Building Online Communities.
When you're thinking of starting a website, you have a few problems. Where will you get content from? How do you keep visitors coming back? When you make your website an online community, though, you can solve all these problems at a stroke.
The Advantages of Communities.
On a community website, people come there mainly to communicate with the other visitors – your role is to set up the software that makes this possible, handling the technical side of things. Once your visitors make friends and find that people posting give them useful information (or just amusing writing), they will keep coming back, day after day, often even making time for it when they really ought to be doing something else. Even better, you don't have to pay anyone to produce content, because the members of your community are producing more content for each other than you could ever hope to commission commercially. The only rewards they ask for are the replies they get from other members.
Altogether, this adds up to an attractive proposition. Even better is the fact that the owners of online communities tend to quickly acquire cult leader-like status thanks to their ability to make the final decision when it comes to deciding who can be part of the community and who can't. Members don't even slightly resent supporting them, and will donate over and over again to make the website better – not only will they tolerate ads, but they'll click on them more in an effort to support you. There are forums out there that run entirely on community contributions: the Something Awful community forums and Metafilter community weblog, for example, charge $10 and $5 respectively per membership, and yet both have tens of thousands of members.
What You Need for Your Community.
Of course, thousands of members don't just appear overnight. To get people to start coming and writing in the hope of getting a response, you need to give them a reason to come to your website in the first place.
In many cases, your software will be what differentiates you. You're likely to be competing with other, similar community websites, and providing better features than the next guy can drive a surprising number of visitors to your website. If you listen to and act on every request, you can't do far wrong – find out the visitors' ideal features, and go out of your way to provide them, whatever they might be.
Another excellent way to build initial traffic to your site is to provide some data that's rare or difficult to get elsewhere, or to organise data in a way that will be especially useful to a certain community. You could, for example, compile live stock price data in a way relevant to a certain business sector, or organise TV listings so that they show all the times a certain show can be seen, whatever channel it's on. If you can find something unique, people will flock to it and love it.
Advertising a Community Website.
One thing to note about this kind of website is that they don't respond well to traditional promotion – few people will respond positively to an ad asking them to join a community. Why should they write for you when you're obviously only in it for commercial gain? Instead, you should make sure your community relates to something you have a genuine interest in, and then promote it casually in other relevant communities. An ideal situation is one where the owner of an existing website doesn't have the time for it any more, and you can move their community over to your site – this kind of 'evacuation' can give your site a thriving community overnight.
Once you've got a community, of course, don't underestimate how much promotion its members will do themselves: they will link it from everywhere they get a chance to put links, email things from it to friends, show it to people they know and get them to join – the possibilities are endless. If you care for your community properly, it will pay you back many times over.