In May, at WordCamp Raleigh, I ran into Ray Mitchell, a Winston Salem, North Carolina-based web designer, who I had met previously. SixFour Web Design is his company.

Mr. Mitchell recently shared a blog post request for me Twitter: “Special tips for managing LinkedIn Groups to build real community vs. self-promotion.” Thank you for the suggestion.

Upfront, I have to say that my experience with LinkedIn Groups is somewhat limited. I am currently a member of 10 groups (make that 8 as I just left two of them while working on this article) and I don’t actively participate in, or even read, any of them. But, at the same time – a platform is a platform and LinkedIn Groups is not dissimilar from other platforms. Much of what applies to building community on LinkedIn Groups will also apply to building on other platforms, as well.

As I worked through this article, I spent some time on LinkedIn Groups and created a group myself to play around with some of the features.

Have a Focus

I think, in general, the “best” groups (in whatever way you want to define “best”) are the ones that have a specific mission and stick to it. There is a specific goal for this group, a specific point of interest. That is what will attract the people you want and keep them and, at the same time, turn off the people that you don’t want.

It’s important to remember that LinkedIn is a professional social network. Though I am sure there are social groups that do quite well, people generally join LinkedIn to accomplish professional goals.

Develop Guidelines

When it comes to staying on track, and preventing self-promotion or advertising, you should develop a set of guidelines that acts like a vision statement for what your community is and who your audience is. For some examples to go from, check out the downloadable templates from the “Managing Online Forums” book website. These are just basis points to work from – be sure to read them, edit and adjust for your own individual needs.

When you have them set up, put them into the “Group Rules” section of the LinkedIn Groups management panel. This adds a link to them at the top right of your group page, making them a point of reference to group members.

After you have your guidelines, enforce them fairly and evenly. Remove posts that don’t fit, contact the poster to politely make them aware of the violation and ban people who persistently violate your guidelines and demonstrate that they just don’t care. Moderation is how you maintain focus.

Customize the Settings

Take the time to go through all of the group settings and select the options that make sense for you. For example, you can disable the “Promotions” section, which is generally an advertising area. Do you want ads? If so, maybe you want it on. If not, then disable it. Same for the “Jobs” category. Half the groups I am in have all of these tabs enabled, even with nothing in them. It is usually better to start small, with fewer sections, and then expand when or if the group grows to a point where it makes sense.

You should also name your group in a way to helps convey what it is. Write a good description and come up with a logo or image for the group. These things show up in the Groups Directory, when people search for groups and when they view group listings on other parts of the LinkedIn website. The more attractive your listing, the better off that you will be.

Get Active

When it comes to growing the group, activity plays an important role. You, as the group manager, should be on there regularly contributing and sharing information. If possible, launch the group with a small core of people committed to contributing – friends and acquaintances of yours who are on LinkedIn and want to be a part of your group. Community grows 1 by 1. For some, it is faster than others, but it is always 1 by 1. Invite people who you think would be interested, but don’t be spammy – only invite people that you know well enough to personally contact.

The interactions that you have with people that you like and the relationships that you build, that is the real community that you are looking for.

Is LinkedIn Groups the Right Platform?

I realize that this post is focused on LinkedIn Groups, but before you jump in on LinkedIn Groups, you should consider what your goals are, why you are there and if that is part of a larger strategy.

The main thing prompting this is that, although at least partially a matter of taste, I don’t find the way that LinkedIn Groups organizes discussions to be very intuitive.

From spending time on some group pages, I see two ways to view a list of discussions that have been posted:

  1. From the group’s homepage, you can view the “Most Popular Discussions” and sort through page after page. At the top, there is a slider where you can navigate through the most recently posted discussions – one by one.
  2. From the “Updates” section, which is linked under the “More…” tab and at the bottom of the “Updates: Last 7 Days” box on the right side of the homepage. The “Updates” section doesn’t just include active discussions, but also who has joined the group.

To sum up my feelings, I don’t find this process to be an enjoyable experience, which is one of the reasons I don’t use LinkedIn Groups. On most forums, you can categorize discussions by various topics and themes and then easily view lists of the latest threads without having to scroll through everything or having to click on page after page. That, for me, is easier, quicker and more enjoyable.

That isn’t to bash LinkedIn Groups – I love LinkedIn and I hope they get better in this area – but, it is to say, that if you are using LinkedIn Groups, make sure that you have a reason for doing so, over using another platform or building community where you have a little more control over what is going on, which would generally be my recommendation.

Your Turn

LinkedIn Group managers who may read this post: please share in the comments what has worked for you, when it comes to generating activity, building real community and stamping out self-promotion. Though I would not usually allow links to sites you are affiliated with in the comments here, you are welcome to provide a link to your group so that we can see what you are talking about. Thanks.