DazzlinDonna on Community – an Interview

In mid January I asked readers to tell me what they want to see more of in this blog. I offered to interview whoever’s idea made me “the happiest and most interested.” Donna Fontenot of DazzlinDonna commented that she’d like to see me expound on my tag line, “Using the Internet to Build Community.”

Bingo and bravo. Community is the topic, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather interview about community.

Elizabeth: Donna, do you remember the first time you made a connection between that thing called “computer” and the concept of community? Describe it for us?

Donna: The first time that I can remember (which may be different than the first time) was in 1989, I think, when I first logged on to the Internet via Prodigy. Actually, I’m not sure you could even call it the Internet, since Prodigy was a closed garden, but the details don’t matter. What matters is that I could communicate in all sorts of ways with people I didn’t know and my world suddenly became large.

Elizabeth: What is the most fun you’ve ever had online with other people?

Donna: I’m a programming geek at heart, so “fun” might not be the same for me as it is for others. But I think the most fun I’ve had online was at the beginning of two different periods of my career. The first was when I first began programming in ColdFusion, and was actively involved in ColdFusion forums and user groups. We would program all through the night, and the interaction was intense but fun. The second was when I first began diving into SEO, and again, I became actively involved in search-related forums and projects. Arguing, discussing, testing, and debating the various possible search tactics and algorithm changes was tons of fun. Both involved “new learning” and “shared knowledge”, which would have been almost impossible without online communities.

Elizabeth: So, why is community such a big deal, anyway?

Donna: Elizabeth, I’ve been watching several sites (both mine and others) take on a life of their own simply because of “community”. Let me give you a really quick and easy example. One site I track uses the old “sign up and pay a monthly fee” monetization method. This site does absolutely zero advertising or marketing of any kind. A few people have found it via some really long-tail searches, but the vast majority of the site’s growth is simply because one person liked it and told another, and that person liked it and told a couple of others, etc. People actually pay a fair amount of money each and every month simply because the community has recommended it. And the best part is…the growth is occuring exponentially. Before, it was a few people telling a few people, and now it’s a LOT of people each telling a few people. What was once a tiny community is now a really BIG one. I couldn’t have created a better growth model than that of building a community.

Elizabeth: What are some differences between search traffic and community traffic?

Donna: If I could only choose one, I’d choose search traffic, simply because it tends to be more targeted. Someone was actively looking for what my site has to offer, so the chances of converting that person are fairly high (assuming the search engine didn’t mislead the user by presenting faulty search results).

Community traffic may or may not be so targeted, depending upon what type of community traffic it is. A person stumbling into my site (via StumbleUpon, for example) is more likely to be just randomly surfing for fun, and may not stick around for long. On the other hand, a user who was guided to my site by members of another community (we’re talking word of mouth recommendations here) could be extremely targeted and extremely convertable. The good thing is that we don’t have to choose just one. The broader the reach, the greater the chance of growth and success.

One thing to keep in mind. Despite the fact that social visitors (Digg traffic, etc.) are generally here one second, gone the next, those visitors do matter. A large segment of people are exposed to your site. You can’t be expected to connect with all of them, but it is your job to “hook” as many as you can. Be compelling. Be interesting. Be informative. Give them some reason to notice you. If you can manage that, you’ll find that enough of that traffic will return, or bookmark you, or tell someone else about you, or link to you. They may seem like driveby visitors, and in a sense they are, but if you’ve done your job well, they will eventually have an impact on your growth.

Elizabeth: Are there magic ingredients that make the difference between blogs that have comments enabled and blogs that feel like a community?

Donna: I think the magic lies with the blog author(s) and the relationship between the author(s) and the readers. An arrogant, self-serving blogger may find it a little more difficult to nurture a community, although he or she may end up with a lot of comments. It’s kind of like the difference between attending a mandatory office meeting, and hanging out at a friend’s house to watch a football game. Both may involve a lot of communication, but which one feels more like a community?

Elizabeth: Can subscription-based monetization methods succeed without a sense of community?

Donna: Yes, certainly they can, especially if one has enough money to market the site properly. But you may end up with a lot of churn, in which you are constantly having to spend money to attract new members, so that you can replace the ones who’ve canceled and left. That makes it harder to grow, as the new members are only replacing old members, and not adding more to the community.

But, I come from a background of having to succeed with less than $20 available, so creativity has to be involved. The best way to convince someone to part with their hard earned cash is to have someone they trust tell them to do so. If the community does the marketing for you, you can get by without a big budget. And if the community is recommending the site, then the community is probably happy with it. And happy community members stick around for a longer time, which reduces the amount of new members needed just to deal with churn.

Elizabeth: How difficult is it to build a community? Are there any obvious community killers?

Donna: I’ll be honest. It can be tough. There are lots of pitfalls along the way. There are always naysayers and trolls that live for the chance to cause dissension within a community. The best way to handle these problems is to have help. As the community starts to build, find a few loyal members who have the natural ability to lead and the temperament to smooth things over. Encourage them to help build the community and the job will become much easier. In a forum, these would be your moderators. In social networks, these might be the most popular users.

Elizabeth: Can Web 2.0 style communities help old, established 1.0 causes?

Donna: Funny you should mention that, Elizabeth. As you know, I’ve recently organized a charity event that does just that. In fact, this not only brings together the members of one community, but adds some real weight to the project by connecting several communities together – all meeting for a common goal – that of helping a worthy charity. It starts off with a bigger footprint because project members already have readerships of their own and enjoy communicating with the public. In fact, you may have noticed this big, big, (I’m talking HUGE) event has already begun. (Forgive the puns, but I can’t help myself).

Of course, I’m referring to the SEOsFightFat project, in which 11 SEOs got together to lose weight, and raise money for a worthy charity. Each of the SEOs has their own network of friends, co-workers, clients, and associates. Each of these networks is a community, and by bringing all of these communities together, we hope to reach a larger audience. Of course, we are hoping that many people in that audience will support us in our effort, both by cheering us on, and by pledging donations for the winning charity. With luck, we can connect communities with communities to not only help us lose weight, but bring in some BIG, FAT donations for a good cause. That’s what communities are all about…joining together to share common interests or to work towards a common goal. Sometimes that goal is to raise money for a charity, sometimes that goal is to create a successful web site. Whatever the goal is, community can help bring it about.

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