As more and more individuals become involved in professional online communities, understanding how to engage online becomes increasingly important. While most professionals develop good skills at in-person networking and idea-sharing, when they start looking to use an online group or forum to collaborate with peers the keyboard can sometimes get in the way of effective communication. Here are a few guidelines to help new members of professional communities get the most out their participation in online peer groups.
Find the right online community
Identifying an appropriate online peer community for your needs may take some time. There are professional communities and online groups that serve every imaginable profession and discipline, so you may have several to chose from. Discovering which one will be best for you requires a bit of research and exploration. First, do Google searches on specific terms relevant for your profession and ask your peers where they go online for help and peer collaboration.
With a list of candidate communities in hand, take a moment to visit and explore each community to determine if it will be a good fit. Do the members seem to be people you would like to spend time with in-person? Do the discussion topics interest you? Did you learn something new in the forums or find a topic to which you might contribute a comment of two? If so, chances are you found a viable online home.
Take the first steps
Once you identify a possible community, spend some time filling in your community profile, then post an "introduce yourself" message. Most professional online communities have a "Welcome New Members" discussion or something similar where you can post a short "Hello, I am ..." introduction. My general rule of thumb for online etiquette is behavior that would be effective, welcomed or expected in face-to-face settings is likely to be acceptable online. What works in-person works online, too.
If you're ready to take the plunge and be more visible, the next step is to make a contribution to a discussion topic. Look for an active discussion thread that catches your interest and write a brief response. For some reason, this is sometimes one of the most difficult steps for professionals online. However, just as you wouldn't join an in-person networking group and never, ever say a word, staying a silent member of an online community is a less-than-rewarding experience. Remember, as with all communities -- in-person and online -- you get what you put into the activity. If you give nothing, you get nothing.
Overcome barriers to participation
There are a number of reasons why professionals hesitate to participate online: they don't feel they have anything to contribute (maybe this isn't the right group?), they fear saying something stupid in public (find a safe or neutral discussion for the first few posts), or they are concerned they won't be able to finish what they started (don't worry, most online discussion threads only last a few days to a few weeks - tops!). Most community software platforms offer a subscription or notification option for discussions, so you can be notified if someone responds to your posts.
If you are still hesitant to post, there are other ways to establish connections with the group. Participate in quick polls and surveys online. This gives you access to the aggregate wisdom of your peers, and most communities share survey and poll data with community members.
Another approach, if you already have a blog, an article or other information of value to the community, would be to email the community manager and ask if they would be interested in the information. If they have a library or document upload area, you can always make a contribution there. Of course, be sure you have the rights to post it and that it does not contain any confidential information.
Reap the rewards of participation
Once you take these initial steps to participate in an online community, you will unleash the power of a global peer group. Idea exchange, personal experiences and know-how, research and best practices will all be available to you 24X7, wherever you can get online. You'll have a wealth of information and peers to help you be more effective at your work and expand your professional competence. What a great deal!
Remember, the more you participate and connect with other members, the more dependable and responsive the community as a whole will be to you. Online communities offer professionals an opportunity to shine -- sharing what they know, enhancing their reputations, making meaningful professional and business connections with peers. After spending so much time and energy in your career honing your professional know-how, isn't it time to shine online?