Get involved in online communities

Written on the 2 July 2010

What is an online community?

A great way to encourage and facilitate feedback and knowledge about your products/ services / business from customers and prospects is to get involved in online community groups.

An online or virtual group is a group of people that primarily interact via an online presence, making individual contributions by knowledge sharing. By getting involved in online communities it will also help to strengthen your relationship with your existing and potential customers.

There are many different types of online communities, including: 

  • Wikis - A website that can be edited by anyone through their browser. The world’s most famous wiki is online encyclopedia Wikipedia
  • Blogs - A website where the 'blogger' can post informal thoughts, comments and advice in the form of a journal. We use a blog on our website to educate and inform our customers and prospects.  Read about the Bloomtools Blog Manager tool.
  • Chat rooms - An online area where users can chat with each other in real-time about topics of interest. Some of the most popular chat rooms on the Internet can be found in Yahoo! Groups
  • Internet forums - similar to a chat room, a forum allows users to participate online discussions related to particular topics.  Learn about the Bloomtools Internet Forum tool
  • Bookmarking sites - a site where users can share sites of interest that they have bookmarked. The bookmarking site del.icio.us has grown to become one of the most-visited social websites on the Web
  • Social networking - websites where users can create profiles of themselves and connect with friends around the world. The biggest social networking site is Facebook, which has more than 34 million members.

In order to make online community groups a successful brand building strategy for your business, it is important that you understand the key figures in these groups: 

  • Peripheral - An outsider to the group. May observe and view content on occasion but doesn’t add to the community or want to be part of the group
  • Inbound – A newcomer who is engaged with the community and on the way to becoming a full participant. Start to provide content to the discussions and tentatively interacts with others
  • Insider – Participant who is fully committed to the community. Consistently adds to community discussion and content and interacts with others regularly
  • Boundary - A leader of the group, moderates membership participation and interactions. Community members respect them and their opinions
  • Outbound – Participant that is leaving the community due to new relationships, new positions or new outlooks.

Strategies for getting involved

  • Get others (Boundary and Insiders) within communities to talk about your product:

    Using this type of "referral" system can generate a huge amount of traffic or sales for you business. The boundaries and insiders have established themselves as leaders and others in the group listen to what they say (these are the people you want to build up a relationship with and maybe give access to trial your product or service)
  • Become an expert (Boundary):

    If you are constantly involved in online communities and give valuable comments, you can gain status as a moderator or expert. Once you have this position, you can make recommendations and people in their thousands will listen. Establishing yourself as a boundary will require a lot of work, but is a very valuable way to promote your brand and engage with your prospects.
  • Provide a link to your website:

    This is the best option for beginners or those that don’t have a lot of time. You need to provide a link in your signature, so that when other users want to learn more about you after they have read your post, they will be taken to your website. This can also help with optimization as you create more inbound links to your site.

A word of warning - the people that use online communities are generally very accepting of new ideas but they resent their groups being used as for free advertising. So if you do become involved in these groups, make sure your contributions are valuable, relevant and interesting, not just thinly-disguised marketing messages.

If you build a reputation as an expert in the group, the other users will visit your business website and spread the word about your brand. But, if you just use the group to blatantly promote yourself, the group has the word of mouth power to damage your brand.