An engaged online community or digital tribe is the path to real business success on social media. Anyone who has been on social media for any length of time recognizes that the old school way of broadcasting messages is beyond passé at this point and that engagement is the key. The way to propel this activity is by either creating or becoming part of a relevant online community that learns to trust you and that will support your activities and interests, hyper-spreading your endeavors globally.
There is strength in numbers. But there is power in numbers that actually know you! Individuals acting independently of each other will not have nearly the same impact.
It is becoming increasingly important for brands to get on board with this concept of community in the new social order. Indeed, the potential for developing a community of brand advocates that freely shares your content and spreads the word about your company on a consistent basis, perhaps even with passion, is nothing less than the Holy Grail of social media.
Fundamentally, there is really nothing new here — we have always networked and seeked to develop trusted reputations — but we could have only dreamed to do it on the massive, global scale that today’s social networking platforms enable. Over the past few years, I have learned a thing or two about what makes a digital tribe tick. I run a couple of online communities and play a leading role in others. One of these is the re:DESIGN community on Facebook and Google+, for those who value all that strategic design can do for business and innovation.
I have also gleaned a lot of insight from the global writers’ community I run with Peggy Fitzpatrick at 12 Most. What could have easily been a disjointed effort of haphazardly posting guest posts as they come in, has instead grown into a very organized, respected community of professionals — one that produces fresh weekly content with a broad readership — all while enjoying each other’s company and supporting each other every step of the way.
We are a digital tribe that is greater than the sum of its parts, because of what we have been able to foster through social media and a deliberate, strategic effort to build something special. I am sure that our readers respond to this too, as they enjoy the content we provide and feed off the energy of our social interaction and in the comments beneath our posts as well.
Following are some of the things that are critical for building a successful online community:
1. Passion with a common purpose
Having a passion for the mission and values of the tribe is vital. It is what inspires others to be passionate too and share in the journey. Defining processes and clarifying expectations facilitates a healthy, vibrant, principle-based community. It is also handy to have these and other community guidelines to point to when necessary — publicizing them demonstrates transparency and shows that these principles go for everybody. We state right upfront what we are looking for in the re:DESIGN and 12 Most communities — it is the only way to attract like-minded people who share similar passions.
Any large group that aspires to work together toward common goals requires leadership to establish a focus, keep things properly aligned and get things done. It’s the only way to harness the power of the people, efficiently and effectively. The vision and community values need to be established upfront — and then someone needs to make decisions in the end. It is the only way.
3. Establish forums for people to get to know each other
A “safe” haven where people aren’t afraid to share and be themselves is vital. Good news, bad news, anything — it is where strong bonds are developed. Even if your primary presence is a public one, it is important to have a closed group forum as well. It is also where sensitive matters can be handled with discretion. At 12 Most, we have lots of different places in which to interact, both online and offline: our blog site with blogging and comments, a Twitter account and hashtag, a Facebook public fan page and a closed group for writers, a Google+ page and circle of contributors, a LinkedIn group, emails, Skype calls, phone calls, and even several IRL meetings.
4. Nurture a sense of responsibility and commitment
Cultivating a community where people feel compelled to live up to expectations, even if for fear of letting the others down, is a sign of a strong tribe. Over time, it creates the glue with the stickiness that keeps people bound together for the long haul.
5. Be the example, be available and provide timely responses
Model the behavior you want to see. Acting as the model community member is a living example of what is expected of all community members. If a mistake is made, admit it and fix it. Simple as that and it establishes trust. This goes for internal interactions as well as the external interactions of your community. A lively, engaged community where the light is always on and people feel heard is where meaningful conversations and deeper engagement happens.
6. Establish a strong brand identity
This is often missed, but it is as important to your community members as it is to your public awareness, for it provides something tangible for people to rally behind. We established a strong brand image for 12 Most that people take pride in and proudly display badges on their websites. It also created a visual cohesion through all our various media touch points, so rather than several fractured, disparate entities we present a family of properties that speak with one voice — and one for which we are recognized.
7. Share what others are doing and tirelessly advocate for each other
Whether it is something new you discovered, a post from someone’s blog you enjoyed or a simple retweet, it is said that “sharing is caring.” Put enough people together around a common purpose who care about one another and “viola!” — you have a community.
8. Celebrate victories and draw attention to a job well done
Everyone likes a pat on the back or being recognized for an accomplishment that is publicized without provocation. When this becomes the norm rather than the exception, you know you have something special.
9. Be positive and have a sense of humor
Nobody likes cranky communities. Groups that gripe a lot don’t last. The best communities I have belonged to also know how to have a good time — we certainly do at 12 Most. And where there is wit and laughter, there will be more smart, funny people willing to join and share in the fun. Positive people create positive energy where positive things can happen for everybody. That endures. And that is fact.
In any large community, someone will eventually cause a stir, acting outside the bounds of the welfare of the tribe, or spreading rumors or acting trollish in some way — decisive action needs to be taken. Make your wishes clear and perhaps give another chance, but if the behavior is allowed to linger, it can quickly compromise the basic well-being of your tribe. People will exit quickly if they sense friction and drama in an online community — even worse, your community’s good reputation could be tarnished in the process.
11. Consistency is key
Repeating these steps day in and day out is no easy task, particularly when people have other responsibilities and are separated by distance. But dedicating yourself consistently to these behaviors is critical for nurturing the kind of culture of which strong digital tribes are made.
12. Stay nimble
Communities evolve. Things change all the time in today’s online world. If your community is thriving and growing as you build something great together, it will certainly require flexibility and making adjustments as you go. Keeping the tribe on course through these shifts can take some deft handling, but it is critical for making certain that your community prevails.
I recognize that a lot of these points are basic leadership fundamentals for managing and leading any large group or business. Online is really no different than offline, so some of these basic tenets should not be overlooked. In fact, the virtual nature of online communities in many ways requires even more attention to these things, as they establish the guideposts for what is not always felt to be as “real” as are meetings in conference rooms replete with cozy swivel chairs and bottled waters. But believe me, digital tribes and online collaborations are definitely real, and following these points can result in healthy, vibrant, and productive online communities if done right.
Bringing this all together is no easy trick — it is difficult and takes the right mix of talents and personalities for sure. Self-important, self-serving, egocentric personalities don’t work and they are found out quickly in this environment. Digital tribes are largely self-policing like that — those who don’t fit will find their way out soon enough.
It is incredibly gratifying to build something together with great people and without limitations of geography. The talent and networking pools are endless! I believe we have built something special with both re:DESIGN and 12 Most — and it was only possible through the awesome power of amazing online communities. We make each other better which makes our personal endeavors better — and that makes our communities better.
Are you a member of an online community or started one of your own? What’s worked and what hasn’t worked so well? Let me know in the comments — I’d be interested in seeing what you have to say.
This post first appeared on the best list site on the web, 12 Most.
Featured image courtesy of Pretty/Ugly Design via Creative Commons.