“[Social media is] a shift in how people discover, read, and share news
and information and content.
It’s a fusion of sociology and technology,
transforming monologue (one to many) into dialog (many to many).”
Brian Solis, FutureWorks
In preparing to engage your online community, you’ll want to collect lots of information. Here are some tips on how to do that.
Study Your Offline Community
Listen to the conversations inside your organization and in your real-world community. What kinds of things are the people you engage with on a daily basis talking about? What concerns do they face? Chances are very good that your online community will mirror these topics, but you may find they place the emphasis differently.
Make lists of topics of interest to your real-world community discusses — the things you, your staff, your volunteers, and your clients talk about every day. We suggest keeping a log for at least a couple of weeks. Determine what kinds of information your community seeks from you and start thinking about how you will provide it online.
If appropriate, create an outline indicating subtopics and different points of view on common subjects. Organizing the topics in some sort of framework will help:
- Guide you in constructing your own community framework
- Enable you to construct positions and responses on the issues you’ll face in building your community
Examine the framework you create and determine what your positions are on all the issues and questions, if you haven’t already. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to create the talking points that will form the basis of your social computing strategy. At the same time, you’ll want to extract the unwritten rules about how your community converses. Are there forbidden topics? Is there a preferred style of discourse? Do people avoid sensitive topics, or is there an accepted way to discuss them? Is there a line between too much info and just enough?
In essence, you’re creating the first draft of the operating manual for your online community by understanding the communication styles, rules, and needs of your offline community.
Study Existing Online Communities
Find online communities discussing your product category and/or your organization. But, in general, you’ll probably find interesting blogs and forums of interest via a simple Google search for the name of your product category. Twitter and Facebook searches can provide additional information.
Lurk for a while. (Lurking means reading the material, but not responding or calling attention to yourself.) Be a wallflower, but take notes and update your community manual based on the new information you discover. Note any differences in the way people communicate online versus offline. Modify your framework as necessary.
After awhile, you might consider reaching out to influential bloggers or other community leaders and influencers and asking their advice. Cultivate good relationships with these folks because you may want their help in launching your community later on. Be helpful, but be careful. If you approach them in the wrong way you could do more harm than good.
During this period, you should be thinking about how and where you’re going to create your community. Are you going to create it (or find it) on an existing social media site such as Facebook or MySpace? Will you create a private space on your Website?
Or will you use sites like Ning, Grou.ps, or Qlubb to create a branded community apart from your Website? Do you want an offline and online hybrid such as Meetup? If you have lots of offline events, you’ll want a way for people to discover, sign up, and help promote them.
One thing you should definitely assess: Is your community so attached to their current online home that trying to entice them to yours will alienate or anger them? Do existing communities completely satisfy their needs, or is there an opening for you to fill? Can you achieve your social media goals by contributing on existing communities, or does your contribution require its own defined, sponsored space? If you created your own community, what would be unique about it? Can you identify and market this uniqueness to attract members?
This assessment is critical to your future community success. You can waste much time and money trying to muscle your way into a completely functioning and satisfying community. Many organizations fail to consider the possibility that everyone in their right mind may not naturally flock to their community offering.
Profile Your Community
By now, you know a lot about your community, offline and online. You may have, or can collect, other information on your community that can help you sharpen your approach, such as:
- Demographics — You may want to consider characteristics such as gender, age, race, income, marital status and so on and use them to design different approaches
- Psychographics — Data on values, attitudes and shared cultural experiences of the community can help you better understand your community’s mindset and better address their everyday issues and concerns
- Geographics — Your approach to your community may need to take into account their geographic location and how it informs members’ viewpoints
If you focus on this data, you’ll want to research the social media literature to see if others have developed targeting and segmentation approaches you can adopt. There are great resources for finding out more about social media included in the Resources section starting on page 411.
Finally, you need to do an honest assessment of your organization and its commitment: Do you have the time, resources, and dedication to create or participate in a community? Can you be in it for the long run? Are you prepared to react if things get rocky?
If all is in order, you’re ready to start to engage.
Next up: Find Your Community
Listen to Your Community is the 17th in a series of excerpts from our book, Be a Person: the Social Media Operating Manual for Enterprises. The book (itself part of a series for different audiences), is available in paper form at http://bit.ly/OrderBeAPerson save $5 using Coupon Code 62YTRFCV
See the previous posts What is Social Media?, Social Sites Defined, Why Social Media? How is Social Media Relevant to Business? First Steps Toward a Social Media Strategy, and Decide What Your Business Will Do About Social Computing, pt. 1
 For an example of how to reach out to bloggers, read Chris Brogan’s great analysis of the perfect social media press release: bit.ly/cVBi8G
 Ning: bit.ly/dnx5Ck
 Grou.ps: bit.ly/ajDTN4
 Qlubb: bit.ly/9nqf04
 Find out more at: www.meetup.com.