Build an Offsite Community

People can be part of your site community without even visiting. 

Build an RSS subscriber base

Folks who keep tabs on your site's updates via an RSS feed are an important part of the community. RSS provides an easy, low level of commitment for those with moderate interest. Sure, you may prefer that people actually visit the site instead, but RSS lets moderately interested readers become part of a community without hassle or commitment that might otherwise turn them away. Keep those RSS subscribers intrigued by good content and offers, and they may eventually drop by to join your community of active participants.

Make subscription easy

Make your RSS offer big, easy to spot, and "above the fold" – that is, near the top of the page where visitors will see it without having to scroll. Using the widely-recognized RSS symbol is a good idea, as is placing the offer on every page – visitors arriving via links may never see your front page.

Popular RSS readers, like Google Reader, offer their own subscription icons that will let visitors add your feed to their list with one click. 

The Drupal connection:  Drupal automatically creates feeds for your site. Third-party modules such as FeedButtons and Service Links will create blocks with RSS subscription links, including link icons for specific popular readers. 

Invite visitors to subscribe

A lot of Internet user remain foggy on the RSS concept and won't recognize your subscription link for what it is. Consider adding a bit of explanation, like "Subscribe to this site's free RSS feed to receive automatic updates on new content."

If you really want to help out the newbies, add a "Learn more about RSS" link to a good online overview of the concept (or better yet, a page of your own that makes the sales pitch for subscribing). This video has also proven a popular intro to the still-somewhat-mysterious concept of RSS: RSS in Plain English.

Offer full feeds

The debate over partial or full RSS feeds goes on. One side says that if you want site visitors, you want partial RSS feeds, so people will come to the site to read the rest. The other side says that offering the full feed is a service that busy readers greatly appreciate; if they're really your target audience, they'll be drawn anyway by your other features, your site's community, your old content, and so on.

Web guru Seth Godin is in the latter camp, which is a strong vote in its favor – though he's also known to break common-sense web rules (such as that of allowing comments on a site).

Perhaps an ideal solution is to offer full RSS feeds as a thoughtful service to busy readers, but with ample reminders in the feeds that you've got discussions, additional resources, and more great content over at the site.

Gussy up your feed

There are services out there to help you manage and promote your feeds, count subscribers, analyze their actions, and even monetize the feeds. The Google-owned FeedBurner is, I believe, the king of that hill. More on this topic soon.

The Drupal connection: The FeedBurner module integrates your site with the FeedBurner service. Be sure to check its Read Me document for notes on usage.

Make sure your feed works

Something I've often neglected to do is subscribe to my own feeds. That's bad, as I then end up the last to know when my own feed isn't working right...

To make sure your feeds are right and proper,

  1. Subscribe to and watch your own feeds; and
  2. Check periodically for feed troubles by running the URL through FeedValidator.

Build a newsletter subscriber base

Whether or not you do this is very much up to your goals and energy. There are benefits, though. As great as RSS is, many, many Internet users still aren't even aware of it, while nearly everyone online is familiar with email.

Make signup easy

A simple form asking for an email address is all you need. There does need to be a confirmation process afterward, generally asking the new subscriber to click a URL in a confirmation email, to prevent fake signups. People are used to that step; it's not a burden.

Try not to make things any more complex than that, though. Don't throw a lengthy, detailed signup form – full name, address, all that – at newsletter subscribers unless there's good reason for requesting that info! 

The Drupal connection: The Simplenews module is an easy solution that manages signups, confirmations, newsletter preparation, mailing, and more. 

Make subscribing worthwhile

It's another foray into obviousness, but keep in mind: People will only subscribe to your RSS feed or email newsletter if they feel the "I can't afford to miss this!" pull. Once again, quality content is the key.

Even quantity matters here, too: If a new post comes loping around only every week or few, not many people will feel a need to subscribe out of fear of missing something. Conversely, if you're filling subscribers' RSS readers with a dozen daily micro-posts, you may get people unsubscribing out of annoyance.    

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