Learning from Example: Innovative methods to engage your online community

When I was invited to write this post, it gave me the opportunity to think about the difference between social media management and community management. Prior to becoming a Social Media Fellow with Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), I had used social media primarily as a way to keep my followers aware of recent educational, political, and health news that might be of interest. Aside from that, I hadn’t done much more other than participate in a “twakeover” contest hosted by Water.org. That experience taught me important lessons about soliciting online support via social media from my professional network. Successful enough to place in the top 10 finalists, my prize was to send out three tweets on the organization’s vastly popular Twitter account. I developed messages that highlighted the value of librarians and encouraged Water.org Twitter account followers to visit their library to learn more about Water.org’s mission.

With my EPIP fellowship, I gained the opportunity to not only research and learn more about effective social media use and online community management for organizations, but also to put into practice what I learned. While I gained previous experience managing the Facebook page and LinkedIn group during my role as Chair with the Consortium of Foundation Libraries, my EPIP fellowship has allowed me to practice community management on a larger scale. Learning from my fellowship and other organizations’ experiences, here are three examples I have learned about engaging an online community.

Lesson 1: Say thank you

While many social media professionals devote the majority of their attention to developing sharable content and gaining followers/members, it is important to thank those who have taken the time to follow, retweet, share, and become a member of your online community. I have found that appreciation goes a long way and can often translate into members of your online community choosing to invest their time to spread your content.

Lesson 2: Solicit meaningful feedback and respond

One of the more unique examples of an organization engaging their online community outside of the direct use of social media was the Ford Foundation’s use of the Un-Survey. During their site re-design, they invited their site visitors to provide feedback. In an interview with Bob Pullin, the Ford Foundation’s Chief of Digital Engagement, he said:

“The Un-Survey is one part of the research for our website redesign. It is intended to help us continue to build empathy with our audiences and give us a better understanding of kinds of information they want from us. The Un-Survey is giving ideas for content and functionality to offer in the next version of the website that we wouldn’t have thought of without it.” 

Collecting and reviewing the feedback, the organization posted answers to frequently asked questions and provided responses for their audience to review.

Lesson 3: Consider using Twitter chats as a way to enter into a real-time conversation with your followers

My first introduction to a Twitter chat was as a participant in one hosted by the Special Libraries Association. These regularly scheduled chats can be fast-paced and participants can follow the SLA HQ Twitter account or the #SLATalk hashtag to keep up with the conversation. Discussing the choice to use Twitter chats with Tracy Maleeff, the Chair of SLA’s Online Content Advisory Council, she shared the following:

“When I first joined the Special Libraries Association’s Online Content Advisory Council in January of 2013, it was important to me to find a way to better engage the worldwide membership of our association. The hashtag #UKlibchat caught my eye and I learned more about what they were doing with Twitter in order to get inspiration. I quickly learned how Twitter chats are a no-cost way to provide professional development and networking opportunities to a targeted group. I pitched the idea of SLA adopting this and it was met with interest. With the assistance of an association staff member, we created the format and style that quickly became our standard (view the archive). Twitter was chosen as the medium because of it being free to use, ease of accessibility, and international presence. We were aware that not all SLA members are active on social media, but our intent was to engage current and potential members who use Twitter. 

“Benefits of the Twitter chat have been:

  • Increased awareness of our association which has resulted in new members joining and lapsed members renewing
  • Networking of existing members
  • Professional development through the topics covered and an all-around sense of community by those who participate

“One drawback we have discovered is that Twitter chats are usually limited to members in English-speaking countries. Anyone is welcome to participate, but between time zone differences and varying levels of comfort communicating in English, not all of our members participate. We have found that beginning a Twitter chat at 3:00 PM Eastern seems to work well to engage both Europe-based members as well as those in the Pacific Time Zone. We have also experimented with partnering with other organizations for joint chats and hosting two chats in a day to help with time zone disparity. Management of a Twitter chat series needs to be flexible and you need to be responsive to user feedback and preferences. I feel that an association such as ours has a responsibility to make our Twitter chats about career and professional development, so our Online Content Advisory Council is constantly searching for topics, questions and articles to incorporate into our Twitter chats to make it worth the members’ time and energy.”

In addition to participating in SLA’s Twitter chats, I gained experience working on the management side of a philanthropy-focused chat. Working with EPIP partners to develop and deliver questions during the hour-long chat, I realized how effective these chats can be in engaging one’s community.

In conclusion, these examples have provided excellent lessons to innovatively engage your online community.

Sophia Guevara
Sophia Guevara, MLIS, MPA, is the Virtual Events Committee Chair for the Special Libraries Association Information Technology Division. She is also the co-chair of the Social Network Analysis Topical Interest Group at the American Evaluation Association. She is currently looking for presentation and writing opportunities.