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Project of the Week: Community.SBA.gov

I learned a few week ago that the Small Business Administration (SBA) had launched a new community for small business owners, so I asked them a few questions about it. Below are their responses.

1 – Tell me about the new SBA Community project. What is the concept behind it? What does it entail?

The SBA Community is an interactive forum and resource for small business owners. The site is aimed at encouraging small business owners to discuss and share best practices and to hear from industry and government experts on a wide variety of small business issues — from designing a business plan to filing taxes. Another important goal of the Community is to reduce the burden on small businesses to comply with government regulations by providing an ongoing stream of “how-to” content.

The Community has two main components: Discussion Boards and Blogs. The Discussion Boards are forums in which small business owners and SBA moderators can share tips and resources to pose and answer the questions relevant to small business. Some current examples of popular discussion threads include “Self Employed and Home Based Business” and “Government Contracting”.

The Blog section of the Community features a variety of business topics authored by SBA officials and guest bloggers working in conjunction with the agency. These recurring blog posts take advantage of the unique knowledge and expertise of SBA officials in providing useful tips and explanations of regulations other policies affecting small businesses.

2 – When was it officially launched? How will you measure success?

The Community itself has existed for over two years, but it was located on Business.gov, a former SBA website. Several weeks ago, the Community and other SBA resources were moved to the redesigned SBA.gov. Our main site now houses all of the federal-wide information previously on Business.gov, including the Community.

Like all web-based projects, measuring success is a moving target. We look at the typical metrics like page views and user registrations, but we also consider more qualitative measures as well. For example, we’ve received questions in the Community that have helped us to tailor messaging about our programs.

3 – Our readers always love the specifics of what it took for key projects. Can you describe what technology you used? Also the resources (internal/external) used to make the project happen?

The new Community, like our recently redesigned website, is built in Drupal. We worked with a small business (8a, woman-owned) to develop and build all of the technical components.

The entire staff of our Office of Communications and Public Liaison is involved in some way with the Community. Whether it’s moderating, writing blog articles, or helping with overall management – everyone has pitched in. Our future plans are to involve other SBA offices within the Community.

4 – What’s your advice to a senior leader who is thinking about launching a similar collaborative/innovation initiative in their agency? Why should you do it? How do you get buy-in with program offices? What are the best practices/ Potential problems to avoid?

The most important thing to consider is whether a community will help you to achieve (and measure progress towards) your goals. We wanted to reach a broader audience looking for small business advice, so for us, opening an online Community makes sense.

That being said, using web-based communication tools is not an option. Our constituents increasingly depend on interactive features, such as online customer support communities.

A good way to test out whether you can support an online Community is by trying out social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook. Many people look at Twitter and Facebook as a means of connecting with customer support. We found that as the questions from the public became more complicated, we needed a place to allow for more than 140 or 420 characters.

It’s always a good practice to develop a solid project plan outlining how individuals from your office will participate in the development and management of a community. Remember, to always think ahead. Part of your plan should involve your future objectives. As with any type of system or procedure, there will be bumps along the road. Technology is not perfect. However, be patient and always plan for potential setbacks.

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