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November 13, 2007

Social Media Outreach 101: 5 Tips for Integrating into Communities

As our society continues the rapid shift to digital communities, forums and blogs have earned a prominent place in the Internet marketing spotlight. Specialized conversations are forming around every conceivable topic, giving businesses a glimpse into a promised land of highly targeted potential customers. Social media has become a buzzword for many companies looking to capitalize on these niche audiences.

At the same time, rumors of botched “outreach” attempts like Sony’s fake blogs have made many businesses hesitate to test the waters. One false step can lead to a backlash of very vocal antagonists.

The potential rewards of this digital frontier certainly make the efforts worthwhile. With a little care and planning, you can gain exposure for your business as well as gaining insights into your customers’ needs and wants. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the digital waters safely:

Choose communities you’re interested in

If you’re going to spend the time and effort to stay involved, you need to pick forums and blogs that interest you. People join communities because they are passionate about a topic. For you to successfully relate to them and gain trust, you have to share a common interest in what they’re talking about.

If you’re not interested, it will show, and you won’t be able to successfully integrate into that community. No one wants to spend time talking to the guy yawning in the back of the room. If that’s you, then you’re just wasting your time.

Don’t try to be everywhere

When you’re thinking of communities to get involved with, it can be easy to go overboard. The Web offers boundless opportunities for niche audiences, which can make it difficult to narrow your focus.

But you can’t be everywhere at once. There are only so many hours in a day, and your business won’t run itself. If you spread yourself across 15 different blogs and forums, the combined efforts won’t even register. Therefore, you need to limit your involvement to just a few and budget your time accordingly. Pick relevant blogs and forums to participate in.

Think of forums and blogs like joining local clubs. You can’t make five meetings all at the same time slot and you can’t drop in for two minutes every month and expect people to remember you. Better to form real connections with people who see you on a regular basis.

Invest in the community

Think of forums like a special interest group. The more you are involved in the discussion, the more help you provide your fellow members, the more your status in the group will rise. You’re looking to enhance your reputation as an expert and a helpful source of knowledge.

Don’t be a wallflower. Participate, respond, and contribute to the conversations. If people have questions, help them find the answers. If someone needs help, see if you can’t give some helpful tips, advice, or encouragement.

Hold off on the sales pitch

When you give advice without blatantly trying to gain a customer, you gain respect and prestige. People will start to see you as a trusted member of the community. Think about it: Would you be more likely to buy a golf club from the shop owner who helped organize the last local tournament, or the newcomer who’s pushing his business cards at everyone he can reach?

Forums and blogs are all about discussion. It’s like a corner bar where people can get together and talk about common interests. If you bring sales and promotion into that dynamic, prepare to be shunned.

Where it’s okay to sell

Some forums have sections dedicated to services and advertising. Look for a “Marketplace” or “Services” section or something similar. This is the place to strut your stuff or look for clients. People will post jobs they have available here, or announce the services they are offering.

In addition, always set up a signature with your website link and a one-liner describing what your company does. Some forums don’t allow more than a simple link. In any case, keep your signature very brief. Take a look at other people’s signatures to get a feel for what’s allowed.

If everyone else on the forum has a five-word motto and a link to their website, you don’t want to create a signature that throws your company history onto every post. Your goal should be to integrate into the community, not stick out like a sore thumb in a cheap suit.

Stay connected

If you tread carefully, joining communities like forums and blogs can be a great way to connect with potential clients and boost visibility for your company. By giving your company a voice in the sometimes impersonal World Wide Web, you can also differentiate your company from thousands of other competing sites.

Forums and blogs also allow you to keep an ear to the ground. These communities keep you plugged in to what your clients want. Concerns, complaints, wishes, and hopes are all aired on a continual basis. If you’re looking for areas to expand or ways to out-do the competition, this can be a great place to start market research.

For more information, Jennifer Laycock at Search Engine Guide did a series of articles about this. Here’s her advice for becoming part of the blog community: http://www.searchengineguide.com/jennifer-laycock/hide-and-speak-4.php

Author:  Jessica Cox and Michelle Pierce are graduates of the University of Oklahoma’s College of Journalism with a background in Internet marketing and writing for the Web. They currently provide PR services at Xeal Precision Marketing. Sign up to get crucial Internet marketing tips at Xeal’s free Thursday webinar at http://www.xeal.com/webinar.htm.

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