For B2B publishers like Sift Media, a focus on online communities is not only a way to build and maintain an audience - it can also be a way to monetise it.
Sift reaches 500,000 business users in the UK across its portfolio of web properties, including AccountingWeb.co.uk, myCustomer.com and the hugely popular UK Business Forums - which attracts 400,000 unique users from the SMB sector each month alone.
Its business model is still primarily based on ads served against content. But over the last 12 months Sift has been giving firms the opportunity to sponsor community threads and forums on its sites.
IBM has got involved by sponsoring a thread on user experience on the firm's mycustomer.com site - which is aimed at marketing professionals - and Microsoft sponsors a UK startup clinic on UK Business Forums. So far the Microsoft sponsorship has generated 56 threads, 356 posts made and more than 20,000 views.
Sift managing director Tom Dunkerley told TheMediaBriefing how the process works: "The idea is they own the topic on social. We then seed that traffic in to a hub or a site, that enables further content and discussion to take place.
"We seed articles and seed to the community threads over a period of say four to six weeks, which supports those arguments, builds debate and builds further social interaction. That has been pretty successful."
Dunkerley says the idea is to create a trusted dialogue between Sift's members and their clients. That isn't always an easy task and Sift has learnt from experience about what works and what is likely to backfire:
-Lay down some ground rules: Be clear with your clients about what to expect, says Dunkerley: "The client needs to be really well briefed about the expectation of the contract they are going into us with. If you are involving them in a community we need to set out some clear ground rules from the start about how that is going to work."
-Don't try to exclude other brands: Because clients are sponsoring a forum where the key draw is discussion, you can't exclude other brands - and for sites like the UK business forums which host many small businesses with their own products, it's especially important to accept competing stories.
-Don't be too intrusive: Online communities don't like having a brand stuffed down their face. "We’ve had whole threads start up around the intrusiveness and that’s had a detrimental affect on brand ", says Dunkerley.
-Get dedication from clients: Sift has found that the most effective sponsorships are those where a client is prepared to dedicate a member of staff to engaging with the forums to create and maintain conversations.
Dunkerley says Sift Media aims to know more about its audience than any other publisher - which is a pretty lofty goal. Whether it succeeds or not, that focus means Sift is gathering a lot of information from interaction within its communities that can feed into marketing systems. The plan is to push that information - gathered through Sift's Drupal CMS system - into CRM platform Sales Force, allowing Sift to offer far more detailed marketing information to their clients.
Another approach Sift is considering, which has the advantage of delivering a recurring revenue stream not dependent on the ad market, involves selling add-on marketing services to members of the community that are already using Sift's communities as a platform to sell their services.
Dunkerley says: "In the SMB community you have a quite considerable number of guys that use UK business forums to sell their expertise, their thought leadership, and their products and services.
"What we need to do as publishers is to provide [paid for] products and services that enable those individuals to promote themselves in the right way to the rest of the community and give them an uplift on their existing presence.
"Advertising and online activity is being squeezed left right and centre, and every publisher will want a some kind of recurring revenue in coming years. We see these community based initiatives as a key part of that and if by 2015 it is not 25 percent of our revenue then I will be disappointed."