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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.