I've written frequently about the benefits and perils of the use of the "free" price-point by writers and content creators. It's a great way to enter the market, but it doesn't turn into dinner on the table unless you find a way to provide and be compensated for ongoing value. For companies thinking about designing community-facing services, the problem is flipped on its head: It looks like there is very little cost involved in adding a new forum or community, especially if you already have the community software installed.

The result of the apparently low cost of adding another community service on one's site is lots of new conversations, programs, series and so forth that lack real substance or value. These largely empty interfaces between the company and its customers dilute the experience of being involved with the company, its products and services.

For example, on TechNet today, we're working on cleaning up all the inactive forums that have proliferated over the years. There has been no governor on the forums service, so new forums have popped up all over the place, often repeating the subject matter and specific content of already existing forums. Community becomes diluted when customers can find the same information in many different places. That's not to say that a company shouldn't offer the information its customers need in ways that can be discovered in many different places and ways. Rather, it is important to delivering on a branded experience that the different points of contact--the touch points, the interfaces, the communities--be related to one another.

When a design has done the work of relating its parts to one another, information becomes reinforcing and useful. Users can identify redundancies without having to endure repetition, because the site or service surfaces the relatedness of information to help them avoid going down the same alleyway over and over.

Over the years, I've heard many people refer to creating a channel, program (in the television sense of the word) or a series of articles or programs, as though the first effort, getting the initial installment out, is the most important effort. You know the conversation: "We need a way to respond to customers interested in X." "Well, let's do a program about it, some screencasts." "Okay, what do we call it?" The naming and first installment are treated as the Whole Project. Then, the team moves on to some other problem. Customers interested in X have been dealt with. All done.

However, that first investment in engagement involves only the slightest effort, becuase it does not have to deal with the feedback from the market. The second installment and all future efforts must constantly embrace and adapt to feedback from the community, which entails the really hard work; the same is true for a web service, versions of software, a magazine, TV show or valuable community experience in which someone acts as the leader of the conversation. That ongoing investment in value is how to earn the return traffic, the attention paid by users. Without that feedback, it's a one-off effort that will die or, worse, turn into a festering sore caused by neglect of the customers who attempt to engage through the "free" interface thoughtlessly created.

Because it is apparently so inexpensive to create a site or service, accomplishments are often counted in terms of how many new sites and services are launched in a given timeframe. Yet, the real challenge is to turn each investment into a continuing engagement.

The smart thing to do is limit your efforts and concentrate on packing them with real intentions to listen and respond to your customer. Then, you'll have something meaningful to measure when talking about customer satisfaction, because customers will be coming back after the first one or two engagements.