Five steps to running a successful online community
BY HAILEY EISEN
If you want to run a successful LinkedIn Group, think about the last good party you hosted. First, choose the venue and invite the guests. Make sure invitees are social and will interact well. Then, to fill out the group, ask your guests to invite their friends. Last, serve up some appetizers and drinks and work the room to ensure everyone’s having a good time.
That real-world scenario translates directly to the online world, according to Sourov De, managing partner at Stryve Group, a marketing services firm in Kitchener, Ont., and owner of the LinkedIn group Social Media Marketing Canada. “To run an effective group you should behave like a host. The key is to pay attention to your members, give them something of value and encourage them to get involved in the conversation.”
A LinkedIn Group can help companies position themselves as experts, build networks of like-minded individuals and engage in meaningful conversations, and develop business opportunities. If that sounds useful, here are five steps to get you going.
1 Choose the venue: research existing groups
“People like to try to reinvent the wheel, but there’s something to be said for finding a group that’s working well, and asking yourself, ‘How can I emulate this?’” De said. Before building your group, determine what’s out there, what’s working and what’s not.
De’s intention was to create a forum to post answers to the hundreds of social media questions his company receives. “We were receiving daily e-mails from potential clients looking for information on how to utilize social media. And, while we were happy to provide this information, responding to all those e-mails was time consuming.”
De turned to LinkedIn Groups, a public space where he could offer resources and information while generating conversations amongst social media experts. “Our research turned up the group Social Media Marketing, with an international focus and more than 12,000 members,” De said. Focusing on the Canadian niche, De built Social Media Marketing Canada in January 2011. It started with 150 invited members and has grown to more than 850 in 10 months.
2 Plan the party: build a brand and position for success
The next step is to devise a plan, said Danielle Restivo, manager of corporate communications with LinkedIn Canada. First ask, “Do I have something of value to offer this industry or my networks?” If the answer is yes, you’re ready to establish objectives. The key to a successful group is a dedicated manager or team who will put in the time necessary to start discussions, respond to posts, moderate content and accept new members (if you opt for a members-only group).
The group manager should consider the following questions: Who is our audience? Who will benefit from our content? Will the group be members-only or open (discussions are visible to anyone on the Web and any LinkedIn member can join)? Will we focus on promoting our business and communicating directly with customers, or on fostering discussion and sharing ideas? Will we post job opportunities? Will we use the LinkedIn Polls function, which allows us to create a poll and then analyze the results?
Next, consider branding and key messaging. “You’ll want a strong group name and description that will be easily searchable, especially if you’re looking to grow a group organically,” Restivo said. Clearly state the focus of your group, its mandate and what’s expected of members (i.e. no shameless self-promotion).
3 Invite the guests: send invitations to join
The method you use to invite members will vary with the type of group you create. For Chris Herbert, who formed the LinkedIn group Silicon Halton in 2009, the objective was to build a community of technology professionals and entrepreneurs living in Ontario’s Halton region. The group would establish a community, generate conversation and support real-world networking events. The first event was held at the same time the group was formed, and all attendees were invited to join.
“Today, we use our group to promote events, share content prior to an event and then continue the discussion and networking online,” Herbert said. Membership for Silicon Halton is currently at 570, and new members are required to fill out a Google Docs questionnaire created by Herbert. “If you want to know more about your members, this is the best time to gather information,” he said. “We verify that each member lives or works in the region and has something of value to contribute to the group.”
While the group was not started to promote Herbert’s marketing agency Mi6, in establishing himself as an active and valuable member of the business community, he has generated excellent connections and earned new clients.
4 Break the ice: start conversations, engage members
“If you’re using social media to blatantly advertise your company, people are going to ignore you,” said Jeff Nugent, president of Contingent Workforce Solutions, a contract workforce management company with locations across Canada and in the U.K. Nugent experienced this first-hand after creating the group Contingent Workforce Solutions about three years ago. While the group served its purpose and has since morphed into a LinkedIn Company Page, the real success came when he created his second group, Contingent Workforce Strategies, and invited global thought leaders to join him in interesting conversations in a coffee shop-type atmosphere. “I approached all the major vendors in our industry and all the major research firms and analysts who cover our industry,” he said. “Soon the power of peer pressure started to work and people realized that if they weren’t part of this group they were going to miss something.”
The greatest challenge Nugent faced was building momentum and getting members to participate in discussions. “I did everything from hunting members down via phone for an introductory conversation to asking permission to repost their content within the group. I spent late nights developing and posting thought provoking and sometimes controversial content that essentially dared them not to respond.”
Through all of this hard work, Nugent said he was essentially “killing two birds with one stone” because most of the people he reached out to were individuals he wanted to build a relationships with anyway, as potential clients or strategic partners. Today, the group has more than 2,000 members and Nugent still posts content daily. “You’ve got to keep your community engaged or they’ll leave,” he said. And no one wants to host a party that ends early.
5 Work the room: participate, moderate, recognize members
“Once a group builds momentum, the group manager’s job becomes moderator,” Restivo said. The goal of most groups is to have members posting their own content, starting and engaging in conversations and moderating postings to ensure they’re on-topic and not cluttered with spam. But the moderator must stay active at all times to ensure everything runs smoothly.
For De, the moderator’s role took him offline. “I made an effort to build in-person relationships with the most active members of the group—taking them for coffee or lunch to exchange ideas and extend the relationship,” he said. Whether you’re meeting in person, sending follow up e-mails or recognizing content by naming it a “Manager’s Choice” topic, it’s important to give credit to those contributing to the group’s success.
The challenge most groups face is getting members to contribute content and start conversations. “Ninety-five per cent of our members sign up, read content but don’t post anything; five per cent do all the posting and commenting,” De said. “Moving forward, our mission is to shift those numbers so at least 20 per cent are engaged in the group; we’re currently putting a plan in place to make this happen.”
The key to success is to stay active, post often, look forward and continuously ask, “How is this group adding value to its member community?”
Groups: According to LinkedIn, “Groups provide a place for professionals in the same industry or with similar interests to share content, find answers, post and view jobs, make business contacts and establish themselves as industry experts.”
Making Company Pages work for you
Groups are most successful when used to build networks and engage in conversation, while LinkedIn Company Pages are where the advertising and self-promotion belongs. Launched in October 2011, Company Pages allow companies to update their status, a Facebook-like approach to social media.
“Companies should be using their pages as a far more aggressive tool to create and build reputation among their networks,” said Boyd Neil, national practice leader, Social Media and Digital Communications with Hill & Knowlton. According to Boyd, Company Page status updates should be used to:
> announce corporate news and events
> post information about products and services
> share multimedia content, press releases, media coverage, etc.
> list job postings
> announce changes within the organization.
First published in Backbone Magazine.