During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, you heard a lot about the "three Cs": content, community, and commerce.  It was thought that by creating websites with a balance of all three, you had a formula for success.

Then came the dot-com bust and few people had the stomach to talk about three pillars for getting rich online. Once high-flying companies were having a hard enough time just staying afloat.

For a number of years the concept of 'community' seemed to take the back burner. It never really went away -- people just didn't talk about community as much.  

During the early part of this century, larger corporations tended to focus on commerce, i.e., building out large e-commerce stores online.

For entrepreneurs and smaller businesses, much of the focus in the first decade of the new millennium was placed on (1) getting a website up and running, and (2) leveraging blogs.  Blogs are cheap, easy to set up, and within the ability of most people to write them.  No wonder they became so popular with small biz. 

Blogging, of course, is largely about writing.  For bloggers, the mantra soon became 'content is king.' There certainly is truth to that phrase.  Being found in the search engines starts with having relevant keyword-rich content.  Fresh content also helps draw the interest of readers and keeps them coming back.

Fast forward to 2008.  An interesting trend is growing:  the buzz phrase of building 'community' is back in fashion.  Community as part of a Web strategy is once again hot.

What community is

According to Forrester Research, 'An online community is an interactive group of people joined together by a common interest. It's also one of the most powerful tools a marketer can deploy for customer retention, word of mouth, and customer insight.' 

Jeremiah Owyang, of Forrester, notes that community is related to content and commerce.  He has published his community presentation on his blog.  Content is part of community -- that much is clear.  But perhaps the distinction is that content today is not so much about one-way content being pushed out to the public.  Rather, it's about two-way conversations.  That's key to a community -- that ability for people to participate and feel involved.

Sage Lewis, a search engine optimization expert from Akron, Ohio and principal of SageRock, defines it for small businesses on a more basic level in a recent video.  Community involves personal relationships and people, he notes.  'It's not all about technology.  It's all about people.  The point is, why would people want to come?  What's in it for the visitors?" Lewis says. "We're talking about very personal feelings, very personal topics.'

What business can accomplish with community

So why the growing emphasis on community?  Let me focus just on small businesses and offer three observations about big changes occurring on the Web that are driving this emphasis on community. 

  • First, there are just more blogs today -- and more competition.  It's tough for small businesses to compete with so many blogs and so much choice.  We small business owners are realizing that it takes more than interesting articles to retain the attention of an audience.  People need to feel involved.
  • Second, search engines, especially Google, are not a reliable source of traffic.  Search engines are constantly indexing new pages and constantly shifting rankings.  It used to be that you could achieve a ranking for a search term and maintain that for some time.  Now it's harder to maintain that great ranking, even with a blog.  Small business owners are starting to feel at the mercy of search engines, and don't like it.  Reduce your reliance on Google is now a growing chorus.  One way to do that is to build your own community of loyal followers so that you are not at the mercy of Google for your online success.
  • Third, small businesses and entrepreneurs recognize the upside of developing relationships.  After all, most small businesses get the majority of their business through referrals and word of mouth.  As more of our networking activity shifts online from offline, we see that we CAN create relationships online and that they lead to more business. 

'Community' is no longer some theoretical concept. Community is real and it can grow your business.  Shouldn't you be thinking about community?

Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.