Online Communities Online Communities

How to work online communities like a pro

The web is full of advice about participating in online communities in order to further your personal brand or professional interests. Go where your audience is online, some articles will tell you. Offer value in online communities to prove your authority, suggest others.

Quite frankly, these things are easy to say. It’s one thing to tell marketers to become valued members of their communities, but many of these business professionals find it’s another thing entirely to put these suggestions into practice.

Think of it this way… Over and over, the “experts” tell marketers to prioritise honesty – to not have ulterior motives behind their community participation. And yet, we’re marketers. Selling products and driving conversions is literally our motive.

It was this inherent dichotomy that led us to base our latest #Qchat around the topic “How to Work Online Communities Like a Pro.” Helping us out was co-host Brian D. Evans of Influencive, who brought the Quuu community together to offer their insight on the following seven questions:

Q1. Why should you use online communities to leverage your brand?

Host Brian D. Evans was quick to point out one of the biggest advantages of online communities: the ability to have two-sided interactions with customers and followers, rather than be stuck with the one-sided outward messaging that characterises so many marketing campaigns.

His reflections were echoed by Quuu’s Matt Spurr, who sees value in the way online communities break down the barriers that separate companies and their users.

Participants Georgia Burgoyne and Stuart of Vacord noted an additional benefit: the potential, not just for connecting with prospective customers, but for much-needed networking interactions as well.

I definitely agree with this. I’m a part of plenty of marketing-related Slack communities, and I find that I get as much value out of them as I may be giving to other participants.

Q2. How can you use online communities to drive traffic to your blog without being spammy?

Our #Qchat’s second question started to dig into the inherent challenge of community building I mentioned earlier – the need to not come across as overly-promotional, even if the reason you’re engaging in communities is to promote your products (even if you do so subtly).

Participant Satya offered a concrete suggestion I love that incorporated a defined ratio for content sharing.

Your ideal ratio may not be 2:6, but having set posting frequencies in mind may help keep you from going overboard with self-promotional content.

Simon offered another actionable tip worth highlighting.

Many users offered other suggestions on preventing the appearance of spam by becoming a genuine part of your community, but I love Simon’s idea of making manual follow-up a part of your community-building process. Hosting a chat is a great way to build community, but recognising individual participants is going above and beyond to show you appreciate their engagement.

Q3. What are the biggest mistakes you can make when using online communities to leverage your brand?

A number of great answers to this question came out of our #Qchat, beginning with Brian’s recommendation of waiting to make an ask until you’ve proven your value to the community.

His suggestion was echoed by contributions from participants Amy Murnan and Simon, both of whom emphasised the importance of avoiding community hard sells.

Later, Kieran Killbride Singh also brought up an important point:

New marketers, in their excitement to start connecting, may not be aware that most online communities have their own rules – sometimes spoken, sometimes not – that members need to follow. Beyond that, they may have inside jokes, codified language and other private sensibilities that put new members at risk of looking like outsiders if they don’t catch on.

There’s no good way around this. If online community participation is on your radar, you can’t afford to dive in ignorantly. Depending on how insular the community is, making newbie mistakes can leave you with an outsider reputation that’ll be hard to shake.

If you are a member of the community you’re hoping to market to, your learning curve from new account to reputable authority may be quick. If not, your best bet is to “lurk” – AKA, to observe conversations without participating until you feel confident you’ve nailed down the community’s practices and preferences.  

This goes double for readers whose audiences are active on Reddit. Very few communities online have the kind of established etiquette (in this case, “Reddiquette”) that Reddit has, which can make engaging perilous to new users who don’t understand the network’s ins and outs.

There are pros and cons to attempting to make a name for yourself on these “tricky” communities. Usually, they take more effort to get recognised, and the impact of doing so may not be immediately obvious on your business’s bottom line.

For the most part, that decision should come down to your industry. Only after you’ve taken a comprehensive look at who your audience is and where they’re most active will you have a better understanding of whether or not online community building is worth it.

Q4. How do you build genuine relationships online?

This is something I’ve struggled with in the past, since so many of my work relationships and networking peers are online. I was curious to hear how #Qchat participants handle the challenge of building genuine relationships without face-to-face contact – and their answers didn’t disappoint.

Several chat members, including our host, Daniel Kempe and Kieran Killbride Singh, emphasised “Golden Rule” like participation; basically, do unto other community members as you would have done to you.

Georgia Burgoyne offered a practical tip that anyone with past networking experience can draw from.

Finally, Elaine Venter and Zrna suggested relying on authenticity and honesty as the cornerstones of positive online relationships.

Q5. What’s the most difficult thing about building a community from scratch?

For those marketers attempting to create their own communities (rather than join existing groups), #Qchat participants offered a number of valuable suggestions. Patience and consistency, in particular, seemed to be the big winners.

Value was also emphasised, again, as necessary for forming positive online community experiences.

Q6. What qualities do you have to have to be a good community builder?

As suggested in the tweets embedded below and others from the conversation, the top qualities needed for community building success – according to our #Qchat – include:

  • Leadership skills
  • The ability to motivate others
  • A genuine interest in participants’ experiences and growth
  • The ability to open up creative spaces
  • A willingness to be human and treat others with respect

Q7. How do you keep a community engaged and active?

Once you’re part of a community – whether it’s your own or one that you’ve joined – how can you do your part to keep it going? A few concrete suggestions from #Qchat participants include:

  • Being energetic
  • Asking lots of questions
  • Giving people permission to engage
  • Conducting #AMAs (“ask me anything”) threads with experts
  • Sharing community round-ups
  • Hosting community chats
  • Listening to feedback
  • Hosting events, giveaways and/or exchanges
  • Showcasing community members

#Qchat participants consistently identified getting people to engage as one of the biggest struggles involved in keeping online communities going – and I get it. Especially if you’re juggling community engagement with a thousand other tasks on your to-do list, it can be tough to find the time stay involved yourself, let alone keep others involved.

If you find yourself in this boat, a few of the things that have helped me (or that I’ve seen work for others) include:

  • Making it as easy as possible for people to participate. What barriers are keeping community members from engaging? Are you using unnecessary logins, rules, CAPTCHA forms other other obstacles? If so, try removing them and seeing if engagement increases.
  • Incentivizing participation. There’s a reason Redditors love gold. You don’t need a paid system of rewards to get people involved, but you may find tools like badges or karma can help.
  • Getting a moderator. You don’t have to go it alone when it comes to community building. Have a trusted colleague (or even a customer you offer a special perk to in exchange for volunteer moderating hours) pick up the slack if you aren’t able to put in the work your community needs.

Got another tip for online community participation or building? Even if you missed our #Qchat, I want to hear from you. Leave me a note in the comments below with your own responses to our seven questions.

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