Lindsay Olson

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Building Online Communities Through Social Media

This is a guest post by Kimberly Walsh.

I think it's pretty safe to say that the majority of people who graduated with PR degrees had to learn social media in the great educational institution of life. We've taken our knowledge of creating mutually beneficial relationships through two-way communications and applied it to the many online tools at our disposal.

I'm lucky enough to have landed my dream job. It combines my love of books and of connecting and communicating with people and bringing it all together through technology. It's also a job that didn't and truly couldn't exist before the advent of web 2.0.

My job is essentially running an online book club through Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Book clubs have long been popular in our culture, made even more so by celebrity backings like Oprah in the USA and Richard & Judy in the UK. It's so much a part of society that American network CBS even attempted a failed "reality" show Tuesday Night Book Club.

Anyone who's ever been a member of a book club knows the pitfalls. And that's usually finding the right fit. Some members are hardcore bookworms armed with English lit degrees, some join in order to simply have an adult conversation, while others are there just for the wine.

So, the question in an online version becomes: how to engage a wide audience? And by engage, I'm talking about our precious two-way communications, not just broadcasting opinions. Books aren't exactly niche marketing. Everybody reads. While an online book club (or any club for that matter) can't provide refreshments, it can provide a friendly setting for all manner of discussions. In fact, the virtual world is ideal for the book club format.

First, a little background about the program I'm talking about: Canada Reads started as a one week radio program where five celebrity panelists each choose a book to defend on air during the course of five days. If a book makes onto the show, the Canada Reads "bump" means an average sales increase of more than 1700%. That's second in influence only to Canada's biggest literary award, The Scotiabank Giller Prize.

The CBC Book Club was launched in spring of this year on the heels of a Canada Reads victory by journalist Avi Lewis who defended Lawrence Hill's Book of Negroes (printed as Someone Knows My Name in the USA).  Incidentally, the book was recently named one of the top 10 Canadian books of the decade by Maclean's magazine.

With the advent of social media, particularly in recent years where the uptake by mainstream audiences of sites like Facebook and Twitter has influenced strategic communications and marketing plans, the opportunity for conversation is almost limitless.

Some takeaways from the online successes of these programs:

The golden rule of web 2.0 should be know thy audience. The bigger the audience, the more diverse their needs. You're simply not going to be able to force everyone who wants to participate into joining social media sites. Don't punish them for making that decision. Provide them with content in other ways. Use widgets to show them your Twitter stream. Hold their hands a little if you need to by posting how-to tips.

Not everyone is going to be comfortable with learning a new technology. Heck, you might even be nervous about it, too. Let them know they're not alone.

Let your personality shine. Your audience doesn't want to constantly be sold on an idea, product or service. Social media is the wrong platform for that. People want conversation with a real live human being who has opinions. Common sense and a smart code of conduct go a long way.

Content may be queen but a prime minister is needed to manage it. Post all you want, but know that there's such a thing as information overload. More importantly, don't make your audience work to find content. Information architecture are words you should get comfortable with but also think about options for sending out updates. It can be as easy as a well-crafted tweet with an appropriately shortened link, an RSS feed for updates, or a combination of options. Remember each user is different and will experience your content and site in a variety of ways.

Embrace change but know what your breadwinners are. It's all well and good to have a strategic communications plan setting out short- and long-term goals but social media is a moving target at times. You need to build in the flexibility to change with shifting interests in various platforms.

Take calculated risks. When those interests do shift to the next shiny web 2.0 tool, evaluate whether it's the right one for you before making the leap. At the Book Club one of the great value-added tools we added to our toolkit is CoverItLive for moderated chats with authors. Ultimately, it's a win in terms of bonus interactivity but it wasn't without a bit of sweat and elbow grease to get it just right.

What are some of your success stories in building online communities?

Kimberly Walsh (aka @AliasGrace) is a geek girl, bookworm, writer and PR thinker in one. By day, she works as a web content producer and social media manager for the CBC in literary programming.

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