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Designing Web-Based Communities for Professionals

Designing online communities for business is a subtle blend of creating the right business model, a clear understanding and service of member needs and a usable interface that enables professionals to focus on engagement.

business office

officeDesigning online communities for business is a subtle blend of creating the right business model, a clear understanding and service of member needs and a usable interface that enables professionals to focus on engagement.

Too often, however, the design of professional communities draw inspiration from consumer communities and try to mirror the user experience they experience on non-work based social applications. Frequently, there are far too many bells and whistles – gratuitous features – built into the design of B2B communities that can get in the way of successful use of the community of practice.

While sexy widgets are neat playthings for users who are browsing communities for social or fun reasons, in a workplace setting, they just serve as distractions to getting the job done, the information shared or found, or the connection accomplished to solve a business problem. One of the main reasons why online communities for business often fail to provide a meaningful user experience is a lack of understanding about best practice design for professionals.

With this in mind, I have invited my colleague, Tania Schlatter, to be a guest blogger and share her thoughts on building online communities for business from a design perspective. Tania is co-founder of Nimble Partners, and an award-winning designer who focuses on human-centered websites and applications.

Now onto Tania’s thoughts about context and guidelines to keep in mind when creating user interface requirements, selecting a designer or firm, and overseeing the design and production of an online community for professionals…

What’s unique about designing for a professional community?

Professional online communities don’t need slick features and interfaces to be vibrant and successful. In fact, online communities such as Usenet were at the heart of the birth of the Internet in 1980 and were successful in plain text – before there were graphical web browsers. Usenet newsgroups were lists of topics discussed by reading messages and responding to them in text. Even now, there are active online professional communities that use only text-based mailing lists for interaction, but they are dwindling as the number of graphical tools increases and the cost of developing with them goes down. Yet the essential ingredient remains the same today as it was in 1980 – passionate contributors – which has nothing to do with technical platforms, interface widgets and their design.

The proliferation of low-cost tools has created the expectation that a “best in class” community will usually employ the latest technology. How do you navigate this gap between what’s needed and what’s expected?

What is are the first strategic steps in the design process?

Before you make decisions about features and visual design, you need to know who is interested in your community and what their preferred tools and methods of communication are.

For example, executives we talked to in supply chain management were interested in being able to contact peers with whom they share an academic research partner, but they do not want to do so in real-time. How do we know this? When designing a partner-only site for sponsors of MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, we talked with executives and asked them to select the most interesting content and features from a list of possibilities. We also asked what kind of information and interactions they wanted, and how they expected to use the site. Before talking with the execs, the client was considering a chat feature. Afterwards, we realized that partners were much more interested in robust search features, a discussion section and summaries of research. Had we pinned the site interaction on chat, it would have failed.

The key to taking advantage of the tools available today is to base the community’s feature set on user behavior and how the tools fit their objectives. Learning about your community members in the planning stage allows you to make informed decisions throughout the design, development and management of the site. It helps ensure that the look and feel and features you offer match what users need and want.


When planning the community, it is essential to get input from representative users. There are a number of ways to do this quickly and inexpensively, although they may require a fair amount of management to identify participants and schedule interview sessions.

Identify 8-12 potential community members with whom your team has a rapport. Ideally, meet with them one-on-one briefly in person or schedule a 15-minute call. Find out what social media tools they are currently using for business, when and why they use them, what their pressing concerns are, and if/how those needs are being met. This number of interviews will provide a good range of input while still being manageable. If you have a community with a diverse set of user types, such as a community for lawyers that covers many specialties, you may need to interview 3-4 representatives of each major group.

Document what you know

  • Document the business perspective: identify and articulate the organization’s goals for the community. What will make it successful? Are there metrics?
  • Develop user scenarios. User scenarios are stories about who will come to the site and why, told from the user perspective. They should be composites of what you learned from the interviews and should define the most common examples of what people will be looking for and sharing, and the situation of use. You can create these with your own team or with the help of a community builder or user experience designer. Developing scenarios is a good test of concepts – if your scenarios feel forced, the team will know there may not yet be compelling reasons for people to use the community.

Visual design

Your community’s overall look and feel should generally be simple, straightforward and convey aspects of the parent brand to keep the focus on interaction and content. But “simple” doesn’t mean “undesigned“ – every element, intentional or not, will communicate.

At a minimum, the design of the community should include:

  • logo or unique typographic treatment for the name of the community (Identity)
  • color palette
  • graphic style for navigation
  • typographic treatment of all text including heads

Home page and profile page templates for invitation-only community for executives in the wireless industry.

Does the community need to look like the corporate web site?

Unless you’re creating a stand-alone community unconnected to a business or organization, the design of the community should relate to the parent organization’s logo, typography, and other brand elements. Chances are that community members are aware of the connection to a parent brand or sponsor, and that this is a key reason they’re drawn to the community. A familiar look will help people feel comfortable and confident that the community possesses the same high-quality characteristics of the parent brand or organization.

Communities often have a growing body of content. How should the content be structured?

Even blogs and communities need a solid information architecture. In an online community, this may take the form of categories for features and discussion forums, as well as tags that help users narrow in on the content that most interests them. Search is an essential and expected feature, and ideally provides more than just keyword-based results, such as results organized by type – article, discussion topic, video, etc.

To develop the information structure, list and prioritize features and content based on what you’ve learned, and have the designer or developer create a prototype or wireframe sketches. These are great tools for usability testing, and will allow the team to explore options for the best ways to engage your community members.

Wireframe sketch for a home page for partner executives of MIT’s CTL Program

What are the most important features to have in the community?

Remember the success of text-only communities? Include only the essential features that you know will allow people to find information, share it and exchange ideas in a way that fits their situation and the parent organization’s goals.

For example, features that show activity are likely to encourage participation, like a crowded restaurant: “everyone’s here – it must be good.” Other features are a less certain win. Josh Porter, a designer who specializes in community UIs, recommends the use of ranking contributors (“reputation points”). In his experience, successful communities hold participants accountable for their contributions, and the possibility of recognition encourages “good” behavior and discourages “bad” behavior. In my experience, like real-time chat, a feature like this is never an automatic “must have” – it can make or break a community, and should be implemented only if it fits the culture of your community and facilitates sharing.

After the community has been designed, what needs to happen to maintain it?

The key to maintaining your site’s design is consistency: using the color palette, type styles and page templates when adding content or making any changes. These elements are a rulebook for ensuring your community continues to look neat and professional. Make sure your designer provides a style guide or other document explaining how to keep the site looking great, and that the developer is willing and available to make changes if and when needed.

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Social Media

How to Define Your Brand’s “Twitter Voice”


Your Twitter is failing, if you don’t have a strategy and strong brand image behind it.

That’s where your Twitter voice comes in. It’s the strategy and tone that should flow easily through your entire profile. Want to know how to find yours? Read on below.

What Is a Twitter Brand?

To define what a Twitter brand is, let’s look at someone who’s rocking their own unique one. That brand…Wendy’s. The other-wise and previously non-opinionated chain makes a splash on Twitter.

No one was expecting them to “come after” other burger chains or even individual users like they do. It made a lot of people not only laugh but respect Wendy’s more.

And due to the way they conduct themselves on Twitter, we know Wendy’s doesn’t mess around with sub-par ingredients and practices.

Like the time they tweeted about using never frozen beef, unlike other big chains. A twitter user (who has since deactivated their account) tweeted them back saying that was impossible.

Wendy’s fired back a tweet saying something like “don’t blame us because you forgot refrigerators exist”.

A harmless comment in the long run, but it got the point across. We could write a whole article about Wendy’s tweets, but we’ll leave you with one more before we move on.

In a response to Bailey (@Mr._Anderson 36) tweet “@Wendy’s Where’s the beef?” The account replied:

“@Mr_Anderson36 In our cheeseburgers and on our timeline”. In case you’re behind on the times, beef is another term for a drama or disagreement.

Not into the catty stuff? Smart Circle tweets are inspiring, instead.

Defining Your Own Twitter Voice: How to Do It

First thing first, you need to understand yourself as a brand. What’s your image? What’s your brand definition? What’s your mission? If you are or you work at a well-established business, this is probably all wrapped up in your past work.

That means the about page where your mission statement and purpose are, but also the tone in past articles and publications. Even your Instagram captions define and describe your brand.

So if you can’t write out who your brand is and describe it in three ways, do some research. That’s step one.

Step 2: Find Your Audience’s Interests

Wendy’s is lucky in that they have a pretty wide audience. They know that they’re the “one” different competitor between McDonald’s and Burger King. At least that’s how they’ve always marketed themselves.

And they know that their followers see them that way too. If they didn’t, they’d go to one of the other chains instead of Wendy’s. So it was easy for Wendy’s to know that poking fun at the other brands would go over well, as a marketing tactic.

But you may not have that clear cut of an audience and there’s no one secret to finding out what they like. Okay, there is – research and hard work. Check out your current followers and audience. Who do they follow?

Who do they retweet? What tone are those tweets? That’s where you should aim to meet them (where they already are).

Step 3 (The Final Step): Be Consistent

Wendy’s doesn’t always tweet mean things, but if you look through their Twitter, you can definitely see their attitude. You don’t have to be catty or clever all the time but sprinkle those tweets through.

You want people to expect that from you. Deliver it more than or at fifty percent of the time.

Follow these steps and you’ll find your Twitter voice. It’ll take research and practice, but you’ll come off as and be more authentic along the way.

Want to know that we practice what we preach? Follow us on Twitter.

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Social Media

How Social Media Can Influence Buying Decisions?

ppc advertising on mobiles

ppc advertising on mobilesSocial media started out as an online platform for people to share personal photos and communicate with others. However, it has systemically evolved to become the holy grail of marketing.

Recent research reveals that social media is playing a major role on influencing buying decisions. This means that it’s about time that companies start paying more attention to their social strategy.

It’s unfortunate to see companies diving into social media marketing without any clear strategy. These firms only end up with disappointment. There’s strong evidence that shows that if social media is approached correctly, it can influence people’s buying decisions. But, how does social media influence buying decisions?

Buying Decisions

In order for you to understand how social media influences buying decisions, you should comprehend the psychology behind decisions. Buying decisions are much more complex than you think. Social media has gained a lot of traction for influencing consumer decisions because of these reasons:

Emotions can Influence Decisions

Buyers are influenced by emotions. People make buying decisions using both the right and left regions of the brain. They aren’t robots, so it’s highly unlikely that they’ll make decisions based only on analytical and logical basis. Think about when you’re buying a smartphone. You may have seen a photo of a cell phone on a social media post by the company selling it and then rationalized your buying decisions by checking its specs. This can happen with anyone.

Indeed, many people who purchase something say that they landed on it and had not thought about buying something like it. The reason is that emotions can sometimes affect our decisions and we can end up buying something we hadn’t planned.

We Are Naturally Suspicious

Sales representatives usually find it hard to convince people to buy. That’s because we’re naturally suspicious. Strong emphasis must be placed on establishing trust and credibility with customers before one can pitch their idea. In this regard, social media is extremely effective as people trust a product when they see that their family or friend have bought the same. They’re influenced by people they can trust.

Crowd Mentality

People feel safer to move in large groups. That’s because human beings generally have crowd mentality. Thus, it’s easier to sway people when they’re in group. That is one of the reasons social media is so powerful in influencing buying decisions. People will be convinced to buy something if they see their peers purchasing the same. All a company has to do is show them how their friends and peers have benefited from the same product. Thus, positive customer reviews are extremely important for social media marketing.

These are just a few of the ways in which social media influences people’s buying decisions. If you’re looking to promote your product or service, you should consider using social media as it has the ability to reach potential customers and influence their purchase decision.

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Which Social Media Platform Performs The Best For Start Ups


startupSocial media is an essential marketing tool for startups. It’s a great way to get your message out there for not much money, although it does take some effort to get noticed. When you launch your business, it’s a good idea to establish a presence on social media as soon as you can.

Stretching yourself across every social media platform isn’t really possible, especially when you’re short on time and money, so choosing the best one or two platforms to focus on is smart. There are several big name players in social media, and choosing between them take some thought.

Does One Social Media Platform Work for All Startups?

The first question that you might have is whether there’s one social media platform that will work for all startups. If there’s a king of all social media, you want to be on it. However, there isn’t exactly one social media platform that will work for everyone. Each platform has different benefits and it suitable for various content and differing audiences.

B2B brands might find that professional network LinkedIn is the best option for them. Fashion retailers could find a highly visual platform like Instagram to be the right choice for them. You can expand your social media presence later, but if you want to start with just one, you need to think about which one is best for your startup specifically.

What to Consider to Choose the Best Network

You might want to take the overall numbers of each of the highest performing platforms. If you’re looking for the biggest audience, you’ll find it on Facebook where more than two billion people can be found each month. It’s followed by the likes of YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram and Tumblr. However, numbers aren’t everything. It’s not just about founding the most users, but also the most suitable audience for your startup. When you’re trying to decide which platform to start with, you should consider the demographics of your target audience.

Younger social media users are increasingly choosing platforms like Instagram and Snapchat over Facebook. Pinterest has more female users than male, while LinkedIn is clearly better for targeting other businesses and professionals.

You need to think about your goals before you choose a social media platform. What sort of content will you be sharing? How do you want to communicate with your audience?

The Benefits of the Major Players

Every social media platform offers different benefits to startups. It’s important to know how each one could help you to reach your audience and promote your startup business.


Facebook has the most users of any social network, but it’s important to recognize that things are starting to shift. There’s a great range of users across different ages, locations and genders, but younger people are starting to move away from it. Facebook is excellent for posting a range of different content, from links and text posts to images and videos. It also has its own PPC advertising platform, and you can pay to promote your posts too.


LinkedIn is best for any startups trying to reach professionals and other businesses. If you’re promoting a B2B business, looking for staff or perhaps trying to connect with other business people for funding purposes, LinkedIn is a great choice.


Twitter can help you to get in touch with professionals, but it’s good for B2C brands too. The short posts can be good for conversation and banter, and several brands have found success with humorous Twitter interactions. Twitter doesn’t have the highest user base, but there are still plenty of people on there.


Instagram is a visual platform, perfect for sharing photos, videos and Stories, which lets you share a series of photos or video clips. The audience on Instagram is a little younger than some other platforms, so it’s ideal for finding a younger audience.

Using Social Media Together With Your Blog

Blog posts provide the perfect content to share on social media. A business blog is an essential content marketing strategy, so get started by setting up a blog on your website. By writing regular posts and sharing them on your social media channels, you can bring more people to your site. When you share on social media, for example by creating a Facebook post or tweeting a link to your blog post, you can use social media tools to monitor the performance of your post and see how people are engaging in it. For example, Facebook offers you analytics so you can see how many people have clicked on your link, on your post or on your page.

You need to choose the right social media platform for your startup by considering your audience. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn may be better for sharing blog posts than more visual networks.

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