Everywhere you look, people are talking about "communities"—how to find them, how to join them, and... if you're lucky, how to successfully sell your products and services to their members.

But many of those articles are written by marketers at companies that have found success in their own initiatives, which can be specific to their industry, product, or brand positioning. How does that help you with your initiative?
Below, I've outlined a few steps for finding, participating in, and ultimately, using online communities to locate potential fans of your brand and make them loyal customers.

1. Find your fans

Easier said than done, right? But here's the thing—you already know who they are, which is the important first step. Now, you have to find out where they are.

Sure, they're on Facebook, and even on Twitter. But both of those are vast, fragmented communities primarily dominated by personal content. To find where consumers are working together on long-form collaborative content, having in-depth conversations, and consuming rich media, you'll have to turn to online communities.

The people who are spending time on sites like the Glee Wiki, Twilight Lexicon, MuggleNet, The Vault, and the anime site Crunchyroll, are not just "fans"—they are fanatics. They are the consumers who wait in line for hours to buy the latest Halo release, who go to every Harry Potter movie premiere, and who actively make recommendations to their friends—both online and off.

They are your word-of-mouth instigators, your future advocates, and the biggest fans you didn't know about.
2. Assess the opportunity

Once you've identified a set of communities that you want to target, what next? You need a plan. You have an opportunity to present your message to a highly engaged and active audience that is interested in what you have to say, and it's important to have a strategic plan for doing so.

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Sarah Manley is a community manager at Wikia, a global network of nearly 200,000 enthusiast communities with five million pages of content and 40 million unique visitors per month. Contact her at sarah@wikia-inc.com.