20 Tips for successful community building

successful community building

Ok. So now that you know the skeletal logic of using social media for SEO, here’s some meat to put on the bones.

Social media spaces are very personal. With genuine communities. And people in those communities value them very highly, take them very seriously and are very protective of them. Entry into a social media community isn’t a right; it’s something you have to earn. Sure, you may be allowed to join, but you won’t be considered a true member until you’ve earned your stripes, until you’ve shown that you value the community as much as   they do, that you take it seriously, and that you’re just as protective of it.

So, although your ultimate objective is to get people to link to your site, you have to be very careful how you go about achieving that objective. Don’t go into any social media community thinking you can treat its members  like an advertising audience, or like recipients of reciprocal linking email requests. On the whole, they don’t appreciate promotion, and they won’t link to you just because you ask.

Social media culture is one of giving, not selling. If you ignore this, you’ll simply be intruding on everyone’s personal space. They’ll feel the same as you do when you get a telesales call at home during dinner.

Furthermore, most social media community members are bloggers. And they won’t link to your website without a very good reason. Their blog content – even if it’s corporate – is a lot different from corporate promotional content. It’s much, much more personal – bloggers express themselves, they don’t just try to sell. This is the key ingredient in blogging. It’s what makes blogs so powerful and what gives them such longevity. People connect with people.

When a blogger links to something, they’re telling the world that they, as a person, value that content (unless, of course, they’re criticizing the content). If they link to crap, they’ll undermine their own credibility and very quickly develop a bad reputation, and people will quickly stop reading. Without personal authenticity, a blog is nothing.

And a word of warning: if you ignore the culture of your chosen social media space, you risk a lot more than exclusion. Because social media spaces are so personal, people gossip and bitch. And because the networks are so extensive and interconnected, word travels fast. It takes just a few hours for virtually every social  network in the world to learn of a serious social media misdemeanor. But it takes months – maybe even years – to live it down.

Here are some tips for avoiding the pitfalls and making an effective start in social media.

  • Know what joining a network means – On some services, like FaceBook and LinkedIn, you need permission to join someone’s network. That’s because as soon as you join, you’re privy to everything they share, and you can see their entire network (and vice versa). On other services, like Twitter, you don’t need permission to join anyone’s network because it’s only a one-way opt-in. You see everything they share, but they see nothing you share, unless they connect back to you. Yet others, like StumbleUpon and Delicious, allow you to see what anyone has shared without joining. Joining their network simply makes it easier for you to access their bookmarks.
  • Find, join and observe the right people – Look for people who’ll be interested in what you have to say. In the beginning, it’s probably best to look for your industry’s ‘celebrities’ – the thought and   opinion leaders. People with big networks already. Even if they’re your competitors. As mentioned above, social media is about giving, and, surprisingly enough, this applies equally to interactions between competitors. (Well… to some extent.) Your competitors may not share their trade secrets with

you, but they certainly won’t resent you connecting with them. If nothing else, it boosts their status, and helps them keep an eye on you!

By joining the networks of industry ‘celebs’, you’ll get a good idea of how they interact. They obviously know how it’s done. Also, you’ll avoid the temptation to prematurely interact with potential customers. As these are the people who’ll ultimately be buying from you, you really want to know how they expect to be treated before you start connecting.

Some services like LinkedIn, FaceBook and MySpace also feature member-created groups. There’s one for just about every topic imaginable. Find groups that are relevant to your business, join them and get involved in their discussions. This is a good way to find relevant people to connect with. (But don’t just go connecting with people ‘willy-nilly’. Make sure you observe them for a while, and you’re comfortable being associated with them.)

  • Understand and observe local etiquette Darren Rowse (blogger extraordinaire and social media master) advises people to treat every Social Media space like a foreign country. Learn the language, the customs, the etiquette. Perhaps even find a local guide. By doing this, you won’t unknowingly offend anyone or make a fool of yourself!
  • Learn the lingo – Each social media space has its own lingo. Abbreviations, shortcuts, labels, acronyms, tags, etc. E.g. Many Twitterers call each other “tweeps” (short for Twitter peeps), say “pr0n” instead of “porn” and shorten words as per an SMS.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask – Asking for advice shows you’re human. It proves you’re willing to expose your vulnerabilities. It also proves you want to learn to do things the right way. So it gets you big brownie points! So long as you don’t dominate everyone’s time and you listen to their answers.
  • Listen – Although much of what you read in any social media space may seem like a time-waster, most of it still has some value – especially for a newbie. Even if the content is irrelevant to you, it shows you how other people are interacting, what they’re talking about, what’s acceptable discussion, and how they’re talking. And, of course, listening’s a sign of respect, just as it is in the real world.
  • Help – Every chance you get. The more you help, the more you prove yourself, the more trust you’ll get, and the more backlinks you’ll generate. In fact, whenever you’re participating in social media, you have to take off your sales/PR/SEO hat and put on your community hat. In other words, you must always put the needs of your community ahead of your own. To begin with, as a rule of thumb, make every contribution helpful (or a question). Answer questions if you know the answer. Consider writing some guest posts for other bloggers. Only start asking favors through your social media networks once   you’ve earned the right to do so.
  • Put your heart into it – If your heart’s not in it, people will sense it. They’ll feel that everything you do is a thinly veiled promotion.
  • Be transparent – Be up-front about why you’re there. And on the odd occasion when you do actually promote yourself, don’t be sneaky about it. Be open, clear and succinct. People will respect your transparency and you won’t be wasting everyone’s time (including your own).
  • Be yourself – If you spend all your time worrying whether people in your social media community are going to like what you say – or how you say it – it’s possible that you’ll develop a big following, but it won’t be a true community. You’ll only ever build a community if you’re true to yourself. In fact, that’s really what people in social media communities really want. People. They’re there to engage with you as a person, not a figure-head, not a PR practitioner, not a spin-doctor. People connect with people.
  • Be human – Let your personality shine through. There are millions of people on social media platforms. But only one you. Leverage that uniqueness. Here’s a great blog post on leveraging your personality for social media success, by Brian Carter (quite a popular Twitterer, with nearly 4,000 followers). Even if you don’t follow every suggestion to the letter, it’ll help you understand what others are familiar with   and what you’re comfortable with.
  • Be patient – Generating backlinks through social media takes time and a lot of hard work. Unfortunately, however, Google pretty much ignores most methods that don’t.
  • Comment – Commenting on other people’s blogs and bookmarks is an excellent practice (assuming, of course, they’re relevant). It not only shows your willingness to contribute, it also boosts the search rank of the site you’re commenting on, and builds buzz around the blog post. What’s more, it extends your profile within the network. The more people see your comments, the more familiar they become with you, and the more they’ll click through to see your own content. TIP: Commenting on other blogs is a particularly useful way to establish your domain authority, without diluting the specificity of your own blog. For instance, my blog is about copywriting and SEO copywriting (with a few light writing posts thrown in for entertainment). This is what people expect from my blog. If I talk too much about straight SEO, people might be put off because they’re there to read about copywriting. So I try to comment on other blogs or write guest posts when I have something to express that’s just straight SEO. This means my visitors get what they expect, the search engines see mostly copywriting discussed on my site, and I still get to establish my credibility in straight SEO circles (among people who might otherwise not have encountered me).
  • Link – Links are the ultimate currency on the Internet. Link to someone without expecting anything in return, and you earn big brownie points. In fact, many people will link back to you just because of your good will. You can link to them from within your blog post or you can set up a link to them in your blogroll (the list of your favorite blogs in the right sidebar). Note that when you link to someone else’s blog post from within the body of yours, quite often, a snippet of your post and a (nofollow) link to it will be automatically added to their comments. This is known as a ‘pingback’. The pingback link doesn’t pass on any PageRank, so it’s of no direct SEO benefit, but it’s certainly beneficial in terms of building your social media presence. It lets the original blogger know you linked to him or her, and it puts your name and link in front of that blogger’s audience.
  • Be the first to bookmark other people’s content – It won’t take you long to realize that bookmarking can be somewhat of a race. If you’re the first to bookmark something interesting, engaging or just incredibly newsworthy, many people who come across it will make an effort to ‘follow the trail’ back to the original bookmarker: you. Once there, there’s a good chance they’ll:
  1. click through to your site and have a look around. And with such good content on your site, they won’t be able to resist linking to it; and/or
  1. join your social bookmarking network and keep a close eye on all your future bookmarks. The important thing to realize here is that there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of bloggers out there who are so hungry for interesting stuff to talk about that they look really hard for inspiration. They trawl the social bookmarking services (as I advised you to do if you’re lost for something to blog about – see p.110) and if they find someone who consistently gives them what they’re after, they’ll pay close attention to them.
  • Go slow – Start with just a couple of social media services. Because social media participation is very time-consuming, you need to be very focused in your approach. Be aware of how much time (or how many human resources) you can throw at it, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. That means  you need to choose just a couple of social media services – at least to begin with: one   ‘Communication’ (e.g. Twitter) and one ‘Bookmarking’ (e.g. StumbleUpon). Communication so you engage intimately with your network, and Bookmarking so your networks can easily access and  promote your content. Dedicate a couple of days to signing up to a few of the major / relevant services. Play with them, read about them, and get a feel for what they have to offer you. Do you like the way  they work? Do you ‘get it’ (bearing in mind that each will take a little research and experimentation)? Once you’ve had your head in the space for a while, you’ll soon figure out what you like and don’t like.
  • Work to US time – Even if most of your customers are from elsewhere, most social media traffic is in the US. So always consider the timing of your social media activities. For instance, if you’re making an important announcement on Twitter, or bookmarking a post, check the time in America first. (Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz recommends doing these sorts of things during America’s business day and Europe’s evening.) You can get a world time addon for Firefox that makes this easy.
  • Be thought-provoking early in the week – That’s when people are freshest and most likely to think about your content. Later in the week, they’re tired and thinking about the weekend.
  • Use a photo avatar – People don’t want to see your logo or your favorite cartoon character. They want to see a photo of your face. (And not some blurry, obscured one, either.) TIPS: 1) When uploading your avatar to Twitter, use a .png file. Gifs tend to hang. And upload something bigger than the thumbnail they display by default. When people view your profile, they can enlarge your photo, and if yours is only

thumbnail-sized, it’ll end up grainy. 2) Register with Gravatar and upload your photo. Many blogs these days automatically display your Gravatar photo next to your comments. People are far more likely to associate intelligent comments with a face than a name.

  • Save time – Using social media can take a lot of time. I recommend you take advantage of as many tools as make sense to you. To start with, use Firefox as your web browser. It’s faster than Internet Explorer and has a host of addons that make your day to day work much easier. Some of my favorites include:
  • Shareaholic – Bookmark pages directly from your browser toolbar. Supports most popular bookmarking services.
  • Twitthat – Tweet about what you’re reading with a single click. Includes a shortened link and the title of the page you’re reading.
  • FoxClocks – Displays world times in your browser’s status bar. You’ll undoubtedly have people from all around the world in your network.
  • StumbleUpon toolbar – One-click thumbs up, thumbs down and stumble.
  • GButts – All your Google services accessible from one button in your browser toolbar. Great for monitoring traffic (Google Analytics).
  • Search Status – Highlights nofollow links on screen as you browse. Does a lot more too, but this is very handy as it tells you which links pass on juice and which don’t.

For more information…

  • on leveraging specific social media services, see Social Media Optimization Strategies at SEOmoz (USD $29). It’s a quality analysis of the major social media services. Although it was written in 2007, most of its content is still relevant today.