Outbound Community Building: How Do You Know Where To Be?

19 Nov
2009

source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/intersectionconsulting/3704908885/

The job description of a community manager has evolved, and the jury is still out on the “official” description. Some companies consider community management closer to moderation, the more traditional sense of the word. This makes a lot of sense for companies who are building and nurturing their own vibrant communities. However, if you are building a nascent community, perhaps your company is young or the product just launched, you will also be doing a lot of community building via external resources and community outreach. In this post, I will be addressing primarily the outbound efforts of participation, brand building and evangelism. By the way, the Community Roundtable has developed this Community Maturity Model, which helps you understand where your organization is in terms of acceptance of the community model and what activities you will be doing to support it.

I got the following question recently: how do you know where to participate? How do you know which blogs you should be following, who the key influencers are that you should be building relationships with, and on which communities you should be building a presence? After all, the web goes on forever, and there is a lot of noise. How do you separate the corn from the chaff?

I can boil down my personal experiences and observations down to 5 major steps that I follow. Then you can rinse and repeat.

1. If you are new, ask an expert.

If you aren’t familiar with the industry, the first thing you should do is set up a meeting (phone or skype or in-person) with someone who knows their stuff. Although to be honest, if you are hired as a CM for a product in an industry you know nothing about, I’m not sure how you got hired or what the company was thinking. I’m not saying you need to be an expert, but you need to have the knowledge to carry on an intelligent conversation with the community and know where to get answers fast. And just as importantly, you need to have interest and passion. Either way… regardless of how much you know, you should always take an opportunity to learn from someone you admire, or someone whom you want to emulate, unless you are the very best in your industry. And even then, you can still get better and talk to the best in other industries to figure out how you can apply their lessons to your particular situation. Wisdom is learning while realizing that you will never know everything, and that there’s always room for improvement. You should ask the experts you tap for guidance about popular online publications in your sector, what the most active communities are, what people are like in these different communities, what you can read every day to keep up with industry news, etc.

2. Monitor, search and observe.

Community building and outreach can not be done without understanding the larger business and marketing objectives. It drives me up the wall how many companies miss this. If you are targeting a certain demographic with your new product or whatever it is, you need to be building, developing and maintaining a community that is made up of that demographic. When I take on a new client, I set up Google alerts on keywords around which the brand wants to build an identity, whether it’s “busy moms” or “eco fashion” or “muscle cars”. You should sit down with your client and understand where they are, and where they want to be in the consumer’s mind (sometimes you will end up helping them understand where they are, but that’s food for a different blogpost).

In addition to Google alerts, you can discover active communities, blogs and forums via those same keywords in Twitter Search (via search.twitter.com or your preferred desktop or mobile client). Twitter Search is very valuable, because it can show you whom to follow, allow you to interact with interesting people and find other online communities and cutting edge industry news. And you will be not only interacting, but also learning new stuff, which will only make you better at your job. Typically Twitter Search has been a good start for me; I had built solid lists of niche communities that way. In some ways, it’s like going down a rabbit hole, it’s a full immersion, at the end of which you will have a nice list of 20 or so primary communities and some secondary ones. You can start with that weekly, and adjust from there. Depending on if CM is your fulltime job or has been added to your existing job description, you will figure out shortly how much you can get done in a week.

There are also higher-end tracking tools like Radian6, ScoutLabs and others, which can help you not only track keywords, but sentiment around your brand and product and your competitors’ products (that is also food for a totally different post).

3. Listen, then speak

When you find communities in steps 1 and 2, take some time to observe behavior, community culture, topics discussed, particular vernacular. Just as important are the group dynamics. Are there particular members who are the vocal minority? Are there members who jump in to support the vocal minority, but never take the lead? Are there members who just like to hear themselves talk? Are there spammers who engage in self-promotion and post links? How does the community respond to each of those groups? What is the tolerance towards talking about products, even if they aren’t yours? You should have a thesis from steps 1 and 2; in this step, you clarify, flesh out, observe. Figure out who the key valuable members are: are they providing value by offering great information? Are they offering lessons from their own experiences? Do they point other members to useful research that’s been done? Do they seem to know all the latest trends? You may want to then connect with some of these members on more than one platform.

Once you have observed, it’s time to engage. Let’s say you connected with some great folks on various community platforms and via Twitter. Follow them for a while, read the links they post, take note of who they interact with. If they are posting links to various other communities and discussions, add those to your list of places to engage. Follow the people they interact with, listen to what they say.

4. Connect and build relationships. Develop collaborative programs that benefit everyone.

As you become a “regular” on several key blogs and communities, you should be developing relationships with people who run these communities. Ideally, it will happen organically. You will have so much to talk about, and your passions are so similar, that you will connect on other platforms like email, Facebook and Twitter, and become social media allies, collaborators, colleagues. This is when the fun starts, and where the lines blur between community management, brand evangelism and online PR.

Because you have chosen your connections and communities so carefully, you will have a ton in common. Why don’t you swap guest-blogging spots on each other’s online homes? Taking it a step further, is there opportunity to put together an event? It can be an online Twitter party or an offline event. Can it be a joint giveaway? If you are an eco-friendly body products manufacturer, you may want to do a contest with an eco-friendly blog that has a passionate and engaged community. The possibilities are endless once you start collaborating! You can come up with whatever works for your industry and sector. The key to remember is to make it: 1. valuable for your partner, 2. valuable for you and 3. valuable for the readers. How you define value is up to you; it can be participation, site visits, new products purchased, number of tweets and retweets. Just like with anything, you must align with your partner on measurement and metrics for success.

5. Tweak and iterate. And what about that pesky ROI?

Now you know what communities are a good fit, which ones are active, which ones you align with the best, and which programs work the best. Tweak and iterate from there, and remember to track Google Analytics too (or Omniture or whatever you use). But here’s one important caveat with outbound community management. Sometimes you will see results from outbound community participation immediately in your traffic results, and sometimes it will take longer. Obviously, with contests and other limited-time offers, you will see results between the start and the finish date. When you are participating in discussions and building up your cache in an external community, it will take much longer.

But how do you increase traffic to your site and get people to join your internal community? And should that be the goal? When you are heavily entrenched in a community, and others can click onto your website from your profile, people will click if they find you interesting. Here’s the key: IF they find you interesting. Become interesting first, become a community member, before you can even think about posting an occasional link to your site. It’s generally considered bad taste and spammy to post links to your site, unless it’s an integral part of the discussion, AND you have to earn that right first. So although you will see some clickthroughs, community building is about relationships, and that takes time. It will take you time until you can invite people to your own community (tastefully), or propose joint programs to other bloggers and community managers.

Creating a positive brand image does not always bring users to your site, and that shouldn’t always be an objective (unless it’s a contest or another activity that brings people back to your product page). Think of everything else as brand exposure. If someone sees your brand’s name 3 times, they will remember you and next time they see a marketing message somewhere else from you, they will have been primed already. You need to manage your employer’s and client’s expectations accordingly, and add other non-traffic-centric objectives. And remember that objectives are different for longer-term relationship building vs. limited-term promotions.

  • http://twitter.com/robertstanke Bob Stanke

    Almost post and I love the diagram!

    Bob Stanke
    http://robertstanke.com

  • http://twitter.com/SueOnTheWeb Sue

    Maria, a fantastic post that offers constructive and proven advice. A great “how-to”. Well done. This should be a must read for any online community manager.

    I agree with Bob, I love the diagram too!!!

  • http://robertstanke.com/ Bob Stanke

    Almost post and I love the diagram!

    Bob Stanke
    http://robertstanke.com

    • http://themaria.me/ themaria

      Thanks Bob! Glad you found it useful!

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  • http://twitter.com/SueOnTheWeb Sue

    Maria, a fantastic post that offers constructive and proven advice. A great “how-to”. Well done. This should be a must read for any online community manager.

    I agree with Bob, I love the diagram too!!!

    • http://themaria.me/ themaria

      Thanks, Sue, for stopping by! I am glad you enjoyed reading it; I certainly enjoyed writing it :)

      Can’t take credit for the diagram though, pulled it off Flickr :)

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  • http://maria.me themaria

    Thanks, Sue, for stopping by! I am glad you enjoyed reading it; I certainly enjoyed writing it :)

    Can't take credit for the diagram though, pulled it off Flickr :)

  • http://maria.me themaria

    Thanks Bob! Glad you found it useful!

  • http://twitter.com/vargasl Lauren Vargas

    Great visual and outline of steps for community engagement. Thank you for the shout out.

    Lauren Vargas
    Community Manager at Radian6
    @VargasL

  • http://twitter.com/vargasl Lauren Vargas

    Great visual and outline of steps for community engagement. Thank you for the shout out.

    Lauren Vargas
    Community Manager at Radian6
    @VargasL

    • http://themaria.me/ themaria

      Thanks for stopping by Lauren! Radian6 rocks! Monitoring and analysis are so key in our jobs as community managers!

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  • http://maria.me themaria

    Thanks for stopping by Lauren! Radian6 rocks! Monitoring and analysis are so key in our jobs as community managers!

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  • http://themaria.me/ themaria

    Thanks for stopping by Lauren! Radian6 rocks! Monitoring and analysis are so key in our jobs as community managers!

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