Deciding Whether and How to Participate in Online Communities

Research is the key ingredient in social media marketing. When deciding if and how to invest in social media marketing my company must first investigate where our consumers are conversing and participating. Out of thousands of thriving social platforms on the web, my job is to determine which ones my consumers are most engaged in and influenced by. This can be done effectively by searching for and reading posts, particularly by “influencers,” across multiple channels. For one, I can set up syndication on Google Reader to gather all recent blog and social news posts that mention my industry, brand or competitors, and then follow the discussion and gauge its influence. Similarly I can search Twitter and Facebook updates and follow their outbound links. It’s also important to study our competitors’ social media focus and speculate on their effectiveness.

I need to determine how to engage my consumers where they already converse. Bryan Wiener’s Playbook suggests that consumers will no longer tolerate being advertised at. Instead we must join the conversation where it already exists. He also demonstrates a big opportunity in harnessing consumer-generated media, where he says 20% of consumers’ time is spent and less than 3% of marketing budgets are spent. There seems to be a huge market opportunity there so I should seek out the influencers who generate media related to my industry and open a dialog with them about creating content for my company, mentioning my company in a subsequent video or app, and possibly consulting for or joining my company as an analyst or advertiser.

If my brand or industry is heavily conversation-worthy and a proper outlet does not already exist, I can consider creating the space for a new community within our own domain. I can install a forum for my core group of customers to publish valuable content for free. I can start a blog with useful information and resources my customers are after. Or I can provide a creative space for socializing and collaboration.

While Wiener argues that the greatest struggle in developing a successful online community is selecting the platform and method of engagement, Owyang suggests that growing the community is the real challenge. In his experience successful growth occurs when the members take leadership, then ownership, and eventually become caretakers. To do this the “host” of the community must involve the early members and treat them as special guests. The host should individually contact creators and influencers leading the charge at other social spaces and empower or reward them with special membership and public recognition. The community should be encouraged to share stories, problems or successes while I’m out recruiting new members with other marketing tools like email newsletters, newsfeeds, podcasts and blogs.

Ultimately, according to Mashable’s Brian Solis, the community will need to inspire transformation, improvement and adaptation from the inside out. Early on I can envision how my company might accomplish such outward influence and wireframe my site and social profiles to enable it. With the US social media audience reaching 122 million, I think the question is not whether to participate in online communities, but where and how to engage with our current and future customers.