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Welcome Your Visitors

Visitors will arrive in your community with different needs and expectations. Some may have heard about your community from a friend or read about it in a magazine, others might have stum-bled across it in a search engine or clicked on a banner ad. Some are looking for information; others are looking for someone to talk to. Some will be searching for a particular item; others will want to explore all the depth and breadth that your community offers.

Create a Visitors Center

Although your visitors will find their way to your community by different paths, they’ll all be unfamiliar with the local customs and have many unanswered questions. For a first-time visitor, a thriving Web community can seem confusing and overwhelming. To make your visitors feel comfortable, you want to provide a place where they can get their questions answered and learn more about the community.

You can accomplish these goals by creating a “Visitors Center” that helps visitors learn what they need to know and find what they’re looking for. Don’t get hung up on the name; this area might just as easily be called the “Welcome Wagon,” or even “About Us.” What’s important is that newcomers can find this area easily, get the information they’re seeking, and leave with a good sense of your community.

In a National Park, the Visitors Center is right up front, marked with big, obvious signs. Similarly, yours should be clearly visible from the front page of your site (or whatever page visitors are likely to go to). For example, the “New to eBay” link on eBay’s home page leads to an area that gives an overview of eBay and answers the most common newbie questions (Figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2. pages.ebay.com/help/basics/n-index.html

eBay provides a prominent button on its home page to lead new users to a page designed especially for them.

What’s in a Visitors Center?

Once you’ve invited someone into your Visitors Center, what might they find there? Some or all of the following:

  • Frequently asked Questions and Press Releases

  • A guided tour

  • A letter from the founder

  • Membership requirements

  • A site map and a search function

  • Backgrounders and white papers

  • Your mission statement and backstory

  • An overview of features, with instructions for beginners

  • Policies and guidelines for participating in the community

Which elements you include depends on the depth and breadth of your community, and on the types of visitors you’re likely to see. If, for example, you’re running a narrowly focused community for Open Source enthusiasts like Slashdot, your Visitors Center might consist of a brief welcome message and a single FAQ (Figure 4.3). By contrast, eBay’s center includes an extensive collection of FAQs and instructions, appropriate for a community with broad appeal and a variety of features.

Figure 4.3. Slashdot FAQ

Slashdot (“News for Nerds”), targeted at Internet sophisticates, covers the Open Source movement. Although it has no “Visitors Center” per se, there’s an ever-evolving FAQ, written in a humorous, no-nonsense tone. They offer no welcome message, and instructions are minimal, which suits Slashdot’s audience of geeks and hackers who like to figure things out for themselves. Slashdot also includes an “About Us” page, which briefly lists who’s behind the site, and a link to the founder’s home page.

You’ve Got Questions? We’ve Got Answers.

Above all else, you need to make sure that your visitors get their questions answered quickly and effectively. You can initiate this process by creating a FAQ that answers the most common questions a newcomer might have. FAQs are inherently designed to evolve; you start with the most obvious questions and later add others that come up as your community grows.

In addition to FAQs, you may also want to include instructional information if your audience is new to the Net, or your community platform is especially complex. For example, eBay caters to a mainstream audience, and offers step-by-step instructions for using all the various tools and features. By contrast, Slashdot caters to geeks and hackers, who like to figure things out for themselves, so instructions are minimal.

If your visitors fall into distinct categories, you can streamline your Visitors Center by providing a separate area (and FAQ) for each group. For example, the “About Us” area of drkoop.com (www.drkoop.com/aboutus) (Figure 4.4) has special sections for consumers, advertisers, investors, and press. Each section answers questions for that particular type of visitor, so there’s less extraneous content for everyone to wade through.

Figure 4.4. drkoop.com Visitors Center www.drkoop.com/aboutus

The “About Us” section of drkoop.com is divided into areas geared towards investors, consumers, advertisers, and the press. This section also features a picture and quote from Dr. Koop himself, who, as the elder of the site, conveys a sense of comfort and trustworthiness.


Determine the qualities of your community that are most important for newcomers to understand at first glance and then express those qualities through images, language, and page layout. Your Visitors Center is a great place to express your brand; don’t be afraid to make a strong statement and show some personality. If everybody likes what you’re doing, you’re probably not doing it right. For example, eBay has garnered criticism for its simple, almost childish graphics, but they give eBay a distinctive personality and communicate a friendly, down-home attitude.

This is also a good place to tell your backstory—the history of how your community got started. (See Chapter 1 for more about backstories.) At iVillage MoneyLife, for example, the community backstory is combined with a welcome letter from the founder (Figure 4.5); the overall effect is personal and welcoming. And at Moms Online, the backstory is part of the “Help and Info” section, which includes links to many kinds of support materials (Figure 4.6).

Figure 4.5. iVillage MoneyLife Welcome Letter

A button at the top of the MoneyLife home page leads visitors to a friendly welcoming letter and backstory from the founder. This page links to more introductory materials and includes a site map and search box.

Figure 4.6. Moms Online—Help & Info www.momsonline.com/info/

Moms Online doesn’t have a visitors center as such, but it does include introductory information in a section called Help and Info. It would be even better to greet first-time visitors with a well-marked sign right on the home page.

The Grand Tour

Visitors have different ways of exploring a new community (see sidebar, “Player Types”). Some like to jump in feet first and start exploring on their own. You can accommodate these “explorer” types by providing a site map and search box in your Visitors Center (as the eBay and iVillage visitor areas do).

Others will enjoy a guided tour as a quick and easy way to get an overview of the community. A tour is another great branding opportunity, so if you create one, make sure that the contents, organization and look leave a strong impression. Like most tours, the tour at Parent Soup consists of a series of Web pages (Figure 4.7). The graphics are simple and fun; the information is presented in manageable chunks; and it’s always clear what to do next. The visitor is left with the impression that Parent Soup is a friendly, accessible, and helpful place.

Figure 4.7. Parent Soup Guided Tour www.parentsoup.com/tour/

Parent Soup’s simple HTML-based tour offers a good overview of the site, using simple graphics and casual language to communicate a friendly, down-to-earth feeling that’s consistent with the Parent Soup brand.

This approach gives you the widest accessibility, which is important if your visitors might not have the latest and greatest technology. However, if you’re addressing a more sophisticated audience—Web professionals, say, or hardcore gamers—you can create a more dynamic tour using a technology like Macromedia Flash (www.macromedia.com/flash). WebMD, for example, offered an animated Flash tour (Figure 4.8) that was fun, engaging, and appropriate for the wired doctors that WebMD is targeting.

Figure 4.8. WebMD Tour

WebMD, geared toward health care professionals, used to offer a Flash-based tour that took visitors through the interface and explained the system.

If you do create an enhanced tour, it’s best to also offer the simpler alternative, so that no one is left out.

What Can Visitors Do?

Like tourists, your visitors may want to get a taste of community life by hanging out with the locals. But because they don’t have a persistent identity and are therefore unaccountable for their words and deeds, visitors clearly need to have different rights than members. Where exactly to draw the line is a tricky issue. What can visitors do? What should they be able to do? Can they:

  • peruse the archives of a mailing list?

  • browse through a member directory?

  • engage in (or eavesdrop on) a discussion or chat?

  • challenge a local to a game of checkers?

  • start their own private gathering place?

The larger and more diverse your community, the more you need safe, somewhat controlled places for your visitors to mingle. (We’ll delve deeper into this issue in Chapter 6.) Visitors need guidelines: they need to know where they can go, what they can do, and what restrictions will be placed on them. To determine these guidelines, ask yourself the following questions.

What content and conversations can visitors read?

Many commercial Web communities—including GeoCities, Third Age, eBay, and iVillage—allow visitors to read essentially all content on the site, including message board postings. The idea is to entice visitors by showing them conversations and activities they’dwant to be part of. This approach works well for generating interest among a wide selection of people and maximizing the number of hits, which is great for an advertising-based site. However, some of your members won’t want to discuss certain topics with visitors around. You can resolve this by offering members-only areas while allowing visitors into the more public spaces.

Other business models argue for limiting visitors’access to contentand/or conversations. If your community is subscription-based—like the WELL and the Wall Street Journal Interactive (www.wsj.com)—it makes sense to limit visitors to a few areas designed to tantalize them into becoming members. You might also decide to limit access if you’re providing technical support to existing customers and you want to integrate that process into your customer database.

Can visitors participate in conversations?

Letting a visitor jump into an ongoing conversation is a controversial issue. Many Web communities—including CNN and Salon—adopt a read-only policy for visitors, whereby they can ‘listen in’on conversations but not participate themselves. This policy allows visitors to get a sense of the style of discourse and topics of interest but prevents them from disrupting the conversational flow.

Other Web communities—such as GeoCities and Talk City— allow visitors to choose a temporary screen name and immediately start posting in public chat rooms and on message boards without offering any further information. This approach helps visitors get engaged quickly and encourages people to freely try on different personas. Yet because visitors don’t have a permanent identity, they can easily disrupt conversations without repercussions. Whether intentional or not, such disruptions can be quite harmful to community life and drive away your most valuable members. You’ll probably only want to allow full participation from visitors if you have the resources to moderate the effects of uncontrolled access, and your community culture is strong enough to withstand occasional disruptions.

Can visitors leave their mark on the community?

One of the fundamental pleasures of the Internet is expressing yourself on a global soapbox. People love to see their words appear on a Web page, so it can be smart to let your visitors post a message in a public forum even if you’re limiting their access otherwise. For example, your Visitors Center could include a guestbook in which visitors can read other people’s comments and add their own impressions (this has the added advantage of giving you feedback on your Visitors Center). Or you could solicit comments on a particularly provocative topic, as iVillage does in its “Dilemma of the Week” feature, where visitors can voice their opinions alongside the advice of an expert (Figure 4.9).

Figure 4.9. www.ivillage.com/relationships/

iVillage features a variety of interactive advice columns, including “Ask Mr. Answer Man” in the Relationships channel. Every week, this resident expert answers a member-submitted question, and visitors and members can post their opinions alongside his answer.

Is This Community For Me?

After they’ve sampled your community, some visitors will be motivated to become members, while others will depart for good. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; after all, many tourists visit wonderful places once or twice and get everything they need.

Many community builders are overly fixated on moving people through the transition from visitor to member; increasing membership base is a key business goal and a common measure of success. But be careful—pushing too hard can backfire. People want to explore a place and understand the benefits of membership before signing up for something. They want to feel welcomed, not trapped with a used-car salesman who’s a little too eager to close the deal. Don’t waste your visitors’time with hollow sales pitches; it’s waaaaay too easy for them to click away to somewhere else.

Membership Has Its Rewards

Information is the currency of the Net—and you’ll get off on the right foot with your visitors by offering them clear information about the benefits and requirements of membership, rather than simply waving a big membership flag in their face.

In general, people join Web communities because there’s something that they want to do that requires membership. If your community offers some tangible and valuable activity that people know they want, your job will be easier. Someone can wander endlessly through the vast collection of items for sale on eBay, for example—but to make a bid on that long-lost childhood toy, they’ll have to become a member. People can browse through genealogy Web pages at GeoCities to their hearts’content—but to build their own, they’ll have to become members.

Assuming that there really is some value to membership (which is not always the case), be sure to let your visitors know up front what that value is. You’ve got a great opportunity to start building trust here, so try to avoid raising expectations that exceed what you can deliver. If you’re going to tell your visitors that your community is harassment-free, or that your service is up 24/7, you’d better deliver on that promise or you’ll be building a shaky foundation. Amazon.com doesn’t just lure visitors with a “100% safe shopping” experience, they also provide the policies, instructions and customer service to back that up. I’ve experienced this personally while shopping at Amazon, and my comfort level with them has grown because my experiences matched what I read on the site.

Getting off on the right foot with a new member can only make it easier to make them a valuable contributor to your community. Once you’ve managed to sign up a new member, your real work begins.

Player Types

In 1996, a longtime MUD developer named Richard Bartle wrote a paper called “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs” (journal.tunymush.org/v1n1/bartle.html), in which he identified four different types of MUD players. The roles he identified are universal to Web communities and are worth understanding for any community builder:

  • Achievers (a.k.a. Champions, Performers) care about being “the best” at something and enjoy showing off the tangible results of their success—whether it’s a Heat tournament trophy, an Ultima Online professional title, or an eBay feedback score.

  • Explorers (a.k.a. Guides, Gurus) take pride in knowing everything there is to know about a system and enjoy being in situations where their expertise is sought after and admired.

  • Socializers (a.k.a. Hosts, Greeters) are interested in people and relationships; they take pride in their circle of contacts and enjoy being at the center of the social scene.

  • Killers (a.k.a. Harassers, Dissidents, or Brats) get their kicks by dominating a situation, imposing themselves on others, or breaking the rules—perhaps by spamming a message board, using racial slurs in a chat room, or taunting and killing newbies in a multiplayer game.

In an online gaming environment, these player types are fairly easy to spot. These archetypal roles also emerge in non-gaming communities; for example, some WELL regulars habitually dominate (and derail) every conversation they’re in, while others enjoy showing off their knowledge, and still others like to greet newcomers and make them feel welcome.

Knowing about these types can help you build a more robust and comprehensive Web community. For example, consider the design of your Visitors Center. Socializers will want to know where the conversations are, while explorers will want to explore the breadth of the system, and achievers will want to know how skill development is measured. To satisfy them all, you could include a pointer to the chat rooms or message boards, a site map and search box for the explorers, and a description of any contests or rating systems.

It’s also useful to keep these player types in mind when you’re designing member appreciation programs and creating leadership roles. For example, you could create special awards to acknowledge members who share their knowledge of the system, which would attract explorers.

A special note about killers, or brats: The Internet is overrun with people who are acting out their aggres-sions, and if your community is successful (and public), you’ll inevitably attract some of these “problem children.” You’ll need to be prepared to recognize their behavior and not play into their need for attention and dominance. We’ll look at some specific strategies for dealing with Brats in Chapter 6.

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