A special “cross-pollinating” post today! With the input of the Pixel/Point Press team, I pitched some burning questions about online community building to an expert who approaches it from a different angle. Dr. Anita Blanchard is a professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who specializes in organizational psychology and online communications.
Blanchard has been at the intersection of tech and psychology for much of her career. Formerly a statistical analyst for Fortune 100 companies, she went on to earn post-graduate degrees in psychology. She began blogging in 2002. I got to know Blanchard through her dearly departed Salon blog, And Baby Makes Seven, and as a result can recite the names of her pets, children and hobbies. (Some of the pets preceded the children.)
My questions for Dr. Blanchard ran along two tracks – first, how brands can foster a sense of community, and secondly, the how the personal and professional intersect in the age of social media.
(Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
Building Great Communities
How can brands use social media to create a sense of community around their brand or product?
This is a hard thing to do, which is why it is so important. Sense of community comes from supportive interactions and a feeling that you — the customer, reader or observer — matter. Social media around a brand that provides information and socio-emotional support is going to be the best way to develop a sense of community. For example, a clothing brand could provide positive posts about clothing for all women’s body types on Facebook or another platform. Some followers respond with likes, comments and shares. It’s a positive image for the brand and provides support to the people who like the brand, as well as the belief that “this company supports people like me.” The good thing is that this one post is viewed as supportive by everyone, even if only a small percentage of people actually “like” it.
What kinds of conversations are most helpful for building professional communities?
Positive, inclusive comments are the best way to go.
What level of moderation is most helpful for building a great professional group?
I think initially allowing as many people who want to participate is the best strategy. My reasoning is that it’s hard to get people started in online communications, so the more that you allow to start the better! For example, I’ve seen research estimates that only five to 10% of people who see a social media post actually publicly respond. That means that 90 to 95% of the brand audience are only lurkers! The initial problem for an online group is just getting somebody to participate.
Afterwards, if the communication becomes very frequent, a moderator can monitor the comments for inappropriate ones, looking for comments that are not reflective of the brand or offensive to other participants.If a medium doesn’t allow for participants to interact both with each other and the brand, building a community is not possible. Click To Tweet
Note: LinkedIn seems to be taking notes from Blanchard. While we thought the changes to groups would be potentially disastrous for marketers, from a psychological perspective they were spot on!
How does age play a role in the development of online communities? Do you find that younger professionals are still attracted to sites like Facebook or LinkedIn?
Facebook is still alive and active—the reports of its demise are highly exaggerated! The stats on LinkedIn are that the participants skew to being older and male, people who (in my research) are less likely to be participants in other online communities. The key to any social media is to allow people to interact and support each other. If the medium doesn’t allow for participants to interact both with each other and the brand, building a community is not possible.
Note: This recent article agrees that Facebook is doing just fine, has diversified through acquisitions and has seen engagements rise over time.
How Personal Should We Be Online?
How should employees manage the crossover between their professional and personal communities online? Does age/generation play a role?
I strongly encourage people to think about their online brand, and everybody should consider their online activities as part of their brand. If you want to keep work and personal life separate, then I encourage you to have different accounts with different identities. You can purposefully decide that your brand crosses boundaries, and therefore participate socially and professionally using one identity. This may be particularly useful for people who have leadership positions because it can make you more authentic. But there may be costs – such as providing too much insight into your personal life or identity. Younger people in particular may want to be more discreet in sharing personal information or have multiple social media accounts until they become more established in their careers.
What are some creative ways that people can leverage personal relationships in the professional arena?
I’m going to continue on the theme of authenticity. The research I’ve seen suggests that showing one’s personal side to professional connections can be very beneficial to establishing stronger relationships. I think some discretion is useful here; I would suggest that being positive is better than being negative. But letting your professional connections see the “real you” is better to strengthen your professional relationships.
Many thanks to Dr. Blanchard for sharing her insights with us! Follow her on Twitter: @AnitaBlanchard