Balance is everything in life be it work-life balance, love or a financial spreadsheet. Balance is especially important in a relationship and this is true online. We must give in order to take, must offer value in order to receive value. However, in many marketing circles, this balance is being misunderstood and disrupted online. Many of the professional networks and groups I belong to are awash with requests and demands. People want to connect with us, but rarely reach out once we are connected to them. We join groups in search of knowledge and peer relationships, but too often and too quickly the marketing material starts to flood our emails.
Striking the right relationship balance online is a new skill that has yet to be fully understood or embraced. The research Don Bulmer and I did under the auspices of SNCR reinforced that the balance equation is likely to get worse before it gets better. In this research we found that the majority of professionals join professional networks and online communities to get access to peers and information that they couldn't access as readily in the in-person world, yet the majority of companies report that they plan on increasing their online marketing efforts using social media over the coming year. What professionals want and what companies are willing to give is definitely out of balance.
In order to get better at the act of online reciprocity, there are a few rules of thumb that could help make the endeavor a lot easier and more successful for us all. For starters, get to know your members. Reach out to them programmatically to learn what is working or not working for them as members of the community. Find out their topical interests and information needs and act responsively. Members outreach is an often overlooked activity that can lead to greater customer intimacy online - and I don't mean send them lots of surveys with a coffee card reward. Really reach out to them to learn about their experiences with your organization.
Next, think about what you are asking for in relation to what you are giving to the members. My favorite benchmark is the "three-fold rule" which boils down to the need to give three things before asking for one. Now the "give" does not need to be financial but rather it should focus on an intangible gift such as a personal email with a piece of content that is worthwhile, or an offer to feature a member on the community, or a simple question about how the community can best serve the member. Financial incentives quite frequently backfire in online communities as the goal of a community is to build a membership organization or community of practice. So the sheer act of buying members is not sustainable - as many will join but few will return let alone engage. It is much better to have a smaller, more involved / interactive group of members in a professional community than it is to have large numbers of inactive registrants. Though this may please sponsors and partners out of the gate, when the participation ratio drops significantly over time, as it will, the community winds up with high attrition.
Another important consideration is the dynamics of power structures and exposure in order to successfully engage with members. Many gated communities - those that require that a certain membership criteria is met for access - suffer from not being able to inspire the senior most members of the community to participate online. In other words, the big dogs rarely post but they are the most coveted of all participants as their participation signals a tacit worth of the community. But often the reason why big dogs won't participate is because the balance of power within the community is askew. Senior professionals and experts typically have a difficult time asking questions or engaging in a charged discussion online (consultants aside as they make their money through self-promotion and thought leadership) because sharing information could potentially reveal their lack of understanding on a subject matter. Instead, many execs who engage online tend to make affirmative comments or add supporting concepts without ever truly revealing their thoughts. Now, in order for the give-and-take of idea exchange to occur, which is a hallmark of successful communities, senior level participants add the most value when they expose some of their thinking - warts and all. This is how learning occurs for both the readers and participants. But these types of thoughtful exchanges remain largely elusive because it is difficult for people to expose the details of their practice.
Online communities can help change this dynamic by rectifying the equation - as soon as a professional is labeled or deemed an expert in something, they are much more free to take a stand on an issue. They have been validated and recognized and therefore have a greater degree of freedom of thought. Professional communities and networks would be wise to think through their relationships with their top-tier members in order to create space for their participation.
In order for the online world to play catch-up to the best practice of off-line relationship building there is one thing I find to be largely certain- what works in the face world will work online. Just as we wouldn't invite someone to come to an event or join a group and then immediately try to sell them something, we should give more thought to how to effectively build or extend relationships online. How's that for a virtual handshake?
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