To really understand social media, you must also understand online communities

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Audience at a Dan Deacon concert

It is very easy to get excited by social media. By “Likes” and “Follows”. To think about the tools you can use. To worry about creating content. To feel you must rush to be on the latest platform or site. But in all this excitement it can be easy to forget something that is more important than the tools, platforms and sites that you can make use of - the skills and expertise you need to identify, manage and grow a true online community.

When we talk about social media we are really only talking about tools that we can use to help us and the people we engage to achieve a task. To make a success in social media we need to understand online communities. For those of us who have been working in this space for many years this has long been the basis of all our work.

What is an online community?

There is a temptation to assume that all use of social media is the same - that we are ‘doing social media’. But this is just not true. There is a fundamental difference in how people behave when they are primarily in a group of actual friends (such as on Facebook) and how you interact with people not because you know them and are friends with them, but because you share a common interest (such as in a forum for fans of Arsenal football club, a site for mum chatting about nutrition in early years or a group of runners helping each other with training advice and tips as they prepare to run a marathon).

An online community is a group of people who exhibit this second behaviour. They do not necessarily know each other, and may not have any desire to become friends in that broader sense of the word. They do have a common passion, interest, concern or question. And they can find and engage with others online because of this.

Working with online communities

For most organisations looking at social media, it is only by identifying, building and engaging with online communities that they will start to get real benefit. Online communities are truly scalable because they do not rely on becoming ‘friends’ with people but mean that you (the organisation) and the rest of the community engage on topics that you all share in common. This is real engagement in a way that just amassing Likes or Follows is not.

Social media just provides the set of tools you can use to do this. But the real skill is threefold:

  1. Firstly to be able to identify the community you want to engage and understand why they would engage with you. What is the passion, problem, concern, issue or question that you can connect with your community about? And why would they connect with you at all about it?
  2. Then how do you find these people and help them to find you? Likes on Facebook or Followers on Twitter do not necessarily make an online community.
  3. Finally how do you manage them. There is a valuable and often heated debate elsewhere about the differences between a social media manager and a community manager, but any community does need the ‘party host’ role. A community manager who facilitates conversations and activities, helps to moderate the community so that it is a productive and friendly place for all, and who acts as the link between the organisation and the online community.

With all the excitement of social media it often feels like we have forgotten what we have known for many years about online communities and the way they work and interact. For anybody looking at or working in social media a solid grounding in how online communities work and how we should work with them is essential.

7 ways to help safely migrate an online community

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Image courtesy of Flickr

With the release of new technologies and applications almost everyday, it’s likely that the demand for migrating online communities to new platforms that feature some of the latest functionality will increase.

The migration of an existing online community is, at best, a tricky process for the community manager to lead. Get it right and the vast majority of your existing community members will stay to enjoy the benefits of their new home. Get it wrong and you’re left with a mere shadow of your former community.

Any good community manager worth their salt will realise that the most important feature of any online community is the community members and the relationships they have with each other. So here are seven factors every community manager should consider in order to successfully migrate a community:

1. Understand how the existing community currently operates

A community has a culture, a shared history of experiences, and a certain way of doing things. Knowing what works and what doesn’t will help you to avoid replicating pitfalls in the new community.

2. Be transparent

The migration date shouldn’t be a surprise to community members. Tell them what is happening well in advance. It doesn’t have to be too granular in detail but community members need to understand why the migration is taking place.

3. Explain the benefits of new community

Community members will always ask “What’s in it for me?”. Ideally, you should highlight the benefits of the existing community, which will be transferred over in addition to the ones associated with the new community.

4. Explain the potential risks

There will be bumps in the road. For example, community members may loose some personal data in the transition. Be clear as to what the risks are and stipulate which measures you have in place to help mitigate those risks.

5. Keep open lines of communication

The community manager needs to be vigilant and proactive when communicating with members. Providing useful and timely answers to their questions will go a long way to getting buy-in from community members who still need to be convinced.

6. Establish a clear timeline for actions

Community members need to be aware of the timeline for the migration process. They will appreciate regular reminders of the deadlines for performing certain actions e.g. “Make sure you’ve made a note of your login details and backed up your pictures by XX date”.

7. Involve your community champions

Your community champions love to be trusted to perform important tasks for the community. For example, it might be to beta test the functionality of the new community or to act as go-betweens for general community members. Getting your community champions on board early on will help the migration process to run much more smoothly.

5 ways to encourage online engagement

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Image courtesy of Shoot

It is tempting to focus soley on moderation when discussing online community management, but without driving discussion in the first place, a community manager will have nothing to moderate.

Here are five things every community manager should do to encourage discussion in an online community.

1. Use mixed media

Using different types of media always produces good engagement results. Images and picture galleries often generate the best engagement online and this is certainly the case for the Facebook pages we manage here at FreshNetworks.

2. Keep the community informed about latest updates

One simple tool to add to an online community is a “latest activity” box on the homepage. Members of one of the closed communities I manage regularly comment on how useful this tool is for quickly navigating the site and for keeping up to date with recent activity.

3. Email newsletters

By far the largest driver of traffic to the communities I manage are the weekly email newsletter updates I send. They highlight conversations that are important to the brand and in the early lifecycle of a community the email updates are particularly important in developing a relationship with community members.

4. One to one contact

Contacting users on an individual basis is a fantastic way of building  good foundations. Thank them for performing actions, suggest content they may like or point them towards new activities in order to build long-term engagement.

5. Ask questions that matter to the community

Asking simple questions is recognised as a good way of generating discussion. However, this only works if the questions you ask are relevant to your audience. Take the time to understand what your audience react to and then plan around this.

Using these tactics are just a few of the many ways that you can encourage discussion in an online community. What works best for you?

15 essential articles for online community managers #CMAD

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On the platform, reading

Image by moriza via Flickr

To celebrate the second annual Community Manager Appreciation Day, we’ve brought together 15 essential articles for online community managers and social media managers. From why community managers should get involved with their online community before it is even launched, through how to manage and grow a community, to how to measure the impact you are having.

This collection of articles, resources and thinking should have something for everybody to learn from or to add to. We’d love your thoughts on these and also your own favourite community manager articles and resources.

  1. When does a community manager’s job begin?: Why it is critical that your community manager is involved in helping to plan and design the online community before it is launched.
  2. The Ten Commandments of managing online communities: An insightful presentation on how to manage online communities from Julius Solaris.
  3. The biggest mistakes an online community manager can make: From lack of engagement to a lack of discipline, we look at five of the biggest mistakes an online community manger can make.
  4. How word of mouth grows online communities: A case study on the role of word of mouth helped to grow an online community at a critical early stage.
  5. Five things to consider when engaging social media influencers: Influencers in social media can be a great help when growing your community and become advocates of your site. However engaging them can be difficult. Here are five things to consider when engaging them.
  6. How to react if somebody writes about your brand online: A simple guide to help you decide when, and how, you should respond if somebody comments on your brand online.
  7. Why you shouldn’t join every conversation about your brand online: When you should, and when you shouldn’t, join conversations about your brand online (and why you shouldn’t feel the need to respond to them all).
  8. Champions, active users and trolls: Defining the different types of users in an online community and exploring how they behave and how you should manage them.
  9. Moderation and safety: Why moderation is important, the four types of moderation you can choose from and how to decide which approach is right for you.
  10. Should anonymous comments be allowed in your online community: The pros and cons of allowing anonymous comments in your online community, and those times when it really is the best option.
  11. Comparing paid and organic search strategies for online communities: Which are more successful drivers of traffic? And which are more likely to drive engagement?
  12. Eight ways you can use your online community to get insight: Eight tools and activities you can use in your online community to get insight from your members.
  13. What online community managers can learn from gaming: How to use gaming techniques to help manage and grow your online community.
  14. Using experts to encourage real engagement with your community: How experts can add value to your online community if used sensibly, and in a way that meets the needs of your community members.
  15. Is time on site a useful measure of how successful your online community is?: The short answer is ‘no’. This article tells you why, and where time on site is a useful measure.

Community manager appreciation day: pros and cons of community management

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With the second annual community manager appreciation day just around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to sit back and take a look at he pros and cons that come with online community management.

So without further ado, here’s my list:

The good

  • I get to speak to passionate, like-minded people every day. The customers I interact with on a regular basis, as well as my community mananger peers, feel strongly about the brands that they interact with.
  • As a community manager I have to be as passionate as my customers to really understand what they say and why. I’m never alone. Managing online communities is not just a nine to five job and whenever I’m up early or battling a case of insomnia I know my community is there.
  • My ability as a community manager is reflected in the success of my communities. A community that performs well is hailed as a good example of customer service or engagement and improves sentiment towards the brand.
  • I get to be the first point of contact for the brand I’m representing, so my professional and friendly portrayal is the key starting point for future brand engagement.

The bad

  • It’s often difficult to find the middle ground between chat and promotion. Being able to post a good range of content can take time and there’s a risk that I’ll be seen as too spammy.
  • A community never sleeps. I have to be available 24 hours a day depending on the needs of my community and I’ve accepted that not everyone has the same sleep patterns as me.

The ugly

  • Remaining happy at all times can sometimes be tough. There are always cases where something may rile you on your community, but you can never ever rise to it. Keeping a calm, professional face at all times can be difficult times, but maintaining composure is the sign of a good community manager.
  • Online communities come in many forms. Although the role has only come to public attention in the last few years, it has been around since message boards and lists first appeared on the Internet. Having said that, I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing queries through to the end, servicing the needs of both clients and community members and ultimately providing a comfortable place where brands and consumers can have an open friendly conversation.