How to get visibility in Online Communities

As part of a global network for social innovation enthusiasts, we’ve built numerous local ‘hotspots’ where our members engage online and offline to support all kinds of social causes. In Berlin, our facebook group has about 1500 people, and I try to redirect most personal requests to spread the word to support this, join here, or donate there to this group.

This has the benefit that there is instantly more exposure, and this is how we create community. Our community is not based on everyone following a few people, but it exists because people are building a network and talking to each other. We are not limited by a few people as bottlenecks or gatekeepers, but the energy goes where the attention of the members is. Of course, some members might get more attention than others, but it’s because they have invested into building this social capital. The great thing is, anyone can build momentum, but unfortunately few are successful in doing this.

I believe that this is how most communities work today, and that it needs a different mindset than previous approaches that come from hierarchical or built on one-to-many communication perspectives.

I constantly see 3 issues that happen over and over again and prevent people having successful engagements with communities in the digital age.

1) You’re just posting your link, not engaging

You’re in a rush, and you want to spread your message into all kinds of forums and groups, I get it. You’re going for quantity of views and exposure, but you’re missing out on something essential: Quality of engagement. We live in a world where attention is one of the most expensive currencies in the world. Why should someone in the community pay attention to your message when it’s obvious you didn’t spend more than a minute copy & pasting it? Did you contribute in any way before making the ask?

Our philosophy is to pay it forward, to offer something valuable before you ask for something in return. Upload before you download. Nobody likes the person that comes to an open mic session just to play your song and leave. Listen to what others are posting, see if you can help with questions others have posted, or join in a discussion. If you can, join our real-life meetings and get to know the different people there. Invest some time, build some social capital – don’t be a spammer.

2) Your call to action isn’t attractive

Does your message offer the reader/listener any value in return for their attention, and more importantly, does your call to action offer a benefit to the action-taker? Yes, we work in social (or environmental) innovation, and I’m mostly talking about requests from people who are out there to improve the world. But there are opportunity costs to everything, and attention spent on one initiative is attention lost on another.

If your call to action is constantly demanding more than you are offering, I don’t believe you’re striking the right balance. You’ll only be able to engage people in the long-term if you are giving more than you are demanding. It’s not enough to tell someone they are doing something good. We, the social sector should not be content with simply guilting a person into doing something if there is no value to her or him. I’ve worked with volunteers for more than 10 years, and the key to keeping good relationships with people who are doing something without financial compensation is to understand their motivations and what things they value – and make sure they get it.

3) You’re not coming back

I think the most important thing is the follow-up. It’s difficult, because it takes initiative after the fun part is over, when the attention is gone, the adrenaline spent and most people’s thoughts are about getting some rest or preparing the next thing. That’s why a good follow-up makes you stand out from the crowd.

It allows you to thank people, give them credit, and show the community the impact of the engagement between you and the people who participated. It appreciates the effort of those who got engaged, and demonstrates desirability in those who didn’t. You demonstrate an interest in being part of the community and contributing to something, rather than disappearing once you’ve gotten what you needed. It demonstrates loyalty which builds loyalty. A good follow-up sets you up for the next successful engagement with the community.

Pay it forward and create value

In the end, each of these issues is rooted in the question of value. Are you providing value to the community and its individual members, or are you trying to download more than you upload?

Just because you are doing something charitable, social, or environmental doesn’t entitle you to people’s attention or support. In fact, I believe we should be the ones thinking twice as hard about how we create value for everyone involved in what we do.