Getting Involved In The Community…Online
The one big advantage that small businesses (and especially home-based or sole-proprietorships) have over larger enterprises is the ability to show personality and friendliness to their customers and potential customers. Someone who is really involved and has a direct interest in the happiness of the customer brings something more to the bargain than does the employee of the faceless corporation.
As an example, I meet with a couple of friends about once a week at a coffee shop. Sure, we could go to Starbucks or another large place, but we go to Java Jim’s. Why? Because it’s homier, the owner and employees know us, and the overall atmosphere is just better. Sure, the coffee and bagels probably aren’t any better than Starbucks and Jim doesn’t have any t-shirts or signature mugs to sell us, but it’s just more comfortable there.
On the Internet, getting a “name” for yourself is even more difficult. No one sees your face – rarely do they even know where you live. You can’t shake hands, smile, or otherwise use human expression outside of what you can type. The instant anonymity that the Internet offers is very appealing for many reasons.
However, in order to promote your business and get a sense of community online, you need to break through that inherent anonymity and make people know YOU instead of just your website address or eBay ID.
The best way to do this is to join the online community as a person rather than as just another user ID. Find places that people like yourself – and people who would buy from people like yourself – would go online to find answers and talk with other enthusiasts. Before you do this, let me lay a few ground rules. When you join a new group, invariably you have to “sign up.” Make sure to do the following before and after you’ve signed up for a group:
1 – Before signing up, make sure you want to be in the group. Check the past posts (if available) and other “archives” to ensure that what you’re signing up for is what you’re interested in. Sometimes group names are deceptive or the group is nothing more than a place for people to join quickly and post a bunch of advertisements.
2 – Choose a username that is similar to or the same as your business. DO NOT use your URL or full name when joining. Using your website address (URL) is blatant advertising and may get you kicked out of a group or message board before you’ve even established yourself. Using your real name is a bad idea as it makes you “trackable” and could open you up to a lot of fraud. Use your first name or first name and last initial only if your name must be involved.
3 – After joining, read through back posts and the current posts, but DO NOT REPLY. Not everything posted is brand new – sometimes those messages were posted months ago and the answer to their question has already been given. Get yourself up-to-date on the postings before writing anything. Your first post should be a short introduction of yourself. Pretend you’re standing in front of a group at the Small Business Association or the Chamber of Commerce. Introduce yourself and your business, but don’t overdo the marketing. Try to introduce YOU more than your business. Remember: you are trying to make yourself a person, not an entity.
4 – Participate as often as possible and always be polite and informative when you answer questions.
5 – Try to call people by their first name OR use their user ID whenever you respond to them. Sign your own messages with your name and website URL (e.g. “-Aaron T. www.AaronzWebWorkz.com).
If you do those five things, you’ll begin to promote yourself as a person rather than a faceless corporation.
Now…where do you do all of this?
There are forums, groups, email lists, etc. for everyone out there. You already know what you’re interested in – your business and products – so you just need to find out where other people who like the same thing go when they go online for information.
A good place to start is Google. Google Groups (http://www.google.com then click on the “groups” tab) are really just commonly-accessible Usenet email lists. You can join these lists (and read them) from Google or you can probably access them through your account with your ISP – in both cases for free.
Find a newsgroup (that’s what these are called) that you’re interested in. Chances are you’ll find several. Then check it out and sign up. A good group generally has 10-50 posts per day. More than that and it’s probably too busy for you to keep up. Less than that and it’s nearly “dead” and will most likely have only two or three members who are “active” in the discussions. You need more than that.
Another great place to find people interested in a topic is on message boards. These are scattered all over the Web. You can use Google to search for them (“your topic” + “forum” usually garners several) or you an go to a popular spot like About.com and find your forum there. Forums generally tell you how many members use the forum and the criteria are about the same as for a newsgroup – not too few, not too many.
Email lists are also popular. The best places to find these are on Yahoo (Yahoo Groups – http://groups.yahoo.com/) or Topica (http://www.topica.com/). In either case, once there, just do a search for your topic and begin finding the right group or groups to belong to!
Many informational websites – especially those with a “niche” or a lot of visitors – host their own forums, newsletter/newsgroup lists, etc.
Any of these (or combinations of them) are great ways to get involved. You’ll meet new friends and gain new customers by showing that you are knowledgeable and willing to share your knowledge with others.
I personally belong to several Web Design/Development newsgroups, forums, and newsletters to keep up-to-date on current technology. In addition, I belong to a couple of networking newswires, hobby forums, and auction newsletter lists. Many of my own clients met me through one of these venues when they ventured in to ask a question or saw my name when trying to find an answer to a question posed in one of these places. I’ve also got many friends I discuss things in which we have mutual interest – most of whom I’ve never met in “real life.” But I know their names, screen names, user IDs, etc. very well.
Getting involved in the online community for your own interests is rewarding, fun, and puts your name out there as someone “who knows stuff.” Go try it!
Aaron Turpen is the author of “The eBay PowerSeller’s Book of
Knowledge” and the editor/publisher of two successful newsletters, in
their fourth year of publication, The Aaronz WebWorkz Weekly
Newsletter and Aaronz Auction Newsletter. You can find out more about
these and other great resources from Aaron at his website