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Concert Crowd

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One of the challenges of running a business' website is finding ways to keep it fresh. Lucky for you, there's a crowd out there that can bring your website to life – if you invite them in. (And no, we're not talking about paying contractors pennies to write junk content.) You might not be able to crowdsource the actual content of your website, but you can harness your customers' energy for your site.

Help customers help each other. Google, in its younger years, had a customer-service challenge: It's nice to answer customer e-mail, but it's hard to scale that to millions of customers. Google was being bombarded with thousands of questions, more than it could practicably answer by hand – at least, not without hiring customer-service representatives by the thousands. So it hit upon another approach: Setting up web forums in which users could discuss problems amongst themselves and share solutions. Instead of answering each query on a one-to-one basis, moderators could patrol the forums, interjecting and answering where needed.

The result was a win-win, and you don't have to be an Internet giant to make it work: it's a great solution for companies that have a high ratio of customers to employees. (Forum software that can be plugged into your website is easily and affordably available online.) Since it's not uncommon for multiple customers to have the same question, a single forum post eliminates the need to send variations on the same answer to multiple customers. Customers can also find answers immediately, rather than having to wait for a customer-service representative to answer them.

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This isn't a one-size-fits solution, of course. Just as one-on-one support is difficult for companies that are too big, attracting a critical mass of users can be difficult if you're too small. A support forum never relieves a company from the obligation to deliver one-on-one support where it's needed. Customers should feel that they're being referred to a forum because they can get the answers they need faster there – not because the company doesn't want to talk to them.

Turn comments into conversations. It's easy to think of "content" as coming in big, paragraph-sized chunks. But keep in mind that a conversation between people is content in its own right – and probably even more interesting to read. So one approach to enlivening a site is to draw your customers into a conversation.

This is easier done in some contexts than others. You'll have an easier time of it if, for instance, your business caters to an enthusiast community, or a niche business. (Model train builders will probably have more to say to each other than muffler-buyers – but then, you never know. Everyone needs a new muffler sometimes.) Keeping an online conversation going is an art unto itself; it takes constant energy, and the host has to keep a steady flow of subjects of discussion flowing. But the reward is a site that becomes a destination unto itself, putting your business at the centre of a community.

How you achieve this is a different matter. Businesses that use Facebook Pages as their primary outlet will have an easier time of it, since the tools for conversation are right there. (Companies that have been successful say that lobbing hot-button discussion points as well as informative links into their feeds.) Alternately, a traditional blog can work as a starting point for conversation: Just remember that your content needs to provoke reaction, not just be read.

Game it up. The word "gamification" may have overstayed its welcome on this planet already, but the concept of inducing customers to participate by introducing game-like dynamics to a site is still worthwhile. Giving customers something to strive for, in competition with either themselves or each other, is a great way to encourage participation. It could take the form of a leaderboard for public acts like online check-ins, or, more overtly, a competition that involves submitting a photo or a piece of text. Users are incentivized not just by a desire to win, but by a willingness to share their content – which in turn makes good reading material for other customers. (Assuming, of course, that you've properly spelled out the submission terms and conditions in your legal fine print.)

Turn-key platforms like Strutta and Wildfire make hosting a contest that features user-generated content practical for small operations by handling the dirty work of accepting and storing submissions. Either way, a well-run user-submission contest once again helps knit customers into a community – and makes a website's content more interesting than one person alone ever could.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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