Sunday, May 1, 2011

Online Communities 104 - Adapting to New Spaces

You've been active on your company's Facebook Page for a while, and you are starting to build a nice community there. People are responding to your posts, you're getting good percentages of engagement. Then someone tells you that you "ought to be on Twitter." Or GetGlue or EmpireAvenue. Maybe the number one space for your topic is a well-established forum.

Today we're going to discuss adapting to a new online environment.

Not every online community is the same. Communities where aliases are common, or required, will have a completely different feel than communities where real full names are standard. Communities that are moderated will have a different dynamic than communities that are not.

There are things you need to understand before getting involved in a new online community. The most important of these is:

Don't assume that every online space follows the same rules as another online space.

In the real world, you act differently with your friends, with your spouse, with your boss. Online communities will take on personality based on who is running it, what the purpose is and how it's being run. If you're used to a barely-moderated forum where ad hominem attacks are common and considered a form of bonding, don't be surprised when you are banned from another community that has stricter standards for behavior.

1) When you first approach a new community, read the Rules.

Know what you're getting into. Do you have to moderate your own space or is the system itself moderated by a team? In whose interests is the site moderation acting? What are the appropriate limits of behavior?

2) Learn the purpose of that community.

There is nothing more jarring than joining a community meant for communication and discussion of a particular topic and finding the site spammed with self-promotional material by users who don't understand - or don't care - that it's inappropriate. Worse, is this really how you want to be seen, if you decide that short-term gain is more important?

3) Lurk first.

"Lurking" is the time-honored act of not saying anything at all, while other people talk. Read threads, check other sites, read articles about best practices for that site - know what is being done...and what is not.

4) Know why you are there.

You may be in a community because people tell you you "ought" to be there, but unless you know why being there is good for there really any reason to be there?  Anyone can sign up for the American Thoracic Society Annual Meeting, but unless your field of interest is Immunology or a related discipline, why on earth would you? Just because the sneaker store next door is doing well with Gowalla, doesn't mean that your child care center will. Have a purpose for every interaction. "Sharing information" and "talking with people" are completely legit purposes, but don't confuse them with "getting sales leads."

5) Adapt to the community culture.

This is absolutely critical. You are used to setting the rules for your business. When you create a mailing list or a web page, you set the parameters for interaction. You're not used to playing by other people's rules.

The most important thing you can do for yourself is to adapt to the rules. Adopt them for your own use and master them. Become a trusted expert on that community. Don't spend energy trying to fight the tide of community culture, become a leader of the community by embracing that culture.

There is one rule, however, that applies to every community without exception: the Golden Rule.

Follow that rule on every community, online and offline, and you're sure to adapt and master community life quickly.
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