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Your Turn

If you're considering adding community features to your commercial site, you have to be especially careful. Don't let the success stories above fool you, community features in commercial settings can go terribly wrong. Here are some tips for avoiding the big mistakes.

Tip 1: Be honest

If your site is about selling widgets, don't pretend to be anything else. One of the reasons Amazon.com is successful is that it's not pretending to be something it's not. Even the naming is important here. Calling the section "Friends and Favorites" is a great idea—everyone has friends and favorites. But not everyone wants to join "The Great Amazon.com Community!" Get the difference?

This honesty is important in other areas, too. When users complained about certain aspects of the TiVo operating system in the AVS Forums, the TiVo programmers agreed and said, "we're going to fix that in the next update." This makes the users feel like they're on the inside, positively contributing to the product, and valuable to the process.

The fact of the matter is, commerce communities have to be extra careful. Users know that your bottom line is about making money, so they may greet community features with suspicion. Honesty is the best way to disarm a suspicious person.

Tip 2: Be prepared

Let's face it, not everybody can be TiVo. If you open up your site to user contributions, you have to be prepared to face what might not be total adulation. In fact, you may get some pretty harsh criticism.

The way you handle this criticism will define your relationship with your customers. It's imperative that you are prepared with well-informed, well-mannered hosts to respond to questions and comments.

The value you create in your community space is equal to the amount of energy you put into it. Don't think that just because you have customers they will automatically want to help you out. You need to be there for them, before they'll be there for you.

And remember, when you send representatives of your site into the community areas, you have to make sure that they look like they are affiliated with the site. One of the problems with Amazon.com's community implementation is that when an Amazon.com representative posts in their message boards, the post looks the same as every other post. This makes it hard for community members to recognize the voice of authority, as well as making it possible for anyone to come in and say, "Hi! I work here at Amazon.com!"

Tip 3: Be clear

It's important in these settings to be clear about the rules. The AVS Forum accomplishes this with a detailed rules page. At Amazon.com, the user-generated reviews pass through a human before going live on the site to make sure they're appropriate. Those solutions may or may not work for you. Just remember to set rules and communicate them clearly, and you'll avoid most pitfalls.

You also have to be clear with the design. It's scary enough to some users to post some words on a site. But in the context of a commerce community, the stakes are even higher. As the site owner, you're asking users to give you their credit card, tell you what they think, and maybe even who their friends are. This is going to take a lot of visual hand-holding. If users feel lost and confused, they're not going to get involved.

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