Building an online community.

Have you ever been to one of those conferences that promises an excellent opportunity to ‘network and mingle’ with like-minded folks? Where you get given your name on a laminated safety pin badge handed over with a way-too familiar grin? Where there seems to be an awfully large amount of vendor stalls you have to wade through to get to the auditorium? The kind of conference you leave feeling a little bit cheap and used because you sat through 4 hours of people trying to sell their products to you wrapped up in a big shiny “this is important information” bow?

If I hadn’t unsubscribed to all possible mailing lists involved with the organisers, un-followed them on twitter and written a passive aggressive tweet about being ‘sold snake oil’ there in the auditorium, I sure as hell would as soon as I received the follow up email thanking me for coming.

That … above kind of feeling, hopefully has your skin crawling just thinking about it. This is NOT the way to build a community.

When approaching tactics for building an online community I try to keep that ‘skin-crawl’ feeling firmly in mind. This day and age, people are even more attuned to being ‘sold-to’ online than being given genuine information and they can flee the online space, never to be seen again faster than you can sprint out of that auditorium.

So what is an online community and how is it different to a real-life community? It’s not really in the differences as much as it’s in the similarities. Online communities are made up of groups of people who share a common interest. A space for them to communicate with each other virtually, work together, share information and potentially seek help with issues. They work exactly the same as real life community groups, often with the same rules of open communication (e.g. no swears or lewdness), possibly membership requirements, and the same aim of building connections and sharing of info.

The obvious benefit of availability across time-zones, opportunity to scale to include large numbers and include security measures that aren’t available in the real world (like anonymous feedback) are obvious differences.

So why is considering your online community important? It should be noted that I’m approaching this with ‘startup advice’ in mind, though it can apply to much larger organisations most of the examples I cite are from our own experience within Macropod.

Online communities serve to empower both your customers and  your team

Wether an internal community such as a company intranet or external forum you can empower more people than just your Community Manager. Many hands do make light work. An engaged customer base or team can do much of the legwork for you in answering questions, solving issues or referring your products. Opinions are like armpits in that everyone has one … so why not put them to work?

Got some great product info like ‘how-to guides’ or ‘FAQs’ on your site? If they can be easily referenced and shared why not make it easy for not only employees but customers to do so? Allowing the delivery of valued content broadens your brand building efforts and helps increase SEO via social signals.

Speaking of SEO, the more of this kind of content is shared and read the lower it’s likely to rate on Google’s bullshit meter. Meaning that it will rank higher in search engine results pages. Here’s a great blog from MOZ on how building a community can help with your SEO efforts and weather the algorithm storms.

What does an online community look like?

It can be as simple as your twitter feed or as detailed as a multi-level support forum (think ye olde Whirlpool).

Here’s a couple of examples of where and how to build community to get your thinking caps on …

Social Media

Are you listening and engaging with people mentioning your brand or looking for opportunities to engage with people seeking help? Don’t underestimate the power of the #tag and @mentioning appropriate people. Reach out and touch people! Just don’t be creepy. If you stop focusing on like and follows (vanity metrics), start looking at engagement metrics these opportunities for engagement will far easier to identify.

Make sure that you’re listening out for natural brand ambassadors to turn to answer product questions creates less hands and more trust. With the former in mind you should make it easy for people to share your information appropriately, have sweet looking twitter cards set up, put easy contact details in your profiles.

Is your founder or owner touching in on these conversations? Chances are they have a better social authority than your brand so consider if they can be better utilised. Are they only sharing their own company info? Don’t … it’s kind of like sitting in that auditorium hearing the same thing repeated over and over again.

Lastly but most importantly, time is of the essence. If you’re putting the effort into starting the conversation be around to answer the questions. The internet knows no time-zone.

Product listings or aggregator sites

We’ve had a fair amount of success with sites like Hacker News and Product Hunt, there’s a plethora of choices out there but be sure to remember your voice. Who is answering the customers? Is it a personal approach, a founder, the company? Commenters can smell inauthenticity through the pitch.

Similarly to social don’t forget to link info you already have, why bother typing a huge response if you can link someone to appropriate info on your site? Even better, did you tell your ‘power-users’ (identify some if you haven’t already) about the listing? Customers who love you are likely to help you out with a +1 and a share.

Again (I should have it tattooed on my forehead), time is of the essence, don’t put something online at midnight if you’re not available to answer questions right away

Other important considerations …

Do you have a content calendar? If not, why not? Once you get something down on paper, in a task management system or in your calendar you can plan how to engage with internal and external parties. You can get staff to help plan and schedule posts, you can figure out which segment of customers you’re engaging and you can spark new ideas.

I use our own task-manager for planning social-media. It’s broken down by month per column. I add into each task the detail required to publish, such as who to engage, # tags to use, who to @mention etc, and I then schedule the activity in Hootsuite for posting and monitoring. Each month I archive the column for reference later. It’s not perfect, but it works for me as we don’t currently have a dedicated community manager at Macropod (interested?).

Task manager for Social Media

Hootsuite for social media

I touched on it briefly, but I’ll say it again. Have you identified your power-users? Have you found them in their social space? Chances are they’ll help you out if you ask them to. Make sure you know who your long-term valuable customers are and show them some love. You might just score an excellent recommendation, an opportunity to work on a case study together or even better, some qualified referrals.

Don’t forget  in this world of instant-gratification and mass information consumption that people love to share and talk about themselves. So share the love! Opening up a communication pathway can be mutually beneficial and to an extent self-policing.

The last and most important thing … Don’t be the ‘snake-oil merchant’. If you’re selling or promoting a product, be open about it. Don’t hide beneath the shroud of ‘informative selling’. You may end up getting feedback like this:

Shoes of prey tweet

Sorry Shoes of Prey, I really do love you but that talk was literally all about you and how awesome you are, not at all relevant to the conference on that day.

I recognise the irony in mentioning my own product in a blog that says be open about selling a product. If I used a competitor’s product I’d have pictured that, but I don’t. Honesty is honesty.

Feel free to message me on twitter @thehungryginge and share your own thoughts, who knows … maybe we’ll start a community! 😉

 

About Chanie - Chanie is the 'Everything Marketing' person for technology startup Macropod Software. With a background in Traditional Marketing, she has embraced the world of Digital Marketing with particular interest in SEO, SEM and Content Marketing. A cat lover with an unusual food blog on the side she dreams of one day being paid to travel and write about her experiences.

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