As businesses embrace social media technologies, the ability to interact with communities has dramatically increased. This is both wonderful and terrible. It is wonderful because of the vast potential that communities offer in the way of collective wisdom, idea generation, purchasing power and message amplification. It is terrible because of the huge risk that comes along with attempting to engage a community and falling flat.

In my previous article I looked at three keys to community. Understanding how communities operate is vital prior to engaging them. In this article I consider four principles of interaction that businesses on the path to social should internalize as they engage with communities inside and outside their organization.

The four principles of interaction for businesses on the path to social are:

  1. Realize you’re already doing it.
  2. Enable communities in the real world to interact with you virtually.
  3. Enable virtual communities to interact with you in the real world and
  4. Don’t jump in without a strategy -- the risks are too great.

Four Principles of Interaction

1. Realize you are already doing it.

Communities are the groups into which people naturally organize. If you’re engaging with people, you’re interacting with communities. You may not be doing it well or even on purpose. But you cannot ignore it. You can get better results, though, by identifying the communities that you are interacting with. Here are some good starters:

  • Which communities already exist inside my business? Got anyone doing Race for the Cure? Do you have a skunk-works project, team or workbench? These are communities of passion and shared experience that can provide a way for you to raise awareness both inside and outside of the organization.
  • Do you have internal micro-blogging or a wiki or blogs? What are people saying there? And more importantly, what are they commenting on and repeating? Those people, by engaging with topics on your internal systems, reveal a common thread in those topics. Why not empower this interaction? The result is crowd-sourced business intelligence that already exists -- you simply have not empowered the nascent community in a way that allows them to share those insights with you.
  • What information is most accessed on your company intranet? If it is the cafeteria schedule, why not create a new employee community for foodies? The result is a happier and more engaged workplace.
  • Which communities exist outside your business? Talk to your business development teams. Who are they talking to and what do your partners want? Talk to sales and marketing. What do the customers want? Talk to support. What do customers complain about the most? Why not use your extranet and social media to be more proactive with customers, prospects and partners? Do you have a customer advisory board? Why wait to interact with them until they all fly to your office? Engage them now and incentivize the participation with rewards, early access to beta product, ability to provide early feedback, an “I got it before you” badge for their conference lanyard at your next trade show. The result is a more active and passionate advisory group which yields better insight to your business strategy.

Businesses on the path to social must realize that they are already doing it. They’re at the dance. They need to figure out what they’re wearing, if it’s appropriate for the crowd, how to dance and if they even want to continue to be there. Wallflowers have no fun.

2. Enable communities in real life to engage with you virtually.

Provide immediate, valuable and convenient digital linkages to your real life communities. For example, use QR codes and NFC technology to bring real life interactions to the Web and enhance and expand the real world interactions. Most organizations have a wealth of information, and marketing that is well suited for snippet delivery to social sites like Facebook and mobile devices via tools like Vimeo and YouTube. Even if those snippets wound up on the cutting room floor during your last big marketing advertising spend, think of it as the deleted scenes of your business. If you sell consumer products, enable customers to access your “expanded universe” via the mobile technology they already have in their pocket. Allow them to comment on it, rate it, share it with others and engage with you about it.

Businesses on the path to social should make it easy for their communities to bridge the virtual and real worlds.

3. Enable virtual communities to engage with you in real life.

Get those virtual communities interacting with each other at live events, conferences or local user group meet-ups. Remember that communities are not networks. You might have a strong network of people who follow you on Twitter or have liked your Facebook page. But communities engage with each other. Foster that and create a community out of your network. Don’t let them keep shoe-gazing. If you sell business software to the IT crowd, bring them together to share their stories of late night and weekend work. Call it a story swap and start the evening off with something posted on the message board they all read.

Have free food and beverages -- it provides a draw -- and then let the conversations roam. If you have larger groups and a more formal conference setting, have ad hoc games of werewolf between break-out sessions. Spur the interaction and listen to what is shared. Get people interacting with each other and forming stronger bonds. That is incredibly valuable intelligence for you and your organization.

Businesses on the path to social should work hard to turn loose ties of networks into strong ties of community. It has already been started for you; why not take it to the next level?

4. Don’t jump In without a strategy -- the risks are too great.

Make sure you have a strategy to not only set up and enable the social technology, but also to keep it going. Keep it authentic. Remember that communities can spot an interloper, and they will backlash. Consider hiring or designating a community manager. This should be someone who has or can earn the respect of the communities on behalf of your organization but is not hampered by an overly worried legal department. They should be able to speak with credibility to people inside and outside the organization who are likely to have deeper and longer experience than they do. In other words, it is not a position for a new college graduate.

Then report on the engagement metrics. Link ideas up with your customer/partner advisory councils. Get your support staff involved since customers are working around the problems your products have introduced anyway. Reward behaviors in the communities that you want to see emulated and increased.

Businesses on the path to social should realize that while the technology makes engagement easier and faster, it also raises the risk of poor, inauthentic and lame messaging getting out into the community ecosystem. Businesses on the path to social will take the time to develop a strategy that can keep the engagement powerful, profitable and exciting.

Conclusion

When businesses on the path to social employ the four principles of interaction, they are able to more quickly and successfully engage communities and the benefits that they offer. Starting by understanding that they are already doing it, enabling and empowering both virtual and real world communities and doing it all with a strategy that provides the story-arc for your engagement are important pillars for your social business.

Then you can see your business bloom into a social business supported by the message amplifying and idea generating power of your communities.

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