Pixels & Pills’ Ultimate Guide to Online Communities

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By Bob Mason (@BobMasonPalio)

We’ve talked before about different types of online communities, from Twitter to virtual worlds. The term, “online community” can mean anything from the “big ones” like Facebook and Twitter, to smaller niche organizations such as the Planet Cancer community for young adults fighting cancer.

These little societies can do amazing things. As an outside organization looking to come into one of these spaces and communicate effectively to the members, though, it’s important to know what they can do and what they cannot. So here’s a little down-and-dirty-guide to them.

Online communities are great for…

Finding the right groups. Don’t spend the time and money on one of the top sites if your targets have a niche community that caters specifically to them. Kids with diabetes, breast cancer survivors, parents of children newly diagnosed with autism – there are groups and organizations, community-gatherers and champions. Find them and you don’t need to waste your message on people with whom it will not resonate.

Building enthusiasm. These communities are where you can workshop ideas. Show your target audience that you trust them and respect their opinion – but then, ask for it and use it. Should you convene official – and expensive – focus groups, or do you have a situation where it could be better to tweak your idea while you get buzz building live and in public?

Crowdsourcing ideas. The people involved in online communities are passionate enough to have searched it out, joined, and actively participate. They can be a gold mine, telling you exactly what will work – and what won’t – for people like them.

However, don’t forget that online communities are not great for…

Getting broad national exposure. Just because your information was posted on a community that has several million participants doesn’t mean your great-aunt Ethel in Paduca has seen it. Even if you’ve got stats to match Oprah, digital audiences aren’t exactly the same as broadcast or print ones. This can work in your favor, though.

Starting a new one from scratch. Think of a bricks-and-mortar comparison. Would it be easier to get customers if you open up a store in a crowded and popular shopping mall, or to build the same small-sized space off on its own? Or, worse yet, to try to build a building as big as that shopping mall, just for your own shop, and try to make it pay off? Leverage existing networks whenever you can: the people and the structure are already there. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

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