Social communities, whether they're online or offline, have interesting dynamics. To make any kind of headway, you must understand and respect how each individual community functions before charging in and saying, "Hey, can I join the party, too?" Several factors can affect whether you're accepted into the community, or left on the outside looking in.
Companies entering the social media space must first figure out where their audience is, but that's only the beginning of any type of strategy. A lot more goes into developing the type of respect, authority, and relationships in communities that generate successful strategies and attained goals for companies.
When working with communities in social media, it isn't as easy as signing up for an account and announcing that you've arrived in the space. If you charge in with your marketing message waving in your hands like old-time paperboys on street corners, shouting your message, you'll garner more than just a few cold shoulders. You'll be branded an ignorant marketer and likely won't ever find acceptance in the community.
Working with communities of any kind, whether it's a forum, a group on Facebook, or a bunch of people on Twitter discussing a particular subject every week, takes care and time. It involves developing true relationships with your audience by helping community members with information they need or solving their problems.
By taking this approach, you can slowly establish their trust in you, and build a solid foundation of a great consumer relationship. However, it doesn't happen overnight, no matter what brand or company you are. Along the way, here are a few tips you can follow:
Read the Rules
Almost every social media site has rules. Whether it's a Flickr photo group or a new account on a forum, rules are posted somewhere on the site.
The best first step you should take is finding those rules and printing them for your whole social media team to read. These rules will clearly define what is acceptable in posts, profiles, and actions on the site.
For example, some forums allow two links in your signature, some don't allow any. Some communities want you to establish your profile before you can reply with links in your conversations. If you start by posting a link to your site or media, you could very well find yourself booted out of the community.
Observe, Look, Listen, and Learn
We were given eyes and ears to observe and listen to what's going on around us. Taking the time to understand what's going on in a community can better help you formulate and tweak your approach. It can also help you better define your goals, as you can possibly find other ways to successfully engage your audience in that particular community.
This can also be a great way to observe a true focus group in action. Sitting back and watching can teach you a lot about how people use, work with, recommend, as well as criticize your products and services. All of this happens unabated; they don't feel like they have to provide a "right" answer like focus groups do.
Obey the Norms
Every community has those unwritten rules. The only way to learn those unwritten rules is by first observing, and then by interacting and engaging community members.
These norms can be as simple as jargon, that special language a particular company or industry uses to describe everyday things. It could also be as complicated as how you link to sites (i.e., when are you allowed to and how do you do it if there's a certain method).
Communities can be very fickle. If you break one of their unwritten rules, you'll find yourself dealing with an incredibly cold shoulder.
Learn the Pecking Order
There are influencers, administrators, leaders, followers, and "newbies" in all communities. By observing, you can get a handle on who's who in a community. Understanding that can help you better strategize how to approach the community when you're ready to engage them.
You certainly don't want to insult the influencers and leaders of the community, so understanding how to approach them is critical. Administrators have the power to boot you right out of the community, so it's wise to have a plan to approach that group as well. Providing information to the followers and newbies is also key to a successful engagement in social media, but you need to take care in planning that approach, too.
Don't Market to Communities
Last, and probably the toughest for all marketers, is the fact that you need to learn that communities don't want to be marketed to. They came online to these communities to share their experiences with their hobbies, passions, and interests with other like-minded individuals, and to escape the constant droning of marketing messages on the TV and radio. Come in to their safe haven waving marketing messages, and they'll hate you.
Community members really decide the value you provide. It's not through a carefully crafted marketing message that you're going to have these members finding value. It's through establishing trusted relationships and providing them with the information they need that you will find the success you seek in social media.
Join us for Search Engine Strategies San Jose, August 10-14, 2009, at the McEnery Convention Center.