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Reward Your Regulars

After mastering the basics, a new member is ready for the next transition in the Membership Life Cycle: from novice to regular. Just as some visitors will decline the opportunity to become members, some new members won’t stick around for long. But others will find particular areas and activities that spark their interest, and will become regulars—the lifeblood of your community, both socially and economically.

To grow a dynamic and successful community, you must continually convert novices into regulars. You can help this process along by rewarding members for continued involvement and by offering new opportunities to keep your members challenged and interested.

Getting Personal

Regulars have mastered your environment and explored the opportunities; what they need now are tools and features that allow them to personalize their interface, communicate with their friends, and quickly find who and what they’re looking for.

Start Me Up

The personal Start page (discussed in Chapter 3) displays a filtered view of the people, content, and gathering places within a community. This feature becomes more valuable over time, especially for ongoing activities, such as discussion threads, gaming tournaments, stock trading, or auctions. For example, eBay’s personal Start page, My eBay, shows an up-to-date snapshot of each member’s buying, selling, and feedback ratings (Figure 4.15). The more a member uses the site, the more valuable this page becomes.

Figure 4.15. My eBay: Auction Management for Regulars

eBay’s version of the personal Start page is called My eBay, where eBay members can create links to their favorite eBay areas, view their most recent feedback, and track their buying and selling activities. These features aren’t very useful to a new member, but they’re great for a serious eBay user— especially someone who’s making their living off the site.

Many Web communities offer every member their own Start page; but a new member might not be ready to use it effectively. You should design this feature with your regulars in mind, and encourage them to take advantage of it. You could even offer an enhanced Start page as a reward to regulars who actively participate in your community.

Me and My Buddies

Another feature whose usefulness grows over time is the community-specific buddy list, which allows a member to keep track of and instantly communicate with others who subscribe to the same service. Pioneered by AOL, they have been widely adopted by other online communities, such as Yahoo, Talk City, iVillage, and the Zone.

For a new member of a community, such a list is useless. But as your members become more involved, their buddy lists will grow, and they’ll spend more of their online time socializing with their friends (Figure 4.16).

Figure 4.16. Talk City—buddy list and private rooms

Like many other Web communities, Talk City allows each member to create a community-specific buddy list and a private chat room where friends can hang out. These features become more useful as members develop a web of relationships within the community.

To incorporate this feature, you can license software from a tools company like PeopleLink (www.peoplelink.com) that offers buddy lists, or build your own proprietary list. Many community owners are attracted to the idea of a community-specific buddy list, because it reinforces the relationships people make within their community, and offers a unique branding and advertising opportunity. Although this approach can work for a large or highly immersive community, in practice, people often participate in more than one Web community, and want to keep track of their buddies all across the Net. If your members already subscribe to an Internet-wide buddy list such as ICQ (www.icq.com) or AOL Instant Messenger (www.aol.com/aim), they may find your community-specific buddy list too constraining.

For members, it would be ideal for all Web communities to somehow share the same underlying buddy list protocol, so that they could stay in contact with family, friends, and colleagues no matter what site they’re logged into. A standard messaging protocol for buddy lists is a possibility for the future, but until it appears you should think carefully about who your users are and whether building a community-specific buddy list would really enhance their experience within your community. (See Chapter 6 for more on this issue.)

A Room of One’s Own

Many Web communities offer private gathering places to all members, regardless of longevity. For example, any Yahoo member can create a private club that includes a chat room, a message board, a member roster, and broadcast mailing list, along with other group-oriented features. And any Talk City member can create a private chat room (see Figure 4.16).

As with the other personalization features, this is one that becomes more valuable as a member becomes more involved. (We’ll discuss this in the next chapter.) It’s a good idea to restrict novices’use of private spaces, and offer your regulars a more robust version of this feature (such as a permanent and/or customizable private space). This will give your members something to look forward to and help delineate that fuzzy boundary between novice and regular,

Building Character

One of the strongest attractions to being part of a community is a sense of belonging; as we discussed in Chapter 3, evolving member profiles are a good way to make your members feel at home.

The payoff for those profiles comes when your members actually have some history to track—after they’ve become a regular or leader (Figure 4.17). Letting everyone see who your regulars are will make them feel even more like it’s their community.

Figure 4.17. Clothes Make the Man: The Membership Life Cycle in Ultima Online

In Ultima Online, the look of a character, “Lloyd Bridish”, changes over time to reflect his development. At top left, are the simple clothes and puny weapon of a novice. Later comes the “Adept Warrior” stage, shown by better armor and a more powerful sword. In the bottom right-hand image, Lloyd wears the exclusive robes of a Counselor, one of several official leadership positions in Ultima Online.

If you succeed in making your community interesting to your regulars, some of them will want to get more involved and take on leadership positions within your community. The next chapter explores community leadership programs, but first, we’ll examine the role of a leader in a Web community and what features you need to support a leadership program.

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