Richard Millington Discusses Online Communities

Tom recently posted on SEOmoz about the nature of online communities and we got in touch with Richard Millington at Feverbee to find out a bit more about the subject. Rich is an expert in building online communities and is currently working with Seth Godin in New York.

Before we get stuck in, a big thank you to Rich, who answered our questions very thoughtfully and thoroughly. There's some really useful stuff here; read on to find out Rich's thoughts on how to become an irresistible expenditure to clients, the importance of online communities for SEO and how to come up with ideas that work.

1.How did you first get into online communities?

At 15, I became addicted to an online computer game called Counter-Strike. At the time all the online communities about Counter-Strike were exactly that, communities about Counter-Strike. They talked about the new guns in version 1.3, showed screenshots of the new levels in design. None discussed what mattered most, the people playing games.

Myself and a few began starting communities talking about the top teams and players. We talked about the rivalries. If a top player decided to change teams, that was a big scoop. Before a major event we would create previews of how they thought they would do, we reported on their preparations and highlights the key fixtures. We did play by play analyses of the top-games. We even had commentators for the bigger events.

It fostered an amazing spirit of community. In the summer of 2002, about 800 gamers stayed up until 4am to watch the top UK team compete live (over the internet) in the quarter-finals of the world championships. That's community!

Today all the big gaming sites do this. If you ever need inspiration about building online communities, I would start at places like Gotfrag and SK-Gaming.

I went on to work for several online gaming communities and a few magazines. I would have stayed on as a community manager had my careers advisor predicted there wasn't a future doing it.

More recently I drifted back through PR, marketing and social media to building online communities. I'm happy here, I'm doing something I always want to be better at. That's a good place to be.

2.From your experiences as a member and a creator of a variety of online communities, what do you think are the most important aspects that lead to the success of a particular community?

There are four key things here. The first, the most successful communities have been more about the members than the products. That's not a golden rule, but it helps if your community develops a 70/30 focus between members and the product.

The second is to forget technology and figure out what will make people talk to each other. Do they need to talk with people to achieve something? Do they need to exchange information to improve their lives? Are they looking to enjoy the experience of talking to people? Find that raw emotional drive, and work harder to develop it.

Thirdly, you really need to develop the structure that takes the work load off you. You don't want to have to invite every member to join your community. So plan ahead, what's going to cause people to invite their friends, and them invite their friends? How can you make it worth their time.

If you're vague here, you're going to fail. If your plan is to “generate buzz that will get people to join” that's way too vague. Be specific, precise and meticulous in your planning. Why and how will Mark invite his friends? Is he recruiting his friends to defend his point of view? Or for a reward? Does the top recruiter get invited to meet the CEO?

Finally, relax. Tell your boss to relax too. You didn't hear about Facebook or Google until years after that launched. You don't need as many members as you think you do. You just need people engaging at a decent level and the community will continually grow from there. Measure the stuff that matters, forget what doesn't. Don't compare yourself to anyone.

3.How is working with Seth Godin? Does he practice what he preaches?

Seth's my hero. He thinks on a different level and with a unique clarity. As for practising what he preaches? Of course. He's too high profile to say one thing and do another. He'd be found out in a heartbeat.

Working with Seth Godin is an experience I wish everyone could have. He provides me with the platform and the resources to act like an entrepreneur. It's the ultimate test of any employee I think. Give them the resources and let them loose upon the world. No excuses, no lifelines and no-one to coast along with.

I hope everyone gets to work with their hero. I hope you all have a hero!

4. Your blog, I Want To Work With Seth Godin, is a great example of you practising what you preach- can you talk us through it?

I Want To Work With Seth Godin is an old blog which had one objective, get Seth's attention. It worked. It wasn't so much a blog about Seth, as it was about using this approach to get your dream job. It worked for my friend Jed Hallam at Wolfstar and Matthew Watson at Rainier. Focus on the jobs you want, then build up your own marketing campaign to get them.

Over time it became more of a broader riff on careers, and I really enjoyed writing it. I want to launch another career blog in the near future. I think there's a lot to talk about. This massive change from salaried employment to picking up talent for one project at a time.

5.Do you have any thoughts about the role of social media in these economically wary times? For example, what's the best way to justify it to a business that's after a clear ROI?

Without meaning to go all Sarah Palin on you, I want to answer a different question. What happens when you get rejected?

If you come to someone with an idea for an online community, they'll probably say no. There's no budget for it. It's too risky. Or “What do you mean we can't advertise or sell to our own community”?

My suggestion is just to do it anyway. If you want to build an online community for someone, anyone, just go ahead and do it. They can't stop you. You don't even have to be directly involved, just enthuse a few great customers with the idea and support them whenever they need it.

If you come to someone a few months later with a community of 3,000 people are they going to turn you (and their loyal customers) away? Are they going to pass up on the free-advertising and WOM for life? Are they going to turn down the free market research? I bet they wont. In fact, I suspect they're willing to pay a good price to keep you and your community right where it is.

As an aside, recently I've dabbled with the idea of hijacking Dell's Digital Nomads campaign. The blog is too dry and it's not becoming the hub for nomads like it should. What would happen if we created a thriving online community of Digital Nomads and then approached Dell for support?

Would they turn us away?

6.As SEOs, we obviously care a lot about our clients' websites. How can online communities be leveraged to improve the performance of a business website?

Once you get past the basic internal stuff, SEO is about the external relationships you build. Who's linking to you? What's the anchor text? How important are they?

Whatever your client sells, you want to rank highly for it. If your client sells cheap flight tickets, creating a budget travel community makes a lot of sense. If your client sells upmarket sofas, then an interior designer or home-living community might be a great idea.

Specifically, the content generated by the community increases its search engine authority. It's updated frequently, it has lots of different members and becomes a great resource looking for people to find cheap flight tickets.

Second, everyone links to communities they think will help. “Oh I saw this discussion about where to find cheap flight tickets taking place”. That helps, it helps a lot.

Third, Communities tend to attract the people with the most authority. The people whos links do matter. You can do so much with your community. Especially the best ones. You can give members a badge they can display on their Facebook page, or blog, which links to your site.

Finally, you hit all the bizarre search terms. I believe something like 40% of Google's search results have been been search for before. When someone searches for “tickets under $100 to fly from romania to barcelona” - they might find a conversation that took place on your forum many moons ago.

7.How has working in online communities affected your perception of offline communities? Are there many similarities between them?

An online community is an offline community that realises the internet makes participating easier.

People forget that.

I get upset when the top community builders talk about technology. Pretty much every great idea community developers have been using for centuries, can be adapted for the internet. At the very core of building an online community isn't technology, it's people. What motivates people to take actions? If you figure that out, you've figured out how to build an online community.

8.Can you tell us which online communities you enjoy hanging around in?

First, there is this great big business blogosphere of ours. We're all pretty engrossed in this community, made more so by the joy that no company owns it. All these blogs, all these thoughts and all these ideas are without a real strategic objective. It's brilliant.

I spend time on Brazen Careerist, in two Facebook groups and Seth's Tribes network.

I'm also a member of an online community for people with a stutter. This is a really interesting one, because members, ideally, want to get out of this community. It's amazing that even here, where people go for advice about overcoming or dealing with their stutter (self-interest community), you get the same problems. There is a divide in the moment about whether people like me, with a light stutter, should be allowed to participate in the same forums as those with a more deep stutter.

Think about that. Those who suffer most from the problem, are the insiders. The elites. The rest of us are the outsiders, the less important members. I think that's a good thing. I think the extra wall lets them get far more out of the community than they otherwise might.

I hope speech therapists and book authors discover the right way to interact with these groups.

9.You're obviously an ideas man. Tell us about your process for coming up with, and refining your best ideas.

I steal my best ideas. I steal them from books, from blogs, from the news, on the subway and from hotels. I go back to whatever i've done that's worked, and used that. At the core of every blog post is at least one raw motivation.

I also try to be specific with ideas. It's better to have an idea that's wrong but can be adapted and improved, than a vague abstract thought. You probably read hundreds of blog posts a week, but remember less than 5? I'm betting it's the 5 that were simple, specific and useful.

As for writing the posts. I use Windows Live Writer and have about 30 potential posts in draft form. When an idea crops into my head, I enter it into the headline of a draft post and come back to it later. I delete about half the thoughts and try to write out the rest. Of these, about half will become blog posts, the other half either ramble or don't add enough value.

Before posting, I rewrite every blog entry to remove as many words as possible. The hardest thing is to delete a paragraph you're proud to have written, but doesn't absolutely have to be there. I try to keep mine under 200 words. I'm a stronger believer that what you don't say is as important as what you do.


Thanks again Rich. And to those of you that enjoyed the interview, please feel free to build our community by commenting below!

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