Cool tools and tips to build a vibrant online community

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What are the most effective ways to monetize Web content?

It’s a question that features prominently in the confabulations and plans of creative and marketing professionals today.

But “new media” specialists with years of experience say making money off digital content – though important – happens almost as a by-product of community building.

Creating and nurturing communities of interest should be the main focus, says Amber MacArthur, founder of MGImedia, a social media consulting and online video production firm with offices in Toronto and Halifax.

She was speaking at a panel titled: TV Reframed – Who Said TV is anti-social? at nextMedia, a learning and networking event for creative professionals held in Toronto recently. The event attracted folk from the advertising, broadcasting, TV production, media-buying and interactive sectors. 

MacArthur is also host of Webnation, a fast-paced show broadcast every Wednesday night on CP24 that looks at what’s hot in the digital world, from viral videos to new technology.

She said posting and monitoring content on social networking sites, and then responding each day to audience comments is a painstaking task usually offering no immediate financial payback. “In most cases, you don’t make money when you post stuff to Twitter or Facebook. Still, you need to do it constantly, as it’s the way you build community.”

Live Twitter feeds and blogs — a great way to engage audiences

“Posting and monitoring content on social networking sites, and then responding each day to audience comments is a painstaking task usually offering no immediate financial payback. In most cases, you don’t make money when you post stuff to Twitter or Facebook. Still, you need to do it constantly, as it’s the way you build community.”

Amber MacArthur, New Media Journalist and host of Webnation

She cited the example of the live Twitter feed at the bottom Webnation.tv site.

The feed itself was very easy to implement, she said, and is a great way for people to comment on what they see on the show while it’s on.

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She said these tools — the Twitter feed, and the Facebook page for Webnation fans — all work together to foster live audience interaction, and are a great way to get audience feedback.

“At CP24 we have a Twitter ‘question of the show’, ask people to comment on it, and read their comments live on air.”

But the challenge, she said, is all the work that needs to be done after the show to monitor those posts and respond to them. “It’s not like I walk away and don’t look at Twitter for another week. I go home and try to answer as many of those posts as possible.”

Managing social media feeds linked to a TV or online video program isn’t a 9 – 5 job, MacArthur emphasized. “It’s something that never ends, and it’s not easy. I’ve realized it’s a big effort. But I think it the payoff at the end is great.”

She said by expanding the network of people who visit your site or watch your online video program, down the road you’re very likely to get more advertisers. “But if you’re always looking for quick opportunities to make a buck, you may be disappointed.”

MacArthur outlined a few best practices and tools that content producers and other creative professionals can use to creating a vibrant online community. “Use some of these effectively, and hopefully the money will follow.”

Facebook Connect, she said, is one of the most potent and sadly one of the “most underutilized” tools for community building in the social media space.

Facebook Connect is a set of APIs that developers/Web site administrators can implement to allow Facebook members to log on to their sites with their Facebook identify.

Facebook Connect — a valuable yet underutilized tool for community building

Through these APIs developers can access a user’s:

  • Identity: name, photos and events
  • Social Graph: friends and connections.
  • Stream: activity, distribution, and integration points within Facebook, such as stream stories and publishers

While logged on, users can connect with and invite their own Facebook friends and post information and updates to their profile.

Launched in December 2008, Facebook Connect is currently available on more than 15,000 Web sites, devices and applications, including CNN, CBS.com, Digg, Yelp, YouTube, Xbox, and Nintendo DSI.   “It’s so easy to implement and so convenient,” MacArthur said.

Rather than create their own commenting system, she said it’s so much simpler for sites to use Facebook Connect. “Then people can log in with their Facebook user name and password and comment. Their Facebook profile and picture will show up alongside their comments.”

Several comprehensive online tutorials offer step-by-step instructions on how to implement Facebook Connect on a Web site – either an existing one with it’s own user base, or a site that’s being built from scratch.

The tool, MacArthur said, is especially significant in Canada, which has such a huge Facebook population. “Here it really helps to build community, and gives the audience a sense there are real people interacting on the site rather than just bots.”

She said Facebook Connect’s convenience contributes to greater participation and interaction – and ultimately to community building. “No one wants to go and register for a whole new commenting system, whether it’s Disqus or any other. With Facebook Connect you’re already there, participating in that space, if you have a Facebook account.”

Elmer Sotto, a member of the Facebook Canada team and another panellist used an analogy to describe the “power” of the Facebook Connect system.

“It’s like you have a party at your place, and send me an invitation that gives me easy entry with my Facebook credentials. Once in, I can also then easily then invite my Facebook friends to the party. We can then interact with one another, on your property.”

One of the coolest features, he said, is that this “interaction stream” is pushed out to the Facebook home pages of participants. “So your own friends and family will see (for example) that Elmer is chatting with Amber on Webnation, and can come over to Webnation.”

Connecting conversations

But for companies that want to use social media to promote their brand and business, building vibrant communities of interest is only half the job.

Tracking what your audience is saying about your company and product is the other half – and it’s equally vital, another nextMedia panelist said.

“The reality is the [social media] audience is getting increasingly fragmented,” noted Michael Scissons, President and CEO, Syncapse Corp., a social media consulting firm based in Toronto.

He said a big focus of his company’s efforts is how to connect this fragmented audience. “So one of the things we’ve been talking about a lot is how to connect conversations across multiple, disparate global social networks.”

For instance, he said, quite often discussions about a firm’s product or brand happen on multiple sites – perhaps Orchid, or Facebook or the company’s site.

The community manager or Web producer, he said, is being tasked with monitoring and keeping on top of conversations on 50 or 60 different destinations – and it’s a challenge to do this effectively.

Other social media commentators have also commented on this issue.

In her blog, social media and marketing specialist identifies key challenges of fragmented discussions.

“Fragmented conversations across the Web and so many tools for sharing information can make it difficult to keep track of what people are saying about you and your brand,” notes Amber Naslund in her blog Fractured Conversations and How to Manage Them.

A social media and marketing specialist, Naslund is director of community at Radian6, a Fredericton, NB-based social media consulting firm.

Managing fragmented conversations — a big challenge

“The more a conversation fragments,” she says, “the more it can lose context and relevance to the original topic. Comments without context can be less valuable to those who read them.”

For business owners, brand managers and bloggers knowing where the conversation is happening, and responding to it there can be very taxing, she says, especially “if you have several brands and/or a lot of content that sparks discussion.”

She recommends a number of tools that businesses can use to monitor conversations about their company/brands/products. These include:

Google Alerts – That provide e-mail updates about search results for the terms you choose, including blogs
Technorati – That offers comprehensive blog search
Co.mments – tracks conversations related to sites you specify
Friendfeed comments plugin for WordPress users
Serph – A search engine tracking what’s being said online about your specific search terms
Addictomatic – a search engine that populates results from other sites and search engines.
Disqus – a comment system for your blog that claims to make comments more interactive and easier to manage
Google Analytics – free Web analytics tools
PageFlakes – that allow you to create a customized page to aggregate your monitoring tools and sites
Statcounter – free hit counter and web stats tools
LiJit – a search widget for your blog that provides stats on your visitors and what they’re looking for
NetVibes – a personal page aggregator, like PageFlakes

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