Disclaimer: This isn’t about how to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or any of the business community/networking sites many of us belong to. This is about the niche sites founded to support a select group of professionals or people with a common interest. They range from sites developed to bring history buffs together to a local book club or group of consultants who want to help other consultants achieve success—such as the RPCN (Rochester Professional Consultants Network) in Rochester, New York.
The concept of a single location online, for a single focus, is a powerful way to bring like-minded people together to craft new programs in their area of expertise, support each other and drive awareness of issues they are passionate about—working together can move mountains. While the RPCN networking site does not have an OPEN Forum feature that encourages online conversation between members, many other organizations do offer this. It’s often in the ability to form groups and to share thoughts that members build loyalty.
Beyond the technology being utilized, beyond the focus the members say they have, and beyond the ‘good’ that the niche group aims to accomplish, lie the pitfalls and potholes of each individual’s personality and agenda. Conversations may begin innocently enough, then rise to the level of resentment and name-calling, when people misinterpret content or blatantly disregard community guidelines. If you are the founder, you must be prepared for both the great positives that will come out of your community, and be prepared to deal with the controversy.
Here are eight things that can keep you and your community on track.
1. State openly, in more than one place, what the community is for and what it’s about. Identify yourself. Be friendly and approachable but maintain professionalism—you can ‘friend’ everyone, but when members act up, you must respond without prejudice.
2. Create solid guidelines and enforce them. Let community members know what’s expected of them. Outline exactly what is not allowed. Tell members what will happen if they abuse or ignore the guidelines. (One warning? Two? Immediate dismissal from the community?) Here's an example from Mashable.
3. Stay on topic. It’s human nature to try and lure people over to a particular way of thinking or acting, and if some members insist on challenging the community purpose or their fellow members, you must act quickly and reiterate the reason the community exists. Allow people to respectfully and politely disagree, but regular reminders of why the community exists will help keep members on track in conversations and discussions.
4. Engage community volunteers or paid editors to participate in community activity. These folks should monitor conversations and answer questions. It’s critical to let the community know real people are participating in all community activity. Don’t forget to thank these people regularly!
5. Be available. Founders are seen as the leaders in community groups. If you’re invisible, if people never see you in the community, the community may falter and stagnate. The more visible you are, the more you invite personal contact, the more your members will appreciate your gentle nudging on guidelines and other issues.
6. Be seen on other social networking sites, regularly. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn encourage connecting to your blog, website and social network/community. Show by example, don’t tell (as in lecture) the reasons your community is worth joining and participating in.
7. Partner with other communities in the same niche. Don’t compete. There’s room for everyone. Having partners that support similar objectives is more powerful than trying to trump someone else’s effort. Connect with the founders or organizers of other groups and find ways to support individual efforts—each group can handle one aspect of the niche focus. Together, more voices join the conversation and more solutions solve the problems.
8. Remember that you’re in the people business. People, by nature, are opinionated and can be inflexible when challenged. It’s your job to remain calm and take the ‘offending’ content offline. Engage in a phone conversation, when possible, to calm the situation. Never respond in haste or anger. Melanie Notkin, from Savvy Aunties, gets it! Read her interview on what she does to keep her niche community focused and functioning.
Communities exist to bring people together. Niche communities have opportunity to create positive change, but they come with built-in issues. It’s up to the founders and their executive team to help members stay on track, working together peacefully and effectively.