Online community building skills come in handy whether you’re using social networks, email lists or web forums to build relationships. Traction, or getting people engaged, is becoming the holy grail of social media marketing. We’ve compiled the following Rules of the Road, culled from our experience with clients. We hope that some of these rules help your online community building efforts.
Facilitate rather than moderate: Managing an online community is art more than science. Facilitation allows you to work through members rather than broadcast to them, or even try and to control the conversation. Facilitation means that you, as the leader, take a back seat and encourage members to lead the conversation. This strategy helps foster a self-sustaining group with members helping members, instead of waiting for the group leader to respond.
Establish the ground rules and netiquette early on: How will the group be moderated? Is there a certain format you’d like members to use? Will you discourage cross-posting from similar groups? It makes sense to post community rules early on so that members can familiarize themselves, and you can point to them if necessary.
Be responsive: A good online community leader helps members and responds to issues in a timely manner. If a participant posts a question that goes unanswered, the leader might solicit input from other individuals both inside and outside of the group. If off-topic conversation becomes an issue, the leader might send through a friendly reminder. A leader might also have to act as a parent, occasionally mediating discussions that get out of hand and pulling members out of the “sandbox” for a “timeout.”
Choose your battles: Silence is sometimes golden. Taking a deep breath before hitting the Send or Post button can work well. It also makes sense to take a long view when dealing with situations that come up. At the sake of repeating myself, managing an online community is an art more than science. Over time, intuition should offer clues on conversations that merit a response. At the same time, don’t be afraid to exert authority when it’s warranted.
Set the tone and find your voice early on: Initially, members will follow the leader. It’s important to define the culture of the online community so members understand ground rules and expectations, but are not deterred from participating. Creating a community “voice” is also a big part of that culture. Will your group be casual or more buttoned up? Create discussions and ask questions in a non-controlling way that encourages participation and sets the tone.
Invite the right people to your party: Doing a bit of research and outreach to cultivate a core group of participants is smart. Who are the leaders in your space and what other groups do they participate in? Who are your competitor and “coopitor” groups? Reach out to leaders or participants and make friends! Invite those with similar interests into your online community and build your membership base early on.
Consider content curation: Community discussions will undoubtedly create solid content. Consider curating and posting this content somewhere in your group or, on your website or blog. Member-generated content offers value and can also be used to market your group. Here’s an example of community-generated content that was mined from the Netpreneur AdMarketing Community.
Use an organic growth strategy: A bottom-up, grassroots approach to community-building ensures your chance for success. In our experience, the alternative “build it and they will come” strategy isn’t as effective. It makes sense to start with a core group of participants, gain traction and then build from there. Better to have a smaller engaged group than a large community of lurkers!
Learn from the pros: There is much to be learned from the early pioneers of online community building! Here, I’m talking about the likes of Howard Reingold, Nancy White and Amy Jo Kim. For additional brainpower, check out this short post by Craig Newmark , Richard Millington‘s blog, or how Cisco’s online community for Networking Professionals got started.
Have fun and remember, its never about the technology but always about the people: They say people can tell when you’re smiling even when they can’t see your face, and I believe that’s true. If you’re going to make the commitment to manage a group, choose a topic or area that you love and one that will help your personal branding. These days, we hear much talk of social media platforms, SaaS solutions and automated communities. At the end of the day, it’s never about the technology but it is always about the people.
Is there anything I missed? Please let me know in the comments if you have anything to add!