Community Appeal

Domenic R. Merenda
Affiliate programs with exciting new sales pitches and tremendous offers come and go — just a quick flash in the pan for industry veterans. New webmaster resource sites with far-reaching plans and great hopes pop up every couple of days, and many fizzle after just a few short weeks. What separates the wheat from the chaff? What makes some sites take off and grow prodigiously, and others languish and sputter, grasping for even a few steady bookmarkers?

The difference lies in the community features a site offers and in having the "special sauce" that makes members want to come back, again and again, for more.

The dot-com bubble saw the hasty and haphazard development of features dubbed "community building" or "affinity based." These efforts became the media darlings for companies touting improved customer aggregation and service differentiation. However, as each cookie-cutter community offering blended into the previous one, customers became disenchanted and ultimately disenfranchised, turned away by the very services designed to cement their loyalties.

It's important, however, to differentiate actual community features from the use of technology for technology's sake. A focus on community incorporates not only the features commonly identified with these efforts, but also an intrinsic strategy for introducing and expanding these offerings.

MensNiche, a company specializing in the sale of penis-enlargement and herbal enhancement products, has listened carefully to user suggestions, wrapping a wealth of community features around a message board that has itself seen modifications based on webmaster input. As affiliates began to rely on the MensNiche forums to discuss increasingly sensitive topics, demand for enhanced security drove a requirement for user registration before being able to view any posts.

Darren Beale, founder of MensNiche, stressed the importance of building strong communities to remain competitive in today's affiliate marketing landscape.

"Effective community features are vital to the success of our program," Beale said. "In an industry where there is decreasing loyalty, the MensNiche webmaster program has allowed us to engender a sense of community and togetherness that puts us in a position to compete on more than just payouts. It allows idea generation and feedback from our webmasters as well. Why have three people working on new ideas when we can have the strength of all of our webmasters behind each new feature?"

Beyond the standard message board, MensNiche engages users with thoughtful offerings such as a photo album consisting of webmaster-contributed material as well as an "affiliate of the month" section, highlighting those entrepreneurs who have gone the extra mile to make themselves a part of the community in addition to being successful salespeople.

While technological innovations and engaging features can win the retention game for companies with the capital to invest in them, individual webmasters hoping to take a bite out of the community pie have a different weapon in their arsenal: personal attention. TGP Asylum, an up-and-coming webmaster resource focused on TGP webmasters and submitters, makes use of less technology and more individual guidance.

But the Asylum doesn't go completely Luddite when it comes to cutting down on what used to be strictly manual work. By making use of RSS technology, the site pulls in news and articles from a wealth of industry sources. The information is free, and it's obtained without any effort whatsoever. Because of this automatic population of data, the TGP Asylum users enjoy a constant flow of information from multiple sources, while the site's owner, Brett Gilliat (better known to his users as Vendzilla) avoids the headaches and wasted time of manual updates.

"Our users have come to expect one-stop service at the Asylum, getting their news, chat, and a little bit of help all in one place," Gilliat said. "I wanted to start the site with as low of a budget as I could manage, and trading some of the useless flash and 'gee-whiz' features for more personal time with my users just made sense."

Name Recognition
Sometimes, a little name recognition doesn't hurt, either. When Greenguy, co-owner of Greenguy and Jim's Ultimate Adult Message Board, began his webmaster resource site with Jim, they drew on the fact that both were already familiar faces within the industry. When they embarked upon their new adventure, Jim had previously held positions as the owner of Ultra Cash, vice president of marketing for CECash and director of marketing at Flash Cash. Greenguy was, of course, the maintainer of Greenguy Link-o-Rama, the wildly popular link list made famous as much for its quality as its humorous layout. Both Greenguy and Jim came into the project with a captive audience, and have built upon that foundation in the years since.

Greenguy also credits the passage of time for his success. "The long and short of it is, we've been open for two and a half years," he said. "Before that, we each worked for popular message boards and people followed us to this one."

In November 2003, seven months after the launch of their resource site, the Greenguy and Jim Radio Network went live with the first broadcast of what would become a weekly show on a wide variety of topics, from Acacia and 2257 headaches, to interviews with special guests such as Playboy Playmate Neriah Davis. Along with the radio show, a newsletter launched barely a week after their resource site and has been pushing traffic to the message board and other features. The newsletter is always full of useful advice, news and commentary, ensuring that users are unlikely to unsubscribe. Because users remain engaged by this routine dispatch, it serves a dual purpose: It also provides a weekly tether back to the Greenguy and Jim site, and keeps contact with those who might otherwise stray to another resource.

Knowing your target audience and anticipating its needs is a great way to bolster your chances of success. Users who find everything they need in one spot are less likely to stray. Beware of a potential pitfall, however: Rolling out features faster than users are populating a site can give the feeling of a "ghost town" of sorts. While many technological marvels exist, no one wants to be among the first to try them out. Barring this potentially nagging problem, no other method of generating quality traffic beats having an engaging and sticky resource that will be visited by eager webmasters again and again.