targets from the first names in the directory, use the login names to identify them when they are on the site in chat rooms and on bulletin board postings, and to communicate with them via e-mail.
Sites should not publish information about any user unless the user takes an explicit action releasing the information for that purpose. Sites should allow users to control the amount of information released and to easily remove themselves from the directory. In particular, users should be told whether their information is published only to other members or made available to the public.
Given the opportunity to do so, some users will act inappropriately. These abuses will range from misunderstandings and inadvertent offenses to mischievous, harmful, or illegal activities. Site managers must react swiftly and appropriately to these incidents. A means for reporting problems must be provided. Policies for dealing with them must be posted and adhered to on a consistent basis. The moderation staff must be trained to respond quickly, fairly, and in a manner consistent with the community's policies and the corporation's image. The offended parties need to be soothed and the offensive material removed or modified to prevent further incident.
For typical Web sites where registration is free and relatively quick, there is no way to prevent an online user from reregistering and returning. It is true, though, that disruptive people generally get tired of sites where they are actively discouraged, and move on. In the event the user's actions require additional follow-up beyond the boundaries of the site, moderators must be able to track that user back to the Internet service provider used. In some cases they may have to report disruptive activities to appropriate authorities. In any case, user abuses must be documented to support any potential actions against the user later on.
While the number of abuse cases of abuse is small given the total traffic on a high-profile site, the manner in which a site deals with them will set a defining part of the tone, behavioral expectations, and mood for the community.
The cornerstone of any community system is the ability to identify individual members and to retrieve appropriate information about the user when he or she returns to the site. High-profile sites may have millions of registered community members. Thus, they typically require a large-scale database back-end to accommodate member information.
Compared to traditional online services, Internet-based online communities are relatively simple for people to join. Users need only click on a link, or enter a URL, and perhaps fill out a simple registration form. In traditional online services, members must arrange for access and billing and then install and/or configure software. For community sites these issues are resolved with an access provider long before the user has reached the site.
While the ease of joining the community is a great benefit to both the user and the site provider, it also presents a potential problem for the site provider. Internet-based communities are not as firmly established in the user's computer systems as traditional online services. This leads to "churn." Because the users didn't invest much time or effort in joining the community, they may leave just as quickly as they came. The active membership of the site can often become very fluid, and the site will need to continue to attract new members in order to replace the old ones in order to maintain a stable user population.
Most widely available applications that address community services do not scale well to large user populations. The problems are numerous and widespread. User interfaces tend to be designed to handle small to medium amounts of information and often become unwieldy or unusable under heavy usage. Application performance degrades exponentially either under heavy usage or when supporting a large number of users. Applications aren't designed to be distributed on multiple servers or multiple front ends with a single back-end data store.
Each application has its own series of problems that must be overcome before it is capable of providing first-class service to a high-profile site. Often, fixing these limitations requires working with the application provider to redesign or rewrite the features or writing replacement systems that can handle large numbers of users.
Often, the considerations of scalability outweigh end-user bells and whistles. The trick is getting the feature set required by the membership while providing the performance they expect.
An extreme case of dynamic population is the fact that, on the Internet, the whole world can be literally beating down your door (Web site) with little notice. For example, a high-profile news event could increase activity on the site by an order of magnitude overnight. To prepare for these events, the hardware, software, and network connectivity for a high-profile site must be flexible enough to support large volume surges. The site's traffic should be monitored on an ongoing basis, so that the site manager can map usage trends by time of day and day of week. In this way, a site owner can forecast the impact an anticipated event will have on the site, and in the case of unpredictable peaks, ongoing monitoring will allow the site owner to respond quickly to the increased load with additional services for the community.
Users would like to move seamlessly across the site from application to application. Authentication, billing, access control, user preferences, and other member information should be entered once and applied to all applications. Unfortunately, the set of applications offered to the community invariably comes from a number of software vendors, each of whom has its own membership system, authentication mechanism, and unique manner of handling access control and billable events. Getting them to work together is difficult. Making them appear seamless can be almost impossible.
The effort required to integrate an external product into a site's software infrastructure is often overlooked or underestimated. Too often, basic questions regarding application integration are not considered until after the product has been selected.
Supporting the needs of both novice and high-end users in a given community is a very challenging task. Novice users are usually limited to a single application (their Web browser), often without plug-ins, and require a simple, straightforward interface. Unfortunately, interfaces for novice users usually do not satisfy advanced users.
Advanced users are familiar with a number of the available technologies and client applications for them and have strong favorites they want to use when interacting with the site. Invariably, they will expect features and customizations not available on the site. Unfortunately, if the site does not supply them with an acceptable set of tools, these users are likely to go elsewhere, yet it is often hard to determine what these tools are.
Full-featured and sophisticated text-based systems address many of the needs of community applications. Web-based applications are often prettier, but sometimes offer fewer features. Newer applications offer audio, video, and 3-D graphics but have higher requirements for bandwidth and performance. Sophisticated Web users simply don't come back to sites that don't perform.
Most high-volume, high-profile sites choose to run Web-based applications for most community services and dabble in more advanced multimedia offerings to keep the interest of sophisticated users. With each new technology, an additional set of challenges is presented to the site provider. As an example of these considerations, we will examine two areas: chat and auditoriums. Both currently are available in a wide range of Web-based and multimedia offerings.
Chat rooms are typically text-based, with many allowing users to include HTML so that visitors can post graphics, sounds, etc. Real-time audio chat channels are also available, though most technologies are currently limited to one-on-one conversations, rather than the group conversations one usually thinks of in chat sessions. Technologies are becoming available that support group audio interaction. Note that audio interaction, because it reveals much more about a person than text-based interaction, raises concerns regarding user's privacy.
Audio requires users to have audio hardware (e.g., soundboard, speakers, and a microphone), limiting participation to a fairly small population at present. As "multimedia" computers are more widely deployed, higher bandwidth connections become more prevalent, and technology allows users to manipulate their voices to conceal gender and age in public forums, audio-based chats could become more popular.
In most auditorium systems, all communication is text-based, though users are often allowed to add HTML tags for formatting, to include graphics and so on, as for other Web-based services.
Audio- and video-based auditoriums are possible, based on streaming media technologies. The applications do not yet provide a good level of moderation, though. For example, if one is operating a Web-based "talk radio" show, it should have safeguards similar to that of an "on the air" radio program, such as a three-second delay, to allow a moderator to block offensive language.
Streaming audio and video viewers place quite a bit more load on the servers and network than text-based audience members. A network connection that can support tens of thousands of text-based viewers could support only hundreds of audio listeners and only dozens of video participants (depending on the rate of text refresh, video resolution, and compression).
Finally, in considering the mass-market potential of these technologies, it must be remembered that relatively few home users have the bandwidth, hardware, or software to allow them to view online events yet. Even fewer have microphones or video digitizers set up to allow them to submit nontext questions.
We therefore expect that events based on submission of written or telephonic questions with audio broadcast of answers (similar to current radio interactivity) will likely be the first widespread multimedia online auditorium combination.
Bulletin boards allow users to communicate with each other. Users can read all the messages left by other users on a particular topic and post new or follow-up messages. Sophisticated bulletin boards (BBS) will allow the site owner to customize the interface to reflect the site's brand and image. They will also have provision for handling moderation effectively. In addition, the system must scale to support good responsiveness with large volumes of reading and posting and allow users to download bulletin board messages for later reading.
A Web interface for bulletin boards allows nontechnical users to participate in bulletin boards more easily and allows a site to provide a graphically rich interface that often will allow customized branding. A Web interface also gives the site owner more control over what novice users can do within the bulletin board. Yet most bulletin boards available today with Web interfaces do not scale to the needs of high-profile sites.
The Internet standard protocol for BBS-style interaction is NNTP (Network News Transport Protocol). While most people associate NNTP with public Usenet news groups, there is an emerging trend of sites operating their own private news groups dedicated to topics unique to their community. The primary advantages of using an NNTP client, typically called a newsreader, are that it can present a more powerful interface to the user and that it can operate offline.
Newsreaders are generally considered to be too complex for mass-market oriented sites, though they are popular for technically oriented sites. The integration of newsreaders into standard software bundles (e.g., Netscape's Communicator, Microsoft's Mail and News readers) and support for the news (link-in Web browsers, allowing one-click launching of a reader pointing at a particular news server and newsgroup) are making newsreaders more popular with less technical users over time.
Bulletin boards require moderation tools in order to manage user activity in the BBS. They must allow objectionable postings to be deleted and/or particular members to be blocked from posting to discussion areas where they have been disruptive.
Differences of opinion exist as to the degree of vigilance that is called for, but at minimum the site should provide a channel for users to complain about objectionable postings and should take action to remove those messages. More aggressive policies include reading and approving all postings before making them publicly viewable, but this has a much higher moderation cost, opens the company to additional liability, and runs counter to the mainstream of the Internet culture. Moderated groups, in general, tend to be less active and rich than unmoderated groups.
Chat rooms are informal virtual places where end-users can meet to discuss topics in real time. As such, they are used for informal discussions between fairly small numbers of users (usually from two to twenty simultaneous users) on an ad hoc basis.
IRC clients are the standard technology for real-time discussion on the Internet. IRC clients, however, have several drawbacks that keep them from being universally accepted. They are generally considered too technical for typical users, and the user is required to download and configure an additional piece of client software. This latter limitation can now be partially addressed with browser plug-ins and Java clients that support the power of the IRC interaction and can be presented more smoothly within the Web browser environment.
IRC requires a degree of technical sophistication to administer securely and it presents many opportunities for abuse by clever users. For a technically savvy site, appealing to an experienced Internet community, IRC can be a good choice for chat. But for others, a Web interface, even with all its current limitations, is preferable.
The Web is the primary chat interface for most customers. As for BBS, benefits include a brandable interface and the ability for users to participate without downloading additional software. The drawbacks of this interface are primarily due to limitations to current Web technology; HTML-based chat tools typically operate by updating a Web page periodically, causing a periodic blinking refresh that can be distracting to users, as well as cause lags in the conversation. For example, if a chat page refreshes every 10 seconds, it can take 20-30 seconds to complete a simple exchange between two people.
As Java becomes more widespread, Java-based chat clients are likely to replace the "blinking frame" and make Web-based chat sessions more attractive. While some Java clients are IRC-based, others are built on proprietary systems. These systems provide the site with easier control over participation, but often also introduce functional limitations compared to the extremely rich IRC protocol. In addition, these systems do not allow sophisticated users to use their preferred IRC chat clients. However, Java-based clients give sites the most control over their chat environment and are likely to largely replace IRC-based chat for most sites.
Chat rooms typically have fairly small numbers of participants, so supporting individual chat rooms is not a scaling problem. The scaling challenge is rather how many users can be supported across many chat rooms within a single system. The various chat technologies generally support 2-3000 simultaneous participants on a typical server, which should support 200-300 fairly active chat rooms. This is certainly sufficient for typical chat applications, but this limitation causes difficulties in hosting either large events like a special guest or if the site would like to place all of the current visitors into a single chat environment.
While chat discussions can be moderated, this requires 24 by 7 vigilance. Instead, chat rooms are typically managed on an exception basis or by "spot-checking," rather than through constant monitoring. Occasionally, a chat room will have a policy of having the moderator read and approve all messages before they are displayed, but that defeats the purpose of informal discussions and is more typical of auditoriums.
Many high-profile corporate Web sites are fairly cautious about chat rooms, due to the lack of control implicit in near real-time communications between users. Thus, they are more popular on socially oriented Web sites or sites behind a subscription firewall that allows the population to be better defined and controlled.
An auditorium is a forum for large numbers of users to participate in a formally staged event. Participants include one or more guests, a moderator, and the audience. Audience members participate by submitting questions to screeners, who pass promising questions to the moderator, who interacts directly with the guest. The questions, and the guest's response, are then broadcast to the audience.
As only a limited number of auditorium products are commercially available, many sites initially attempt to run auditorium sessions using chat technologies. The key problems with applying chat technologies to auditoriums include scaling and moderation. As a result, high-profile sites may need custom applications built to address the problems inherent in using existing systems to host large special guest events.
An often-overlooked but very effective way to build a user community is e-mail. An e-mail list is a set of users who will be sent e-mail on a regular basis concerning a topic of interest to each user on the list. The topic can be a particular aspect of the site of interest to a subset of the users, or it can be a general update on site activities. Regular, nonintrusive, informative e-mail is a good way to remind users of events, features, and new content on the site.
A good e-mail list package provides a set of list administration tools for users to add and remove themselves from the lists and for site administrators to maintain the list information.
A site manager should consider several factors before deciding to employ e-mail lists as part of the site's community suite. First, delivery time is not guaranteed, and in fact delivery itself is not guaranteed. Once the e-mail goes beyond the site, it might be immediately forwarded to the users, or it might take three days to arrive. Thus real-time reporting via e-mail is not practical. In addition, since delivery to hundreds of thousand of users takes a reasonable amount of processing on the site servers, it is best if the content can be delivered over time and scheduled for quiet periods on the site.
Second, e-mail requires some administration. Mailings will result in substantial undeliverable mail for various reasons. Some of this can be handled automatically and some will require human intervention. There will be responses from the user community to the e-mail, even if explicitly discouraged. This mail will have to be manually read and acted on.
The member directory is the place where users can look up information regarding other members of the community. Often, member directories include freeform sections for users to tell the rest of the community about themselves. Sometimes they consist entirely of user-provided information. Some sites allow users to upload HTML and images and host user home pages to the world.
The information included in these directories and the accepted content of user-entered fields vary widely between communities. In a system where users can enter freeform information, the site must be prepared to moderate the content of those pages. This can range from simply responding to complaints to screening all uploaded home pages before making them publicly available. The primary interface into the member directory is through Web forms. The system should allow people to enter information if they choose, control how widely it is available, and search other member entries.
The Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) is becoming increasingly popular for providing member information to e-mail applications and is likely to become a feature of high-end community-based sites in the future. Using LDAP, a user could easily accomplish a fairly complex resource search: he or she could search the community of Boston-area programmers, for example, to find all local programmers available for contract work who knew Java and relational databases and add them automatically to his or her (electronic) address book. It's unlikely that LDAP could replace a Web-based interface, but it could be a reasonable supplement for directory-oriented sites.
Most of us in the Internet community have participated in virtual communities for years, some for decades. We take for granted the easy exchange of ideas and information via asynchronous means online. We are largely self-governing, with the traditional rules of Usenet self-direction highly effective for the experienced crowd.
However, the burgeoning popularity of the Internet and the increasing access to high visibility media characters (now you can go online with Michael Jordan or David Hasselhoff) bring less experienced users into the mix. They have different (and higher) expectations for the technical capabilities of the media, have lower overall technical capabilities, and are generally not self-governing.
As a result, while the opportunities for enhancing your site with community-building services can be great, the strategy must be well thought out, and the execution must be flawless. Both the social aspects of online communities and the technical building blocks must work to support a community that will enhance your corporate activities online.
In planning a virtual community to support your online activities, the following questions should be carefully considered:
Given thoughtful consideration of each of these issues and careful planning, a virtual community can add significant value to a corporate Internet presence.