Follow these tips to learn the art of participation rather than promotion in online communities. (Titled "Vendor Etiquette" in the print edition.)
Many online communities' terms and conditions forbid self-promotion, but industry vendors and consultants can still provide valuable resources for the professional community, say online managers like Kristi Donovan, CAE, senior director of professional affairs at the Association of University Programs in Health Administration. The trick is to help them understand the difference between promotion and participation, she says.
And sometimes members need the same education. Donovan remembers a time she received a complaint from a member about an author who had been talking about material from his book in a forum.
"The gentleman was offering information that would be helpful to our membership, saying things like, 'I've addressed this in my textbook, and here's what we're doing at our institution,'" she says. "He mentioned the book, but he certainly wasn't trying to sell it. People were carrying on a conversation around it."
Donovan worked to educate the complaining member about how she, too, could share insights from her own book without crossing the line.
"If you see a conversation where it's relevant to bring up some expertise, you are welcome to share with them," Donovan told her.
Could your vendors use a little encouragement to join the conversation—and some ground rules? Share these five dos and don'ts to get them started:
Do connect. Don't collect. Make connections, have discussions, and share resources, but don't spend your time collecting names and trying to force relationships. You'll reap more benefits in the long run by giving to the community instead of taking.
Do discuss. Don't disparage. An online community may be open to all, including your competitors. Refrain from making negative comments about other companies or different points of view.
Do participate. Don't sit back. Start discussions, chime in on conversations, find people with similar interests. The more you put into the community, the more you'll get out of it.
Do listen and respond. Don't give speeches. Take the time to respond to other people's comments, rather than stating your position and leaving.
Do seek colleagues. Don't stalk clients. Some online community members prefer to interact with peers. If you reach out without success, don't keep pushing. You should have plenty of opportunities to find people who want to interact.
Beth Ziesenis is Your Nerdy Best Friend. As author of several books on technology including Nerd Know-How: The 27+ Best Apps for Work … & How to Use 'Em, Beth travels the country talking to organizations about free and bargain technology. Check out her blog at www.yournerdybestfriend.com.