A few months ago, I had an opportunity to speak at our Business to Education Technology Summit in San Francisco on “Next-Generation eMarketing Strategies.” My presentation concentrated on how businesses could leverage the power of online communities to increase sales and boost their online marketing efforts.

When my presentation was finished, our managing editor, Dennis Pierce, came to me and said, “You know, Bradley, the same basic principles would apply to school web sites, wouldn’t they?”

I had to think about that for a minute or two. Schools obviously aren’t out to make a profit, but yeah, there were a lot of aspects of my presentation that could benefit schools. I told Dennis that he had a point, and he said, “Well, why don’t you write something about building online communities to help schools?”

Okay, Dennis … it’s a few months later, but here goes.

To begin, I define “community” as the direct and interactive elements of a web site. Polls, surveys, chat rooms, message boards (also known as “forums”), discussion lists, and any other functionality that allows your audience to interact with you and other visitors to your site fall into this category.

People participate in online communities to share ideas and experiences, to obtain information, and to network with other community members for personal and professional reasons.

The two most prominent community features are message boards and chat rooms. Chat rooms allow people to talk with one another online in real time. Chat rooms can be used in many ways: as regularly scheduled chats, special events or announcements, open or “free” chats, and question and answer sessions.

Message boards offer all the same possibilities as chat rooms, with one important difference: message boards are not “live.” People can come by and post messages, read messages, etc., on their own time.

A recent study by McKinsey & Co. sought to determine if there was a correlation between the effective implementation of electronic community, or eCommunity, features and an increased return on investment for businesses.

The study showed that eCommunity users accounted for approximately one-third of total site traffic, half of total site visits, two-thirds of sales, and were up to two times more likely to purchase online than non-eCommunity users. The study also showed that eCommunity users returned up to nine times more frequently than non-eCommunity users.

Obviously, schools aren’t the same as businesses, but I think you can find a return on investment for anything you do: increased traffic to your web site; better communication with stakeholders; greater interaction between students, parents, and teachers. These can add up to very tangible results, such as support for your school programs and greater student achievement.

One statistic from the study that really stood out to me was that some companies were saving up to 30 percent on their product development costs by leveraging their online communities. Companies also are going to market faster. The main reason for this? Instant access and feedback to the needs and opinions of their customers, and built-in buy-in from all of those who participated in the development process.

I think schools can reap the same kinds of benefits from building communities online. Schools can have continuous discussions with parents, get instant feedback on new initiatives, and keep the lines of communication open at all times.

What’s more, schools can use their online communities to “market” themselves to audiences outside their existing community (customer) base, just like businesses do. This could be useful as teacher shortages force schools to cast their nets farther for qualified instructors, or as school-choice measures force educators to expand their schools’ educational reach.

The software necessary to implement these community features is relatively inexpensive, and the technical acumen necessary to use them is pretty fundamental. If you’re interested in investigating how to build community components for your schools’ web sites, check out the web sites for PeopleSoft or ForumOne. Each site has detailed information on building and maintaining online communities.