The Rules of Online Community Engagement: If You Build It, Will They Come?

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We are living in the conversation age, where one-way communication is no longer enough. Savvy consumers with infinite choices across the web expect interaction and engagement, and those who can't deliver will find themselves at the end of the line. What that means is the days of broadcasting your message to the masses and reaping huge benefits are fading fast. The deepest pockets once delivered the biggest audience, but the audience can no longer be bought. It must be earned.

Many businesses and organizations are aware of this fact and have built online communities or have become involved in existing social media platforms to actively listen to and communicate with customers. They understand the power of engagement and recognize the importance of transparency. Others are still in denial, ignoring the conversations and refusing to embrace this new way of communication. However, when the president of the U.S. creates a new office dedicated solely to public engagement, it underscores a fundamental shift in the way we communicate.

Growing a successful online community, for me, has been a trial by fire, and in some aspects it still is. What seems like a great idea can easily flop, and the simplest ideas can resonate with the community in ways you could never imagine, bringing new members in waves and causing participation levels to skyrocket.

It can be as simple as starting a conversation about gas prices, complaining about the morning commute, or simply asking the community members to share their plans for the weekend. It's the conversation and shared experiences that bring people together, and you must know how to facilitate the process within your specific niche and create an environment where people feel appreciated, important, and special.

I wrote 18 Rules of Community Engagement after spending 2 years experimenting with approaches to community building. I'm proud to report that these experiments have paid off, and I'm happy to share a chapter from the book with EContent's readers, in which I document the strategies I found most effective.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

The answer, simply, is no! Many organizations and businesses mistakenly believe that if they provide the tools for community engagement and interaction, a community will form on its own and ultimately engage and interact. Nothing could be further from the truth. Creating an online community or social network with user profiles, blogs, forums, chat rooms, image galleries, and other bells and whistles will not make it a destination for compelling conversation or encourage users to create content.

Allowing comments on blogs and news stories won't make people post them, nor will opening a chat room attract large groups of people who will enter and start chatting. Along those same lines, creating a forum won't make interesting topics suddenly appear. Providing the tools is only the first step toward building and growing communities, and it isn't the most important one. While providing the tools does indicate a desire to bring people together, it does nothing to actually make it happen.

It takes a different kind of investment to grow a community, and a major portion of that investment is time. The other part is engagement. If you don't have the time or patience to engage and do so genuinely, or if you're unwilling to pay someone who can do it on your behalf, you cannot realistically expect to grow a community around any topic or succeed in an existing one. What you will do is waste a lot of time and set yourself or your organization up to fail. My advice to you would be: Don't even bother.

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