THE BLOG
11/05/2012 11:48 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Building Social Media Communities

So many people ask me what my secret is: to my Klout score (77), to my followers (43.5k), and to my acknowledged influence online, for what it's worth. They wonder how I gamed Klout, where I bought my followers, and what PR firm got me into Forbes. Well, there surely are shortcuts and you can, apparently, game Klout and buy followers, friends, and Like, and all of that -- and I have tried out many of them over time -- but I don't believe that growing and pruning Twitter followers or paying money for followers and Likes actually builds a social media community. Surely, all that buying and gaming does something, to be sure, but it's not community. Maybe bragging rights, maybe access to perks, or maybe just to establish to the people in your space that you're really a social media player and not someone who ignored social media as an essential aspect of your organization until last Thursday (I mean, how could you be this far into 2012 and not have over 10,000 followers? How can it almost be the end of the Mayan Calendar and you don't even have a Twitter account? How about we just open one and buy you 100,000 followers just to get you started. Right?)

Community is something different. And I believe that Google, in its charming Vulcan way, is finally starting to understand what virtual online community really is (and isn't) and how to bestow holy holy Google Juice on the denizens of the Internet that have committed to moving in, staying, taking up residency and then committing to citizenship. Those are the people, sites, companies, communities, and organizations that I believe Google is trying to hard to identify and then favor. But since Google has a tin ear when it comes to who's gold-digging, who's using, who's being an opportunist, who's being a fair-weather friend, and who's actually true blue, it has taken a while for everything to come together. And, thought it isn't yet perfect, they're getting closer and closer.

And, if your ears perked up when you started to read that Google is really starting to favor all those who are deeply committed to connecting, engaging, relating, sharing, commenting, helping, aiding, and responding online -- and all of their various and sundry blogs, sites, platforms, and social networking site profiles to boot -- then you're going to have a hard time. Why? Because you really shouldn't care at all about SEO or Google or your Klout or Kred right now, you should care, instead, only about your natural allies, your natural prospects, people in your vertical, the folks who already love you to death, the folks who don't get you at all, and also the folks who frigging hate you, for whatever reason. And then there's the next step, which is hard.

First, you have to acknowledge the fact that every single follower, friend, Like, and +1 you acquire represents a human soul who has committed to participating in your folly (and yes I understand how many spambots, fake accounts, Perlscripts, codeballs, and hectares of outsourced, unengaged, human clickfarms exist in the world, I am not naive. But these people will never and can never become anything akin to your online family, your online community).

What would I do if I were to do it again?

Well, what I would do is simple: I would first leverage the real relationships I already have. Every social media platform worth its salt allows you to shamelessly exploit all of your webmail contacts that you have collected over the last decade as well as all of the real friends that you, personally, may have already earned on Facebook. And you need to take it all the way, too: don't just follow all the folks who are already on Google+, Twitter, and Facebook; you need to invite all of your personal and professional friends to come to Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ (and others) just for you. If you cannot do this then you're really not willing to put enough skin in the game -- you're not willing to put your own personal reputation at risk in order to move your professional brand forward. This means you're probably either a hypocrite or maybe know that you'll eventually do something shady or short-game on social media that you really don't want to be tracked back to you social media fingerprints -- shame on you.

Everyone you'll ever connect with in your online virtual community are indeed real people: with hopes, dreams, fears, skepticism, concern, trust issues, and the like. It's really best that you invite the people you really do know first so that you'll always think twice before you engage with your community in a way that suggests you consider them -- your followership and "friends" -- to be just a professional asset.

There are so many social media marketing articles online these days that are putting dollar numbers on what each friend, follower, Like, and +1 means -- similar to the valuation that direct mail marketers put on addresses and emails. Unlike this valuation that's based on conversion and past performance, the numbers that you have been and will be able to collect are on an equal playing field. I am not naive: yes, you can sometimes convert them to joining, buying, clicking, Liking, and +1ing; however, they're also just as likely to throw your Marketing Grenade right back over the wall back at you.

When you're working on developing an online community, every social media action has an equal or greater reaction -- these are not just numbers, assets, chattel that you can collect and collect and collect until you decide to seize the moment -- carpe diem! -- activating them to do something awesome, buy all your stuff, and change your world -- and bank account -- forever.

Also, like real friends, you cannot just collect them, you need to befriend them. They need to ask you favors and then you need to ask them favors; they'll ask you for help and guidance and you'll do the same. Little things, big things, again and again, for different folks, the same folks. You need to build this community the same way you would a muscle at the gym. You cannot just collect all these folks in a box just awaiting the perfect moment when you can let them loose on whatever you've been planning forever. Tacit and weak connections are just that. Really becoming chums is something else. Don't worry, you don't need to become chums with everyone who follows and befriends you -- most of the folks you'll interact with online don't actually want to become your BFF.

Most folks who follow you don't want to get married

The majority of the interactions I have with brands on a daily basis is superficial. Most of the interaction that folks have had with my brand has been superficial too. When I reach out to @KLM of Twitter, it's to see what' going on with my flight out of Schiphol. I don't expect much, just timely information. When @KLM offers to spot me some time in their club or buy me a coffee or something, that's terrific (and I am always easily bought); however, getting my question answered in a timely manner and to my expectations is what I really want -- the rest if just garnish and appeasement (I love garnish).

Actively listening to your online community is way more important than sharing

80% of all of your interactions online should involve some sort of listening and that can indeed include commenting, retweeting, Liking, starring, Listing, +1ing, reblogging, and just thanking someone for including you in a #FollowFriday post or for retweeting something from the shameless and self-interested 20% of sharing and marketing and content-producing you do when you're not 80% listening. Being grateful is one of the best things one can be when nobody gets paid a livable wage to read your updates, to share your posts, or to include you in anything. No matter how rockstar you are, you need to go out of your way to search out, find, engage with, and thank all the folks who mention you, your space, your vertical, your products, company, or services.

Growing your sphere of influence, Olly Olly Oxen Free!

Once I have brought all the real people I know into the fold -- not just from my personal address books but also from my current client base (by letting everyone who comes to your store, reads your emails, sees and hears your commercials, receives a circular, or is on your email list) -- you need to go poaching.

What I mean by poaching is to say, you need to act like a honey bee or an ant and you need to go foraging, looking for new followers. Some of the popular ways is to find out what sort of hashtags your industry, vertical, product or service uses to communicate amongst themselves. Same thing with message boards, Lists, Groups, Listservs, Pages, and whatnot. The great thing about the Internet and all of these simple-to-use social media platforms is that folks tend to create their own ad hoc communities when they cannot find them, easily and quickly, ready-made.

So, spending some time exploring Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Yahoo and Google Groups, Email Lists, and the magic world of message boards and forums is an essential way of getting to know the context of the world you've just elbowed your way into. Beware: every single community I have mentioned behave a little like a very tight-knit family: always go in submissive and make a point of quickly identifying a Majordomo -- a tribal elder, high-poster, list or board owner, etc. If you would like to engage in conversations that are happening in a message board or an email list, engage the owner first and tell him or her what you're up to and ask for some advice. Jumping in, all jazz hands and spittle, without knowing their context, their history, etc -- and without them knowing you -- is even more dangerous than you can ever imagine.

Also, no matter how sarcastic and edgy you perceive the folks in that message board or list, it's certainly not an indication that you're allowed to be an ass. Come on, you already know that. You and your friends are allowed to call each other chowderheads -- because you're already madly in love with each other. If you're with your childhood bodies who already know you're the chowderhead they love and trust and some unknown comes walking in and joins the dozens game of taking the Mickey that you're playing on each other, the outcome is likely to include an ambulance and a carpet cleaning service that specializes in blood stains (OK, I will admit it: my friends and I are, indeed, feral and violent).

Well, when it comes to the online world, the outcome probably won't be as Shakespearian as it would be if it were in person but it could surely be even more tragic: folks who are done wrong by some git who disrespect their online community are generally the most sophisticated Internet users out there. While the bruises and the black eye that could happen in your real-life spanking will surely heal; the whipping you can get online may never go away in the form of negative search results, bad reviews, and "I Hate You" blogs that could very well be created and populated en masse by all of the savvy nerds you invaded without asking permission.

Simply put: if the hive doesn't recognize you, it's like poking it with a stick: don't be surprised that when you poke a hive you get stung. Poor form. The solution's easy and the analogy is easier.

How do you behave when you attend a party you weren't directly invited to?

What I do is this: I bring a nice bottle of wine or some beer. I dress as well as I think the nicest-dressed invitee will but no nicer. When I arrive, I ask around to find out who the host is and find him or her immediately. When I meet the host, I tell them why I am there: "Mike told me about the party and said it was OK to attend without him" or "Mike asked me to come and meet me here, but I just wanted to meet the host first" or "I live down the street and noticed there was a party going on and I thought I would stop by." I then offer the wine or beer. I then spend as much time with just the host as makes sense, just so the host feels comfortable having me in his or her home and around valuables and friends and family. Only then do I grab a drink or wink at pretty people or take to the schmooze. Thing is, there's really no reason to bullshit the host. If you are there because you're looking to meet the neighbors because you've got a dog-walking service, let the host know and see if it's OK to hit up his guests. If you're really honest and the host likes you, there's a pretty good chance that the host will take you by your elbow and walk you around to all the folks at the party who have dogs, introducing you to each of them, telling them your story on your behalf. That's the perfect scenario.

And I do exactly the same thing when it comes to infiltrating communities I have not been invited to. I used the word "infiltrate" intentionally instead of "join" because so many marketing douchebags have rudely and shamelessly crashed parties without any care or respect for the community -- turn on any teen movie and you'll see something quite similar in action (I am thinking about the party scene in Mean Girls). So, while you may very well be as well-intentioned as can be, folks are not going to trust you right way. By virtue of being in communications, marketing, sales, or in any way wanting to evangelize or promote you or your brand anywhere, you're immediately guilty, in the dog house -- in quarantine -- until you can prove yourself innocent.

I had every intention of geeking out and sharing some tools and step-by-step processes that one can use in order to engage online; however, I really think the first step has more to do with being willing to allow the folks with whom you're engaging in your brand new, bouncing baby social media empire to be human: hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, concerns, and issued with being treated like a honeydew aphid, farmed only for its sweet nectar by certain types of ants in some mutualistic relationship, where the aphid is the nameless, faceless follower and the ant is the opportunistic marketer.

In fact, communities are so used to being abused that you'll be surprised and insulted by the level of caution, dread, and mistrust you'll wander into, even if your intentions are pure and you're just looking for ways to discover, engage, and help folks online. Because of the people who came before you, it'll most likely always be an uphill battle.

So, I have a very important quote to share with you before I let you loose into the wild to meet your social media, online virtual community, fate, and attributed to Plato, Philo of Alexandria, Ian MacLaren, and the Rev. John Watson:

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."