Extraterrestrial on visit
Creative Commons License photo credit: Markusram

Sometimes, things seem a lot more difficult than they are. This is often the case when a company wants to engage in an online community that they don’t own. For example, a martial arts gear manufacturer that wants to start posting on KarateForums.com.

Online communities can be scary because each one is like it’s own civilization with it’s own social norms, laws and belief system. What if you don’t fit in? What if they get mad at you and never want to buy your product again? It’s a legitimate concern, but if you hold yourself to a few personal standards, chances are that you’ll do fine.

This is a play it safe guide (because that is what you should be doing: playing it safe) aimed at helping you to tackle the unknown. Individual communities will vary and will allow you to do more than I have outlined below. But, to know if that is possible, you have to spend more time on the community and, perhaps, talk with the staff. These tactics will allow you to create a basis for that within most reasonable online communities.

The Guidelines Are Your Friend

Most communities worth engaging in have some sort of posted terms, guidelines or policies. These aren’t just your friend – they’re your best friend! Read them completely. They generally detail what is and isn’t OK on the community. Use them as a playbook and make sure that you never approach them, let alone push them.

Get the Lay of the Land

Before you jump in, you should at least do some random browsing of posts and threads and see how people communicate on the community. This will improve your chances of respectfully engaging and will help you to feel more confident and comfortable when you do so.

Every community should be treated as it’s own country. If you are traveling to a country you’ve never been to before, you’d want to read up on it, find out what the best spots are and see if you’ll need to get any vaccinations before you leave. Same deal.

Use Your Signature to Identify Yourself

Generally speaking, the signature in your profile area is where you should identify yourself and your affiliation with your company. Do so. Check to make sure it is OK as far as the guidelines and that you are able to include links. Don’t do anything spammy. Your name, your title and your company name (with the company name linked to your website) will usually suffice.

Be very delicate about including this information in actual post content. Try to avoid it, if at all possible. The most I’d do, in general, would be to say something along the lines of “my name is <NAME> and I am an <JOB TITLE> for <COMPANY NAME>” and that would be about it.

However, if you aren’t provided a signature, you do need to identify yourself in some way when you are speaking about your company in any way. Be brief, but do so. The importance of being up front and honest about your affiliations cannot be overstated.

Don’t Be the First to Mention Your Company in a Thread

A great rule of thumb, on the safe side, is to never be the first one that mentions your company or references it in a thread. Only mention your company in response to other people who have done so, if there is a question or something that you need to reply to. Keep mentions to a minimum and do not include links, unless they were specifically requested and are not a violation of the guidelines.

Focus on Adding Value to the Community ON the Community

I don’t really like to break out the caps, but let me do that one more time: ON the community. When you post, add content and answers to the community. Don’t link off to your website. I don’t care if you have a great FAQ. Answering questions with “here’s a link to our FAQ on our website” isn’t going to fly (unless the staff says it does). People like when you join in, in their space. They don’t like when you send them to your website repeatedly. This is where you will build your rep.

Be Exemplary

Every post that you make is more than just a reply to that one person. It is a reply to everyone who will view that post – ever. Consider your words carefully in line with that. Set a good example and be a good representative for your organization. Know where the line is between “providing clarification” and “arguing” and stop before you hit that line. Knowing when you post is just as important as knowing when not to.

Ask the Staff for Help if Needed

If you are ever in any doubt as to if something is allowed or isn’t, ask the staff! Send a message to a moderator or administrator, use the contact page and wait. They’ll appreciate that you took the time to ask (hence, building a relationship) and you’ll know for sure! Not every community has a staff that is as diligent, but usually you’ll receive an answer.

It’s Not Really Quick and Easy…

Actual engagement isn’t quick and easy. It takes time, patience and investment. But, it’s also not excruciatingly difficult. Follow these seven principles and you’ll be able to be a positive participant on most any reasonable online community (including mine).