How to take your first steps into an online community

Lots of digital ink has been spilled discussing how to start an online community and how to grow one, but not much has been said about how to gracefully join an existing online community.  Even if you are an admin, blogger, or moderator of your own community, you still need to be out there participating in the wild and woolly world yourself.

Your first steps into an existing community will differ, based on the format and personality of the group.  Here's a handy guide to "first steps" for some of the various types of community out there.


Forum-based community

  1. Register and complete your profile (don't be that guy with a shadow avatar and a hometown of "outer space." No-one thinks that's funny anymore).
  2. Spend some time lurking and reading, including reading the community guidelines. As with any ongoing conversation, you should get a bead on the mood and tone of the group before plunging in.
  3. Look for a forum for "newbies" or an "introduce yourself" topic. You can break the ice and start meeting people in a non-intimidating environment. If there is no special place to do this, find a topic where you have something of substance to contribute, and fire away! I like to start my first post with something like..."I'm new here, glad to meet you all..."


Twitter group

Twitter is an unusual type of community, in that there aren't really any obvious groups when you first join.  You create your own "group" by the people you follow and the hashtags (those words with the # in front of them) you use.

  1. Create your account and fill out as much of the profile as you can. Use keywords in your bio that will be discoverable by the people you want to follow you.  Don't leave it blank!
  2. Find interesting people to follow.  Here's a great article on Mashable that summarizes ways to find relevant people on Twitter. To start with, don't follow more than, say 25 people at a time, and start building your own followers; you don't want a huge gap between your follower numbers...makes you look like a spammer.
  3. Start Tweeting! When you're first starting out, just use the Twitter interface and keep it simple. Remember that people will glance over your twitter stream when they're deciding whether to follow you, so make it interesting and relevant to your ideal followers.


Blog with comments

I read a TON of blogs, and it's always tricky to jump into the fray of comments at first.  However, it can be very rewarding to become part of someone's blog community...it's a fantastic way to make contacts and get your own name/brand known simply through your scintillating observations.

  1. Find some blogs to read, in areas that are of interest to you.  A simple Google search will turn up some recommendations, or you can go to Technorati.com or AllTop.com and search by subject area.
  2. Subscribe to the blog, by RSS feed, email, or notifications. Here's some handy info on RSS, to get you started.
  3. Read the blog, with comments, for at least a few weeks. This will help you see the vibe of the blogger's readers and commenters before you plunge in.  Then, when you have something relevant to contribute, jump in and comment! Watch for replies, because good bloggers will respond to comments, and other community members may respond as well.


Social network (like LiveCloud, LinkedIn, Facebook, Myspace, or Squidoo)

  1. Okay, sounding like a broken record here, but FILL OUT YOUR PROFILE! It's your calling card to the group, and it will help people determine whether you're a worthwhile member or just a mangy troll. (Check out your privacy settings and make sure they meet your needs.)
  2. Most of the big social networks have an "invite your friends" tool.  Use it to send invitations to the people you'd like to interact with.
  3. Post some content that's interesting. In the end, if you're contributing something of value to the network, friends and followers will come to you!


A final note: it should go without saying that you never want to just charge into an existing group with your own agenda in your hand.  Regardless of why you're joining the group, you need to always do 75% listening, 25% talking.  If you were invited to a cocktail party at a friend's house, you wouldn't arrive with a stack of brochures for your company, right?

Did I miss anything important?  Feel free to contribute your own "lessons-learned" for joining new online communities.

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Useful beginners tips Rosemary. I can relate a little of my own experience here if you don't mind.
( notice the compliment and the almost apologetic way of stepping in

Groupee was the first Bloggers site I had ever joined with confidence. It was the newness of the Social network on offer that gave me a feeling of belonging. Prior to that I could not "break the ice" anywhere else. I think blogging is easier than joining a forum. Unless the forum is very specific in it's nature. In a blog you can just talk about what you want and if people want to join in they can. Most people who respond are positive and you can then visit them to see what they have to say.

Forums on the other hand can be quirky. I had problems with a few of them to start with. It's difficult to tell what the people are like beneath the posts. I found myself interpreting some people incorrectly and being drawn into disagreements at times. I also felt I could not be as forthcoming. So yes lurk a lot before jumping in. Speak in clear terms to start with. Nothing ambiguous. 

I think I ended up liking a kind of blog/forum. LiveCloud is good for that.
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