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AccountingWEB: a model community

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AccountingWEB has been running for some 15 years, which makes it one of the longest-established communities on the Web. I'm not even sure there was a Web 15 years ago. And the slick website oozes confidence. Simply reading the numbers of reads or comments for content on the home page makes you realise this is a thriving site: over 8,000 reads for "the worst mistake accountants make" (strange that such a story should be so popular with accountants), 7,700 reads for a new article about an accountant fined by his professional association for abusing HM Revenue & Customs officials. Even for a site that is entirely free to access, that is a lot of traffic. What is the secret of AccountingWEB's success?

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One way of assessing what users like about this community is to see the number of posts. Everything on the site has the number of reads and comments listed, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the posts with the largest numbers of hits tend to be news items. This would appear to contradict Richard Millington's advice (in his recent book Building Communities) that news on community sites should be focused on the community itself rather than on the general sector. Mercifully, AccountingWEB ignores this advice and comes up with some entertaining general news stories.

Apart from news, there are five main themes, refleecting major segments in the accounting business: tax, tech, business, practice, and financial reporting. Other large-scale features include forums (here called discussions), blogs, plus of course suppliers (companies offering stuff) and opportunities (offers of work). A surprising amount of the site appears to be self-regulating and self-sustaining. Among the discussions are some very detailed and lively reviews of accounting software, and AccountingWEB provides its own thorough reviews of the main packages, as well as annual awards for "software satisfaction". Questions posted in the "Any Answers" section seem to get replies.

Inevitably there are a few disgruntled voices in comments, but the overall impression is of a site that is flourishing, and that seems for the most part to maintain itself remarkably well. For example, any registered user can start up a blog within AccountingWEB. Although individual bloggers may (and have been) banned from the site, it is refreshing that a community site allows independent bloggers to create a blog within the main site.

Another sign of health is that the community has a discussion group for suggestions about AccountingWEB itself - it is not afraid of criticism. Some of the members complain here about unwanted blogs and advertising by users. One of the moderators replies that they have a rule, "no excessively self-promotional posts", and that this rule is enforced. However, at the same time the moderator states "earlier this year ... we did start a review of our blogs as a result. There are so many, however, that we haven't completed a full assessment." It is impressive that the site has so many blogs, so perhaps we shouldn't worry too much that the moderators haven't read them all.

One clever idea is to have a discussion group called the Accounting Book Club. Books are listed on the site to be reviewed, and members can keep the copy if they are selected to review it. The take-up, however, looks to be quite low. Posting a comment on the site is one thing, but reviewing a heavyweight accounting title is clearly a minority activity.

AccountingWEB discussion forum

There is a gentle prod towards registration; only reigstered users can post or answer questions, and non-registered users can only see the titles of comments, not the comments themselves. But this is not a site that uses strong-arm tactics to enforce registration or subscription. That, combined with a consistently high quality of posts, make this an impressive community. Perhaps the most impressive endorsement of all is how accounting companies now congratulate themselves for receiving one of AccountingWEB's annual awards ("Reeves shortlisted as a Top 10 Large Firm in AccountingWEB Practice Excellence Award"). When the industry players crow about the recognition they receive from an online community, you know that online community has achieved solid recognition. It's no longer the tail wagging the dog.