Tips for Building Communities, Online and Offline

I have been inundated with communities over the last couple years and recently it has been almost the only thing I am working on lately. I have learned so much about managing volunteer groups, creating an offline community of web geeks called “San Francisco Geek Dinners,” and in consulting roles.

There are many methodologies that I have learned over the past couple years and I am even learning all different forms daily by being thrown into it. What I find extremely intriguing is how there is no two communities or groups that function in the exact same way. This can take form in the shape of an online community that deals with technology or even travel, a group of people to manage within an organization, or a community of individuals in the offline sense, like a meetup.

So, the question remains, how do you deal with this? I truly don’t have the smoking gun nor will this article answer this all for you. Rather, I think this will get you on the path of thinking about how your unique community needs to be managed and/or gain traction. All communities have a set of common practices that are apparent within them.

Define a purpose and show you care about the community

Define the reason that the community exists and show that you really care about the community. Put some effort into this by putting a lot of grass roots effort into the planning and growth of the community. This gives the members and users of the community the sense that you are vested in the welfare of the community, which you truly are. Moving forward, the next steps are to engage community members and start having conversations with them, once again, both online and offline. Make members or volunteers feel like they have an opportunity to be involved in the overall success of an online community or organization. An example of this is as simple as providing a feedback link on your website that allows members/users to provide feedback on features, updates, or bugs that they run into. Other things that you can do is send out polls or surveys on user experience or features.

Things that I have done in the past is create user polls about new interfaces or more recent internal teams for naming conventions. Within the SEO community I have seen a number of people sending out polls/surveys about details for events as well.

Building momentum and keeping it going

Momentum is also a huge factor and keeping that momentum going is very hard to do, but once you have it, do not lose it! If you get some steam behind the community or group members, there is a great chance they will ride that momentum and want to get more involved. This is easier said than done though, as I am sure you can attest to if you have run or built a community.

Creating events and meetups for your online community is a great way to get the members or users together and even invite others to the event, thus creating Customer Evangelists for your community. Something else that you can do to create momentum is to create participation and conversations, which I will get to in a second.

On the offline community side, I have to admit, I had some great momentum with the first two dinners for San Francisco Geek Dinners. But, because I have not been able to stick with it but hope I can re-energize the momentum with the group. Granted, this is not an online community that I am working on, but, it shows that if you miss a beat with a community, you can instantly lose momentum and traction.

Creating Participation and Conversations

Just like I mentioned above throwing events is a great way to build momentum, but also a great way to start getting people involved in becoming an Evangelist for you. Members, will typically bring others along and hopefully get them involved in the community as well.

Also, give people the opportunity to volunteer and get their hands on something that they will make them feel like they are contributing. This can be as small as making recommendations or bring community involvement into the overall decision making process. Create a location for users to get together and discuss issues they are facing, let them talk it out, moderate it a bit, and you have create a think tank of your own for your community.

While building an online community, you want to ensure that the participation is staying put on your domain. Polls, survey’s, events, etc. are a great way of getting the community together. Ensure that your online community has a lot of sticky features that make it easy for people to be a Customer Evangelist of your online community. Do this by giving users all the “social/viral” features that they can use to pass things on to friends, collegues and family. Many community members want to be the first in on the news, to report it, get in touch with people, etc. From an Online Reputation Management standpoint, if you give users the opportunity to talk to you or provide feedback, it will prevent them from creating flame posts or sites about your community or brand.

Bottom line, Encourage the online community to be just that, an online community that allows people to participate and have conversations with each other.

Incentivise the community

Finally, you can create participation channels, but sometimes we all need or want an incentive to make things happen. They also give people the feeling of being rewarded, and we all enjoy knowing that we are appreciated for the hard work that we do.

In an offline community, ask the members if someone wants to run the event/meetup and I can guarantee you that there will be someone that is interested in stepping up. Empowering someone to step up and leave his/her mark on the group can be priceless. Create contests that give users/members a chance to win prizes. An example of this can be creating a twitter account for your community and asking everyone to follow you and that the 100th, 200th, etc. will win a free iPod Touch, or something along those lines.

Where do we go from here?

I think it is very apparent and we all know that we have already moved into an era of the online culture. But, that does not mean that we cannot build or leverage an offline community to help the online community or vice versa. Yes, that sounds a bit confusing, but there are commonalities between the two that can be important in building your online community like creating conversation, participation, etc. Overall, you want the community to be sticky and get members and users to become Customer Evangelists for your community.

Being an Industry Thought Leader Through Your Corporate Blog

I felt this was important for corporations and in-house talent to look at when writing a blog. Sometimes we tend to think about a blog as a way to push products, which is what I talked about previously. The truth is, this is o.k. to do, but ONLY as part of your blog content.
Being at a large organization, you are already at the advantage of having a following, your blog will benefit from this. You want to make sure that you are keeping your readers interested. Continuously blogging to your users only about changes to the company or new products, etc. are a way of losing readers and interest.

Swinging to a more positive note, you need to start thinking of your blog as the “Thought Leader” for an industry. There are many ways to do so and it will dramatically improve readership and reach. People expect this out of a large company that is an industry leader already, so, being that thought leader that I speak of, will really set you at the top.

Pay attention to the industry: Listen for what people are looking for. If identity theft and security on the web is a big part of your industry, then use that to your advantage. Write an article about how it applies to your company and how to prevent it, or something along those lines.

Don’t spam: As I mentioned above, do not…and I’ll say this again…DO NOT write solely on new products or what your company id doing. This is boring, tends to decrease interest, and looks to much like an advertising tool.

Write great content: By paying attention to the industry, you know what your readers are looking for. This is crucial info, now go out and apply it. Write articles about the industry, keep people informed of the industry news, etc. Then, every so often, you can write an article that is great and increase visibility.

Linkbaiticize: As apposed to publicizing, you want to write great content that leads to great link bait. Also, get to know the top evangelists, sites, etc. around your industry in the blogosphere. Hopefully they will pick up your article and maybe even submit it to digg/reddit/etc. user that could submit your story is another way to increase readership. Doing this and getting this kind of traffic is of course, one of the best ways to increase your blogs overall ROI. The amount of in-links and subscribers alone is worth the time and money invested, then you have the users that actually follow through on product specific blogs and convert into real $$.

Keep it Fresh: Don’t stop there, continue to fire away and keep content fresh. Stagnant content will lose readers…so keeping it up to date will keep people interested and looking for more.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to follow the 5 rules above about being an industry thought leader. There is definitive ROI through the amount of link popularity, subscriber-ship, and readership that is gained through Social Media. All that, plus, conversion and click-throughs to product subscriptions, etc. that could quite possibly lead real dollars.

Here are some good resources to check out for an understanding of the power of social media are:
A Visual Tour Through the Basics of Social Media Marketing by SEOMoz
SEO Book Bloggers Guide to SEO

Page 2 of 212