Companies Use Online Communities to Grow

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To determine how the site should be redesigned to suit users’ needs, ACS worked with Cambridge, Mass.-based systems integrator Sapient. Members of the two organizations virtually lived with cancer patients for a week to learn about their lives, the information they needed and the support they sought. Based on that experience, they drew up scenarios illustrating why a person visits Cancer.org and how they move through the site. For example, they determined that Joe?a hypothetical individual recently diagnosed with prostate cancer?would first come to Cancer.org looking for basic information about the disease and treatment, so ACS put those links on the homepage. He might then be interested in finding out about support groups near where he lives, so ACS put a search function on the homepage where Joe could enter his ZIP code and find out about events in his community. Joe can also find out about support services when he links to general information on prostate cancer. Eventually, Joe will want to know what questions he should ask his doctor, or what he should be monitoring during his treatment. ACS decided that it was best for him to get this advice from fellow patients and survivors, so it put links to chat rooms and bulletin boards both on its homepage and on pages with information on the disease.

Even before the redesign, the ACS chat rooms and message boards were immensely popular, accounting for 27 percent of the traffic to the site, according to Miller. Eighteen percent of the user population was active in discussions on an ongoing basis, he says. (As CIO went to print, Miller was still configuring the site’s reporting software and didn’t have usage numbers for the community forums on the new site.)

ACS’s community-building also has a bottom-line component. Miller says creating a sense of community among ACS’s constituents helps the organization grow its relationships with them. "If someone comes to us and is interested in volunteering, we want to convert them into someone who also donates. If someone comes to us looking for general health information, we want to convert them to somebody who volunteers for us," he says.

Offering a sense of community also ties people to ACS and its mission. Miller says ACS’s constituents have a sense of loyalty to the organization because they’re a part of the website’s community. "For a nonprofit, that means you’re always going to be at the top of a person’s mind when they start thinking about donations," he says.

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Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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