Thursday, December 17, 2009

Online Communities 101 for Social Media Marketing

It's always important to understand one's roots.

In the case of Social Networking, roots go *way* further back than 2002, as was implied by (and subsequently quoted by newspapers across the country,) the article by D.M. Boyd & N.B. Ellison in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. I won't beat you over the head with the history of ARPANet, but I do think that it is important to realize that:

When you attempt to engage your audience online, you will be entering the dynamics of an Online Community

For the benefit of the many folks new to the Social Network bandwagon, I thought I'd talk today about the lifecycle of an online community. Today's post is not about sociology or marketing - it's a backgrounder on people and their relationship to the online community you build - the dynamics of the community. I like to think of it as Online Communities 101.

Regardless if your company is starting a blog, or forum, or a Facebook page or group, a Yammer or Ning group, whether you're new to Twitter, have a mailing list or are pushing your presence through Foursquare, you are working with an online community.

Here's a quick-start guide to how online communities work and the kinds of people you'll find on them:


Beginners range from people who are new to this community to people new to all online communities. These people are likely to come into a community bristling with enthusiasm and energy and ask all the same questions that have ever been asked a million times until the luke-warm reponse they get from the more senior members causes them to calm down...or go away.

Implications for your business: The former can be informed simply with short, smart guidelines for use of your community. These people understand "netiquette" and get the whole idea of an online community overall, and may only need to know that you do not accept Not Safe For Work (NSFW) pictures on your group, or outside links in your blog comments.

The latter, you may have to retrain to be able to interact with people at all. Possibly by teaching them how to type, even how to hold conversations and reply to the group. There are people who really don't understand the implication of TYPING ALL IN CAPS, what RT, FWIW and @ mean, or how to disagree with an idea without insulting a person. You need to decide at every level of the conversation how much (re)training you are willing to do and build that into your community guidelines.

Intermediate Members

These folks have been around for a few "cycles" (see below) and have seen the same questions asked and answered a few dozen times. They know who is who on the community and will sometimes weigh in with responses where they have knowledge or links, or refer a "newbie" to a more senior member for an answer to a particular problem.

Implications for your business: Intermediate members are still enthusiastic enough to want to help get the word out - if you ask them. But they might act as if they know what they are talking about even if they don't, so keep an eye on communications made on your behalf.

Senior Members

Senior members of the community have posted so often that the system has automatically awarded them a higher rank or, in communities that do not have automated ranking, they are assigned Cognitive Authority by other community members. Senior members might be asked to moderate or administrate, which often takes them out of the cycle of posting and responding, as those duties quickly suck the fun out of a community. (I'm not kidding here - I have admined and moderated dozens of groups over the years and the number one way to make it no fun is to be the person in charge!)

Implications for your business: Senior members are highly engaged in the community. They have put a lot of time and energy into it. They will promote the community because they *want* to. Even if you have never empowered them to do so, when they speak it may sound like it's coming from you. (This is one reason why so many Senior members are moved to official Moderator positions.) Pay close attention to attitudes at this level. Disenfranchised Senior members, burnout, exhaustion or just plain being nasty will reflect very significantly on you at this level. Do yourself a favor and make sure you reward and note the achievements of these members. Don't let them labor unnoticed.


Moderators are almost always members of the community that have been around for many "cycles" and have proven themselves to be knowledgeable about the topic - and, hopefully, sensible and thick-skinned, as well. They are meant to keep the boat running evenly, and handle problems that occur within the membership.

Implications for your business: Moderators ARE your mouthpiece, even if the site is littered with disclaimers that they are not. Everything a moderator says comes from you, so be very careful to look for personal agendas, incomplete knowledge or bad atittudes.


Typically Administrators, known as Admins, have the final word on people problems, but they are usually busier with technical details and have little time to handle people issues. Admins are the Executive Officers of Online Communities; rolling out features, fixing breakdowns and making sure the sails are up and the whole boat is on course.

Implications for your business: The tech guy has few people skills, and the server is down - don't make him deal with the trolls.


Owners may be Admins, but they may also just be a business person who created the site for one reason or another. In the case of a Facebook Fanpage for instance, the Owner would be the company for whom the page was created, the Admin would be the internal or agency person who created it.

Implications for your business: There are tons of "Owners" in Branded spaces who have no day-to-day interaction with their community. This means you don't know your posters, your problem-makers or why no one cares and your online community is dead. Get involved, be your own mouthpiece, get the conversations started - *own* your community.

Online Communities "cycle" roughly every three months

Think of a cycles as the "dog years" of the Internet. Every three months sees a new crop of newbies, folks who were newbies move on or move up into an Intermediate position and Intermediates who have been around for 2-4 "cycles" find themselves acting as Senior members.

Implications for your business: Make answering those same questions simple. Even though no one reads the FAQs, display them prominently, and make them easily linkable. Watch the questions so no one who has a real need slips through the cracks. Find engaged Intermediate and Senior Members to assist you with routine work and *reward* them with recognition. Expect to lose Intermediate and Senior Members every three months, and be ready to replace them. And be prepared to face the same three or four problems over and over and over.

Bonus Member - Troll

Trolls have no agenda other than to cause you grief. They may be twelve (physically or emotionally) or they may be angry (See my article about the "Anti-Guy"). Their idea of fun is to be mean, or rude, or just loud until your community has become a place of misery for everyone. Trolls are like warts - if you try to remove them gently, they come back for more - remember, driving you crazy *is* their agenda.

Implications for your business: Drown their noise out with great content, good conversation and everyone having fun or you'll find yourself locked in an endless battle to shut up a squeaky wheel that will never be sufficiently greased. Be aware of the trolls, but do not engage them.

As a blogger, for instance, you might find that a few people are consistently commenting - these are your Intermediates. If you're gone for the week, they may even reply to a simple question or two with a link. Your Senior member-readers will defend you against trolls, engage in conversation with other commenters and promote your posts and idea.

Ultimately, it's still up to you to create an atmosphere that encourages dialogue between your members and between you and them. People come to your community/forum/blog/Twitter/Facebook etc because they have some interest in what you have to say. You still need to engage, inform and transform the dialogue into a relationship for your community to blossom.
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