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Communities key to diversifying revenues, say B2B publishers

Display advertising is just one of several important revenue streams for digital business publishers, said the speakers at AOP’s B2B forum on 29 April, and online communities can be a key factor in developing diversified revenue streams even further.

They may not always bring an instant surge in traffic, but are crucial for building a loyal, engaged user base, and can provide a massive boost to your market research efforts.

Tony Hallett, CBS Interactive's Editorial Director of Technology and Business gave a definitive set of tips around community, from a publisher that started developing its own social network around in-house in 2006, before most people in the UK had even heard of Mark Zuckerberg, or poking:

  • "Be flexible, but know what you want to achieve from the start" (you can, of course, be flexible on your aims as you progress)
  • If your aim is to build engagement, define from the start what that ‘engagement’ means
  • Build in stages, not a ‘big bang’
  • Don’t think community will shift your workload to readers - think of it as extra work, with reward
  • Don’t attempt to replicate social networking sites
  • There are big overheads for maintaining community functionality built in-house, while there are plenty of open source alternatives to building from scratch
  • Media gives the contributors to (and many other online communities) kudos - when they Google themselves, this is what they see. Sites like Silicon offer them a new way to manage their reputations within their industry profile pageUser profile on ZDNet - incorporating interests, reviews, discussions & personal blog
  • Allowing user profiles on ZDNet has proved a killer feature, said Hallett, which has ultimately allowed the site to develop a "virtual editorial board"

"Selling an idea, not a circulation figure"

Moving on to the subject of how publishers can use social media to build a loyal following via external sites, John Welsh, Digital Director at UBM Live said "we’re all building our personal brands online... everyone can be an ‘influencer’."

Facebook is ideally suited to TTG’s target audience, and has a well-established group on the site, though the panellists agreed, for most others, it’s one to steer clear of for B2B - a "horrible mix" of work and personal contacts.

The first generation web was about "bald statistics", said Welsh - UUs and page impressions. "To effectively sell a brand, “you sell an idea, not a circulation figure”. Online sales teams have been weakened in the past, unable to "sell a story", he added, and this is where communities can be crucial to our commercial offerings.

Twitter bringing “core delivery to your target audience”

“Networks can filter signals from noise” said Welsh, signalling Twitter’s use as a kind of turbo-charged RSS reader. He is particularly proud of the Publican’s editorial team presence there: with 6 individual Publican Twitter accounts, each has its own select niche industry audience (wherever possible, "niche your niche", advised Welsh.)

The move from push (ie - 'the old days of email') to pull methods of content delivery, is matched by a change from online traffic fluctuating in peaks and troughs, to consistent growth, as brands build loyalty and engagement.

The aim, said Welsh, should never have been to seek out "millions of the wrong people... just some of the right people."

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less”

PharmiWeb Solutions is also making effective use of Twitter, said Paul Hartigan, CEO of the pharma and healthcare publisher. While this sector has not always been at the forefront of changes on the web, as Hartigan’s Sales Director is fond of quoting: “if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less”.

With this in mind, PharmiWeb is making significant innovations in its niche, for instance, enabling doctors to set up their own micro-communities online, allowing for a far “deeper and richer engagement with the audience.”

Online and face-to-face both “all about people”

Ben Heald, CEO of Sift
Engaged communities are an ideal resource to build face-to-face events around, added Sift CEO Ben Heald: “Online and face-to-face are all about people”, and many campaigns can include both.

One of Sift’s clients, Oracle, was quoted as saying: “the online journey to an event is crucial”, and online communities provide this data in spades.

“Face-to-face hasn’t changed” and is still as important to B2B publishers as ever, added Tony Hallett.

Are community managers commercial?

With experience at CompuServe stretching back to the mid-90s, Sift, and its CEO Ben Heald have experience managing online communities stretching back to the birth of the web as we know it.

Though the AOP panel advocated an editorial approach to community, Heald added that community managers "must be commercial and must meet advertising clients".

Advertisers and PR people involved in your site should in turn join and contribute to the community, “forming a part of the thought leadership.”

From personal experience, Heald agreed with Hallett that building communities in-house could be a painful experience, saying that his sites were now running on the open source Drupal platform.

Publishers using open source, added Heald, must in turn “give something back” by contributing to the development of the free service.

International potential for niches?

Niches can be made international, as PharmiWeb is finding, through the forging of a global network of partner sites with similar interests. In a similar vein CBS’ largely UK-based is in talks to collaborate with the publisher’s US-based TechRepublic, which has a global reach.

The event was chaired by Dominic Feltham, Managing Director of Reed Business Information.

Members can download presentations from John Welsh and Ben Heald.

The next AOP forum will cover monetising global audiences, and takes place on 8 July at Olswang.

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