The notion of community has been at the heart of the Internet since its inception, yet our understanding of the specific contours and details of what that community should look like have changed dramatically. Initially, we were driven by the desire to engage with people we didn’t know and grow our community, as shared interests and passions drove our desire to connect. Then Facebook came and changed the game. It led us to redefine the community to mean only our friends, and people we already knew. The platform enabled new types of online interaction, but was largely focused on bringing a digital form to our preexisting offline relationships. Today, a new form of community is being driven by two simultaneous trends. People are both seeking more intimate social experiences with smaller networks like Path, while also connecting with others over increasingly shareable content. The result is a growing need for context-based communities that put shared interests back at the forefront, while also emphasising more concrete interactions.

Today, social power and web traffic is concentrated on two or three network giants like Facebook and Twitter. Many businesses have decided that their online presence will consist primarily of a Facebook page, and perhaps some other social properties. Publishers and website owners produce content, build a community of interested readers around it, only to have that community socially interact around that content almost exclusively on external networks. Furthermore, Facebook’s diminishing organic reach is forcing publishers and brands to look for new ways to bring these same people back to their website –where they aren’t charged to engaged with them – and provide a comprehensive enough experience to make them stay. While there are a number of reasons why a Facebook page is not a substitute for a website, the most important one is that you don’t own Facebook. A website is yours; you own it. It’s your online property.

Strive not to be a success

In today’s new digital reality, the power has shifted into the hands of the consumer. People have limited patience and little time for things that don’t seem relevant or interesting to them. Online visitors especially are looking for something specific when they come online, and if they can’t find what they’re looking for fast enough, they will quickly bounce along to the next site. The necessary response was best summed up by Einstein, who said “strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” A key way for publishers to provide that value is to know their reader intimately, and creating an on-site community can be a very effective way of enabling a conversation between publishers and readers.

At a time when publishing business models are evolving to become more consumer-focused, it comes as no surprise that publishers are beginning to consider online communities a powerful tool and an integral part of the marketing mix. Putting this model into effect is a key way for publishers to market and sell their content to consumers. It allows their users and readers to not just consume content, but to engage with each other about the content directly on-site.

As a publisher, you have two main goals for your content: driving traffic to it and keeping the traffic on your website long enough so that it can illicit an action that will generate revenue. Although publishers and website owners already have a community of interested visitors going to their site to read new content, they are still struggling and striving to engage and build closer relationships with their audience online. Many publishers and website owners are discovering that building online communities is an effective, direct way to entice and maintain their interest. They essentially act as your “digital storefront,” because these online communities provide publishers with a way of striking up a direct rapport with their audiences, create real-time conversation for visitors, increase site traffic, and monetise effectively. The key lesson here is that there is nothing more effective for keeping users on-site for longer by interacting with them in a more personal and social way. The heart and success of your online community is the human element.

Social networks have shown us that people tend to stay where they can be social, and that many people are excited about interacting and developing relationships with others who share their interests. By providing users with the ability to interact with one another in addition to the company, publishers can build new and deeper relationships with readers and increase users. By growing and nurturing the community of website visitors which already exists on your site, businesses will be able to build customer loyalty to a degree that today’s marketers can only dream of,  in turn boosting ROI. It’s never been more critical for publishers to start working on creating an online community, and success in the online arena will belong to those businesses that organise communities to meet multiple social and commercial needs.