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.

An online community is much like a physical venue—a real, three-dimensional space where people actively gather—and you need to be prepared before you enter the building.

Think first about what you have to offer. Do you have exclusive content that is not being distributed anywhere else? Is a video contest part of your latest campaign, but you need big-time fans to contribute creative entries? Both are prime ideas for online communities.

3. Trust your shepherd

For many brands, it's not the "what" that is so difficult, it's the "how." How do you execute campaigns in these spaces to get the most bang for your buck? Here's where community managers come in. They are the guides to that space. It's their job to know both who are the individual players of each community and which users are the most vocal—positive or negative—across multiple sites. In some cases, they can identify extreme users that have highly influential voices across sets of properties.

For example, one Wikia user on the Dragon Age wiki is also highly active on other role-playing game sites Fallout and Mass Effect. An entirely different type of user is an admin (group leader) on a gardening wiki who also contributes heavily to Healthy Recipes.

Whether the users are foodies, collectors, techies, Trekkies, or Bieber-loving iTeens, community managers know who they are, where they are, what they get excited about, and often, what they are going to do. That is all essential information if you want to engage a community in a transparent, mutually beneficial way.

Community managers also understand the nuances of online communication and can thus distinguish between the infamous online trolls and people who may just have trouble expressing their points of view. Whereas an advertiser might panic at the possibility of a negative comment on a sponsored blog, your community representatives will remain calm. Why? Because they know the community very well; as astute observers of community interaction, they often know when that comment will get voted down, or better yet, when your brand advocates will step in and refocus the conversation with positive comments.

Nine times out of 10, the community regulates itself and no intervention is needed. Trust your community manager to know the difference—and to surface content that will get people excited and engage the experts.

4. Foster the fanatics

Once you find your communities and understand what's going on in them, you can start getting involved. Online communities are well-positioned to host both short- and long-form content around major branded events.

During the Super Bowl, for example, Glee fans gathered online at the Glee wiki to engage in short-burst communication and long-form commentary about the upcoming post-game episode. Some users used polls or comments to provide commentary, while others used longer-form blog posts to express deeper, more thought-out ideas.
Clearly, such community members are adept at creating their own material and buzz. Yet there is space for much, much more. A brand can add value to the community by inserting its own content, offering quality assurance by brand spokespeople, displaying thoughtful advertising messages, and running sponsored contests and sweepstakes.

If those additions are found valuable by the community's "fanatical" members, you can be sure they will be excited and share it across the social Web.
5. Follow best-practices

When in doubt, you can fall back on a few basic rules:

  • Honesty goes a long way. Community members are skilled at knowing what's authentic and what's not, and they duly appreciate the former.
  • Offer a sneak peek. Early access to branded content is often what gets users excited.
  • Keep it simple. When the barrier to entry is low, you'll get more participants.
  • Acknowledge your biggest fans by giving them special privileges or a shout out. Everyone loves a little bit of fame.
  • Get creative. Online community members are highly responsive to deep content. Tap into them for some of your high-level creative brand campaigns, especially those that involve participation.

The Big Takeaway

There is no magic formula for success in online communities. But if you take the proper steps to identify the opportunity and use the community expert to guide your actions, you'll be able to start a unique, integrated conversation with an audience that matters.

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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.