Online marketing has its challenges, regardless of your company size. Even large companies like Dell struggle with brand consistency, online reputation, and social media interactions. In a recent article by Christopher Hosford,   Dell shares some of the lesson they learned while trying to build a brand through online communities, and has some insights I think any community sponsor could learn from and apply to their own programs.

For one, the first and most important part of your online marketing strategy must be brand control. Now, this is really difficult to do with all the sites you probably manage. Even if you are still in the “follower-building” phase of your social media strategy, it’s likely you maintain some combination of a company website, Facebook page, LinkedIn profile and Twitter account (don’t even get me started on Google +…).  Dell addresses this issue by doing two things: 1) Nurture major influencers to your community and 2) Get involvement from in-house experts.

For starters, Dell identifies “major influencers who have their own blog-driven communities or participants in important ones” and brings them to Dell headquarters to speak with founder Michael Dell. This not only gives these influencers a positive perception of the company, but also includes them in important corporate conversations. The result is that their perception and subsequent communications about, the Dell brand will be positive and consistent with that of the company.

Second, as we’ve outlined in past articles, using content contributors from within your company is a great way to build your online community and make more connections with your visitors. Dell not only brings in-house experts (from all levels in the company)  to targeted communities (based on their skills/subject matter expertise) but also makes “employees rock stars” so that they can feel ownership over community engagement and the relationships which result.

By putting ‘skin-in-the-game’ for your employees, they will not only become more involved and empowered, but will feel responsible for the success of the business, helping reach a large audience in relatively shorter periods of time than before.  As a way to maintain company standards via social interactions, Dell holds an “internal social media training program that encourages social participation.”

Now, as you know, every online community has its dark side, and Dell doesn’t shy away from sharing some of the potential ‘dangers’ of social media and community interactions. For starters, it can be harmful to your brand if you build an online community and no one visits. Secondly, if a large amount of “negative” visitors come to the site, or people come who aren’t interested in nurturing the broader community as much as talking poorly about your brand.

To avoid having a site that no-one visits, it’s important to build a site that’s not only educational and nurturing, but SEO-friendly. This means having a clean design, easy-to-navigate sections and relatively little company branding: The online community should be industry-focused, not all about your company, to establish your brand as the true thought leader in that space. It’s also important to keep the design fresh (change ads, banners, images and videos often) with a constant churn of new, relevant and educational content for visitors to want to bookmark the page to return later. Finally, content should always be written in an SEO-friendly way. As long as the content isn’t “all about you” but carries through your keywords, has proper links and no black-hat practices, it will be set up to rank highly, organically, on major search engines – making it easier for your target audience to find you.

To get the “right” visitors to your site, establish clearly on the page (maybe in an “introduction” email) what the purpose of the site is, and how community members are expected to ‘behave’. Dell goes so far as to “Screen community members” and personally engage with unhappy ones to alter their perception of the brand. Regardless of how far you want to go with your site, you should at the least establish some ground rules for discussions and participation for community members to follow.

Do any of these Dell lessons resonate with you? What questions would you have about building successful online communities if you could pose them to the Dell team? Let me know at @apritchie

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