Building Online Communities With Joomla

What is an Online Community?

For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to make the following definition:

A group that communicates online to fulfill a need

The naturally poses the question for you, the site creator, "what needs are you trying to fulfill with your site?"

I am sure that there might be more, but I am going to define 3 basic needs that could be fulfilled through an online community.

  1. Informational
  2. Economical
  3. Emotional

You’ll often see that recognition is sometimes quoted as a reason why people participate in an online community, but for now I would argue that is a subset of the broader need of emotional.

Very often, you’ll find that more than one need is at play, but to illustrate these three, here are some example sites where I think a single need is being addressed.

Informational

  • www.aicardisyndrome.org
    A support site for families with daughters that have a rare genetic disorder called Aicardi syndrome. One of our staff’s daughter has the disorder.
  • www.wikipedia.org
    A free encyclopedia built collaboratively using Wiki software. Also emotional as the community is in the people that build the site, not in those that read it.
  • www.joomlashack.com
    Community forum for Joomla website help.

Economical

  • www.warriorforum.com
    Forum devoted to Internet marketing, search engine placement and optimization, plus affiliate programs advice and support.
  • www.teachingsells.com
    An online course to create membership sites. Note, this is in economical rather than informational because the driving need of members is to generate revenue from their sites.

Emotional

  • www.dooce.com
    Popular blog about motherhood. The community is in the conversation in the blog comments between mothers.
  • World of Warcraft
    An example of an online community that isn’t a website. At over 6 million subscribers, Blizzard is appealing to some key emotional needs!

Its certainly debatable which category I have placed some of these, they are for example only. The key part is that your website is going to have people that visit, and people that participate. You need to figure out the lever needed to shift people from the first group into the latter. Let’s examine some important steps in that process… but first… an important note…..

I am going to start talking about marketing.

This might turn some people off, it may even annoy some people when I talk about non-profit sites for genetic disorders and marketing in the same sentence. Marketing is evil isn’t it?

No, its not. You need to be a marketer and here is why.

The web is a insanely crowded place and if you have a site, you need to get people to come to it. You might have an ad-free site, packed with critical information that you want to share. But there is not point going to all the effort if you can’t connect to the people you want to read it. On the web, everyone is in the marketing business.

I am going to borrow some definitions from Seth Godin. In his book Permission marketing he explains that your website needs to:

  1. Turn strangers into friends…
  2. Turn friends into customers…
  3. Turn customers into salespeople…

For our purposes:

  • Strangers are site visitors, lurkers and readers
  • Friends are members, participants and content contributors
  • Salespeople are Sneezers, those that will spread the word about your site

Its possible to break down each of the steps above to a key part in the life cycle of a visitor.

Turn strangers into friends Turning friends into customers Turning customers into salespeople
This is about getting the traffic to your site. It includes strategies such as SEO and advertising This is about conversion. having a defined plan of how you convert (get to register) a site visitor. Coined as viral marketing, this involves inspiring and empowering members to spread the word. Think moveon.org and grass roots fund raising

How do I get People to Come to my online Community?

Publishing your site is only a small step in the path to getting traffic. Unless you do
something else, your site will just sit there, and no one will know it exists. Unfortunately, unlike the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come,”
is not true on the Web.

We can split the different ways to get traffic into several main categories:

  • Organic. What was traditionally known as SEO, the idea of having your website visible in various search engines when people search for
    keywords.
  • Referral. Quite simply, the idea of having links from other sites to yours. These can be natural through attracting links to your high-quality content, or can be paid links or other techniques.
  • Pay-Per-Click (PPC). This involves bidding for placement on search results. In Google’s case this is called AdSense.
  • Email. Building an email subscription list is a key part of your plan so that you can present them with information that might draw them back to your site.

If you want your website to be successful, it is absolutely critical that you have a balanced plan that addresses these four components. Just focusing on one will put you at a disadvantage to competitors that have a more balanced approach. It’s exactly the same principle that your financial consultant might tell you: have a diversified portfolio.

Some of these strategies cost time, and some cost money. Even if you are running a local library website, you should convince whoever needs to be convinced that your website needs a marketing budget.

Organic Traffic

SEO used to be about trying to game the system. This worked three years ago, but
now search engines are much more sophisticated. Attempts to stuff metatags or put
lots of hidden text on a page are more than likely going to get you penalized. This next
point is very important to understanding SEO: A search engine tries to find high-quality
content based on a keyword search.

To be most successful at organic SEO, you need to meet this need. Create a site
with lots of high-quality content and make it easy for both search engine spiders and
human Web visitors to find and read.

In a nutshell, have rich page titles and turn on SEF.

Further Reading:
Top 10 Joomla SEO tips for Google
Probably the best SEO ebook out there
The Complete Guide to Joomla SEO
Alledia’s Joomla SEO Club

Referral

Referral traffic is off-site optimization and is the meat of SEO and is perhaps one of the
most important components of getting traffic. Most critical is the number and quality of links to your site. Its one of the
principle factors such engines use to calculate your SERP (Your rank in the search engine). So you get two benefits: pure
traffic and ranking in the search engines.

One common, but laborious, strategy to get links is to deliberately seek out and email similar topic sites as yourself and politely ask for a link to your site. This is generally not very effective.

You can
also find links to your site in other ways. Traditionally, this involves submitting your
site to all sorts of directories. I do not advocate this anymore as the effect of these
directories is diluted. Definitely make sure you do not pay anyone to “submit your sites to directories;
it’s not useful in regard to the amount of money you might spend. Having said that, there is one circumstance where submitting to directories
can be useful. If you know of industry-specific and topic-specific directories related
to your website, a submission can be useful. This is because links from a topic-related
site are worth more than just a general one.

Another place to put links to your website is in your signature on a forum. For this to
be effective, you need to do a couple things:

  • Find a forum that is related to your website based on its industry or topic.
  • Become an active contributing member of that forum. Place a link to your website in your signature, making sure you follow forum
    rules.

The nice thing about this strategy is that the more you contribute, the more members
of the community will see your link. It’s a situation where everybody wins.

One last note about linking, as well as external links to your site, internal links within your site are also very useful. Here you can really take advantage of some Joomla features such as all the various "Most Popular" and "Latest News" modules.

Further Reading
Don’t Use Metatag Tools in Joomla for SEO
How to get People to Read More of your Joomla site

Pay-Per-Click Traffic

If you have a website (Joomla or otherwise), and you have a vague interest in getting
traffic, then Pay-Per-Click (PPC) needs to be part of your SEM strategy.

Why is PPC so useful?

If you put an ad in a magazine about your product, you pay the magazine the ad fee, and it goes in. At that point you are hoping that the ad is compelling enough to
get people to call/email/visit your site. If you get no leads from the ad, then you still
had to pay the magazine the fee.

Google Adwords is an example of a PPC. This means you only have to pay for an ad if
somebody clicks it. The equivalent would be that you only have to pay the magazine if
you get a sales lead from your advertisement. No magazine in the world is ever going
to give you an offer like that—they would go out of business in a heartbeat! On the
Web using sophisticated tracking software with this kind of arrangement is possible.

Further Reading
Get more traffic for your Joomla website with Google Adwords
Is Joomla Adsense best for your site?

Email Traffic

A modern website should have many tools that allow two-way communication with
site visitors. A key part of this communication is the use of email newsletters. Many
people associate email marketing just with spam, but email can fill many needs, for
example:

  • Update emails about interesting current forum discussions.
  • Communicating with family members on a family website.
  • News and tips email from a topic niche site.

Recently, RSS has become more popular to send information to subscribers, but it is
only really adopted by few web users. Most still are using their inbox to get information.
I actually use an RSS-to-email system from Feedblitz on my site.

One important consideration that you need to immediately take into account is
how your website is hosted. Most Joomla Webmasters have their sites on relatively
affordable hosting plans that are called “Virtual Hosting” or “Shared Hosting,” which
cost about $10–20 per month. With this method, your site shares a server with several
other sites. Most hosting companies have an email sending cap in place, or worse still, someone else on the server can get blacklisted and hence blacklist your site, as its on the same IP address. A much better solution is a 3rd party hosted email newsletter application, like Constant Contact or iContact.

We have recently developed a free email newsletter extension called JContact that integrates Joomla with iContact.

Further Reading
Increase Your traffic with Professional Email Marketing
Detailed Reviews of Email Marketing Solutions
Find the Best Email Newsletter for your Joomla Website

How Do I get People to Join My Online Community?

So we have the visitor on our doorstep of our site, now we need to get them to take the step of (probably) registering.

Here the focus is on conversion. We need to start concerning ourselves with the idea of landing pages and Most Valued Action!

Show me the Banana

As you start thinking about how to convert your site visitor, you need to keep one very important thing in mind. Your visitor has a very short attention span and is ready to click away from your site in an instant. Your conversion page (which might be your home page) need to be uncluttered and focus on one obvious objective. If your visitor is a monkey, give him a big banana to grab, and make sure there is a big sign pointing to it.

A really great example is the current Plaxo site. Its very obvious what the next step is for most visitors.

 

Fulfilling the Need

We started this discussion about needs. As you are thinking about the design of your Home page, make sure its very clear what need will be met in your online community. Plaxo’s is staying in touch.

Optimizing Your Landing Pages

Whether you have a specific landing page, or you drive all the traffic to your home page, its worth taking the time to optimize that page. This is also know as A/B split testing. Its hard to do in Joomla (tutorial coming soon), but if you can manage it, it can mean a dramatic increase in conversions. Its much easer to raise your conversion rate from 0.5 to 1% then it is to double the traffic you are able to get to your site!

Take the Control back From Joomla

So your Landing/Home page is the most valuable real estate you have on your website. Joomla has a feature called the Front Page component, and I’d say that 99% of Joomla sites use it.

Don’t…

Create a static/uncategorized article and make THAT the home page for your site. That way you’ll be able to have fine control over it and tailor it carefully to your needs.

One challenge you will face is the tension between what new visitors want to see and need compared to what returning visitors want. Its becoming more and more common to see discrete links for people to log in and that whisks them elsewhere on the site. Plaxo uses this strategy. Joomla can do this because you can define a redirect page after somebody logs in.

How do I Exponentially Grow My Community

….to explode your profits… *cough*, sorry, momentary lapse :)

If you have a solid plan for addressing the first two issues described above, then your community should chug along nicely and grow at a steady pace. To really grow it fast, you need to engage in aspects of viral marketing. There are two parts to this:

  • You need to give people a reason to spread the word
  • You need to give people tools to spread the word

This stage is perhaps the hardest of them all, and there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. You need to carefully consider who your community is and what reasons and tools you can provide.

Joomla provides some basic tools like Email a Friend and the like, but to excel at this, you need to be much more creative.

What Tools Does Joomla Have to Build Online Communities?

Joomla does two things very very well.

  1. Its easily manages any amount of content, user submitted or otherwise.
  2. It easily manages huge numbers of registered users.

For an online community though, we will some other key features. We can find them in the form of some extensions that are available.

Forum
Its hard to conceive of a community site that wouldn’t have a forum. My pick would be Fireboard. It does lack some features of bigger ones like SMF, but it runs inside Joomla seamlessly.

User Enhancement
Users that register need to feel that there is part of the site they can call their own. The best tool to do this is Community Builder which gives a host of user based tools and features.

Comments
In a functional way, a mini forum. Comments can spark discussion about content articles and create that all important user generated content. My pick is JomComment for this (I use it myself).

With these three Joomla extensions, you’ll be able to meet the needs of most online community sites.

Summary

Joomla is a great tool to build a community website, but it needs to be supported by thoughtful marketing strategies. Slick widgets and social bookmarking don’t make online communities… people do. You need to make sure you understand their needs and goals for becoming part of your community.

Do you know any examples of exemplar online communities created with Joomla? I’d like to build an example list, please leave a comment with the URL!