By Alexandra Reid
As a community manager, I admit I am rather biased when it comes to explaining the value of online communities, so I promise to do my best to be both balanced and accurate as I weigh their merits and demerits. If you’re reading this post, you’ve likely already heard the hoopla about how bustling and engaged online communities can be valuable for businesses. What you may not know is how they can be specifically beneficial to you, the entrepreneur in the ever-crucial stages of developing a startup when budgets are low and time is precious.
A common misconception that many people have about social media is that it is free. Sure, the platforms on their own don’t cost a nickel. But if the intention is to use them for business, they require a considerable level of resources, especially human resources required to develop a strategy and then to carry out online activities. You need to have a crystal-clear understanding of your goals and the processes through which you will achieve those goals for your investment in social media to be worthwhile. Trust me, social media is no light undertaking to be considered in passing. Do not idly throw this position on someone who already has 10 other responsibilities just because he or she has a Twitter account. Someone with a firm grasp on how to plan social media activities to achieve business goals should be in charge of building online communities to ensure you do not waste your valuable time, energy, money and reputation on a trial-and-error approach.
Online communities can be astonishingly valuable once they have been properly built. I’ll save the specifics for another post but the essential starting point is finding where your audience congregates. Where are people talking about your stuff? Where are your competitors and prospects? Where are the people you can help? Once you find them, you can engage them. You should be honest, curious, interested and genuinely helpful in your approach. Lets move on to what you came here for:
How are online communities valuable for startups?
Startups are, at best, still in the fine-tuning stage of their products and services. People who participate in online communities are of a culture eager to offer input, ideas and answers to your questions. Pick their brains. Ask them questions, even if it’s, “Am I crazy to attempt this?” If they think you’re crazy, they’ll tell you so and offer solutions. If they think you’re trying to produce something of value, they’ll likely give you the approval, encouragement and support you need to move forward.
Building online communities before you launch is a great way to earn support before you need it. People will remember that you involved them through the tough stages of building your startup. You asked them questions and they contributed ideas. You acknowledged and appreciated their input. These supportive relationships could become invaluable further down the road when you are looking to further develop your company or seek VC or angel investments. Your online community can be an excellent resource to tap into whether you require a connection, some advice or even financial aid. Don’t underestimate their potential.
Reputation and awareness
Creating company accounts on multiple platforms is a great way to boost your online presence. For expert advice on how to put together a professional social media profile on each platform, I recommend visiting Chris Brogan’s blog. Participate in LinkedIn Groups and Answers related to your product or services. Search keywords on Twitter to find relevant people and engage them in conversation. Offer your opinions on blogs. Answer questions on Quora. The more you get your name and avatar out there, the more people will begin to recognize you as a thought leader in your area and seek out your company. Your online presence is far more interactive and interesting than brochure-ware. Use your personality to your advantage.
Creating social media accounts through which you distribute content and engaging on platforms can boost your search-engine rankings. The nature of the social web encourages participation such as sharing, voting, commenting and linking. Popular content gets exposure and traffic and can result in a substantial number of relevant inbound links. Blogs are an excellent way to produce unique, engaging and sharable content that will attract links to your site. To learn more, I covered SEO for startups in a previous post.
What are the challenges?
As mentioned previously, building an online community does not happen overnight. (Unless you’re Charlie Sheen, and I don’t recommend his personal branding approach for entrepreneurs who intend to be regarded as professional leaders in their space.) It requires a lot of time, dedication and proficiency. To successfully engage in social media for business purposes, you have to have a firm grasp on best practices for monitoring, measurement, management, SEO, professional engagement and content creation. Entrepreneurs of startups are typically already working 60-hour work weeks (or more!), so a clear strategy that defines goals and benchmarks indicating a progression of achievement of those goals is vital. Social media is for the long term, but if you work smart, it will be worth your while.
Did I miss any key points? Do you have any case studies of startups who were successful or unsuccessful at social media? Please, share your thoughts.
A special thanks to Rosemary O’Neill who contributed her perspective on Quora.