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Online Community Handbook: Member Recruitment

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Learn some ways that you can design your community and website to be user magnets, attracting traffic while you sit back and watch the population grow. Also learn how to run successful recruitment campaigns and how to convert casual website visitors into loyal members.
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Recruitment Strategies

With the millions of websites on the Internet, your target users are unlikely to land on yours unless you take steps to help them find it.

If you are building a closed community for research purposes, you might only need a few hundred users, combined with a high level of staff involvement. Your primary intention might be to have ongoing communication between your brand and a select group representative of your target customers. In this case, it is probably not your priority to maintain a constant level of activity in your community or to create a momentum for viral growth.

However, most other community models require a larger population to function. You will need to achieve a minimum level of activity and content in order to give members a reason to keep returning to your website. Then the more members and content you achieve, the more momentum you'll have to keep growing. You need a recruitment strategy, and the time to develop one is at the very beginning of your community planning. There are two types of recruitment: passive recruitment, where users come to the community by themselves, and active recruitment, where you go after them, by sending an email campaign or advertising, for example. In this chapter, we'll show you some ways that you can design your community and website to be user magnets, attracting traffic while you sit back and watch the population grow. We'll also explain how to run successful recruitment campaigns and how to convert casual website visitors into loyal members.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 Bfriends: Nonmembers have many options for observing this online community of the German magazine On this screen, they can find active groups and upcoming offline events.

Recruit from Your Mailing List

An obvious source for active recruitment is your existing customer list. You can offer the website to your customers as a free value-added service: a gift to them from your company. Offline campaigns to promote your community can be effective, but there are obvious benefits to email campaigns, where people can visit your community directly with a click. Does your company send out a regular customer newsletter? Feature your community there. Also coordinate with your CRM team so that visitors are directed to your community when they register products online or contact your company.

Ground Rules for Direct Email Campaigns

  • Don't look "spammy." These days, everyone uses spam filters to sift out spam, unwanted junk email. In your email subject line, avoid using dollar signs, exclamation marks, and all capital letters, since these are common spam filter triggers. Even if your email gets through the spam filter, there is a risk of the recipient deleting it at a glance if the subject line, text, or graphic elements give it the appearance of generic direct marketing.
  • Make it personal. With any mass-mailing software, you can address the client by name. The more commercial and mass-produced your mailing looks, the more likely it is to end up in the trash. Consider taking a personal account-manager-to-client tone, and signing the email with your own name and title.
  • Keep it simple. The recipient is likely to skim or even just glance at your email, so simplicity and clarity are essential.
  • Include a call to action. What do you want the recipient to do? Click on a link to visit your community? Then focus your message on getting him or her to perform this task. Try to limit your focus to one recipient action per campaign to avoid diluting your message.
  • Be aware of the "fold line." This is the imaginary point in an email where the viewer would have to scroll down in order to see the rest. A lot of recipients are not going to scroll. So everything important should be above the fold line, and the higher up, the better. If you want the recipient to click on a link, make sure the link is visible near the top of the message, and repeating the same link in multiple places never hurts.

Recruit from Rented Email Lists

There are several specialized companies that maintain email records of millions of people. One of the easiest and fastest ways to get traffic to your site is by renting email lists for users matching your criteria. Companies like E-circle ( and Axiom ( have highly qualified data and can target almost all types of users. You can contact these companies and send out your carefully designed email to targeted users; this will generate responses almost immediately. Email lists are usually rented on the basis of cost per 1,000 emails sent. Therefore, you need to make sure your messaging is crafted to generate maximum impact for the email lists you are renting. If the messaging is not clear or attractive, using rented lists can be an expensive exercise.

Recruit from Your Corporate Websites

Integrate your community into your corporate websites with links and tabs; put up banners to promote it. If your company runs e-commerce sites, you can route customers to your community on the purchase confirmation page, after they have finished shopping and would otherwise log off.

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 This is the website of a German women's magazine. The homepage explains the magazine's community Bfriends.

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3 This portal uses extra banners to promote the community. (Box on bottom right reads: "Become a member of our community" "Want to discuss hot topics with other people, find new friends or exchange cooking tips? Join the community. It's free and easy.")

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4 The community for M drivers, M Power World, is integrated into the BMW website.

Recruit with Advertising

Where appropriate, give the address of your community website in your company's TV and print media campaigns and on product packaging. Choosing a catchy, easy-to-remember-and-spell Web address will make this strategy more effective. You can also buy banner space on other websites that appeal to your target population without directly competing against your community.

Typical Online Advertising Arrangements

  • PPI (pay per impression) or CPM (cost per thousand impressions: you pay each time the page is displayed).
  • PPC (pay per click: you pay only if someone actually clicks on the ad).
  • PPL (pay per lead) or CPA (cost per acquisition: payment depends on the viewer performing a specific action such as completing a registration form).

You can also negotiate coregistration agreements with other websites. This means that when users register on the partner website, they will have the option to sign up for your website at the same time. For example, when customers buy plane tickets from an online travel agency, they might see a checkbox they can select if they want to join your travel community. The travel agency would then send you the details of the users who said yes and charge you on a PPL basis.

Recruit with Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

You can buy sponsored links on search engines so that people will see an advertisement for your community when they search for related topics. Google offers an option called AdWords, where you choose key words to trigger your advertisement and set a maximum PPC rate that you want to pay. This functions something like an auction; your ad will compete for ranking against other advertisers who have signed up for the same key words. Read more about Google AdWords at Before preparing your SEM ad, be sure to check the ad format guidelines of the search engine where you will be posting it; Google, Yahoo, and other search engines have very specific rules about ad length, content, and even punctuation.

Recruit with Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

If your website is attractive enough to search engines such as Google, then you won't have to pay for SEM because your website will come up naturally in the search results. Search engines like websites rich in text content, so you can improve the website's search engine performance by including activities where members are generating plenty of text content for you. You can also plan activities where members will be using frequently searched key words. Many community websites specifically ask members to label each content submission with several key words to help with online searches.

One important rule with search engines is not to cheat by including search terms out of context or creating an artificial density of key words. If users are being brought to your website on false pretenses, they are likely to leave as quickly as they come, and this can create a negative perception of your company. Search engines have also become quite sophisticated at detecting and penalizing manipulation.

Be sure to tell your webmaster right from the beginning that SEO is a priority so that basic optimization can be built into the code of the website. Some SEO tips for webmasters can be found at Many companies hire a SEO consultant to improve their rankings. Before doing this, be aware that advanced SEO is a significant ongoing investment. Search engine behavior is constantly evolving, and staying on top of the changes is an around-the-clock job.

You can improve your SEO by sharing links with similarly themed sites. This increases your ranking for search engines within a certain category, and displays your links to potential visitors who might be interested in your community. Link sharing is a common practice, and you can write to webmasters of relevant sites to get your links inserted. There are also a number of services that sell links.

Whatever your strategy, be aware that optimizing your site for search engines takes around three to four months to start showing results, so some patience is required.

Viral and Buzz Marketing

Since your community website will have high-quality and relevant content, users will surely want to spread the news to others. You can encourage this viral effect by providing them with tools to do so.

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 Business network Xing: Viral elements to invite friends and colleagues.

Tools for Viral Marketing

  • Links to forward content. A member clicks on an option to "Send this to a friend" or "Email this," which opens an email form where he or she can put the address of someone who might be interested in the particular piece of content. The email should send a link to the content, rather than the complete content itself. Why? Because you want to bring the friend to the website.
  • Referral programs. Community websites often include a feature where members can send emails to their friends containing a link to the registration page. Referral links normally contain a tracking code that identifies the new member with the referring member. Members can be given various incentives to refer others. More on member incentives in Chapter Five, Motivating Your Members.
  • RSS links. RSS or Really Simple Syndication is code that people can use on their website to subscribe to content from yours. In this way, you can "feed" subscribers' websites with automatically updating links to your content. This is also great for search engine optimization.
  • Republishable content. Offering branded content such as images, Web tools, and gadgets for republication is a way to spread the word about your community, especially if the content includes links back to your website.
  • Bookmarks. A number of sites such as StumbleUpon and Digg provide small pieces of code that can be integrated into your website, allowing users to bookmark pages that interest them and bring your website to the attention of users who otherwise wouldn't find it. For example, when someone bookmarks a page using the StumbleUpon code, that makes your website more visible to other StumbleUpon users.

Ways to Start a Buzz

  • Humor. Maybe your friends and family are already sending you joke emails that have been sent to them. And if you enjoy the jokes, maybe you pass the same emails on to others. You can use the same principle to create viral marketing. If you create content that's funny enough, people will want to pass it on. And if what's funny is an advertisement or contains one, people will distribute the ad for you.
  • Tell people what they want to hear. The personal care brand Dove created very successful buzz marketing with a video that showed how the media uses makeup and photo editing to create standards of beauty that real women can't achieve. "You don't have to live up to this standard," "That beautiful model only looks like that because of photo editing": these are messages that women want to hear and send to other women.
  • Controversy. This is the riskiest strategy. If you break a taboo, or publish controversial content, it can get your company a lot of attention including free media coverage, but you have to weigh the risks and benefits carefully.
  • Break new ground. This is perhaps the hardest strategy. Invent new technology or a cutting edge concept that will attract attention and that people will want to see.
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