Social Participation: A Focused Starter Guide for the Digital Age

The one digital marketing practice that has not changed in the nearly twenty years of the commercial Web is that of "social participation" - the process of engaging in online communities (which, of course, can be define in myriad ways). 

Networks and platforms like Facebook and Twitter are but the latest manifestations of social; they have historic predecessors (listserv and the like) and perhaps not surprisingly, those companies - and their product or service marketers - that have engaged and done so effectively over the years have learned some important tactics on the best methods to drive response and results from doing so.

Social participation is a powerful way to get a business or brand in front of the "right" audience - those looking for answers and insights - and can be one of the best forms of digital marketing available - better than search, advertising or email.

The problem is that while many see the benefits of the practice, most tend to approach it hastily and without a very good understanding of the rules of engagement; they have no proper guide to the practice because there are so many different ways to accomplish the same end.

So what does it take for "social participation" to yield positive results?

+ Focus on Active Destinations
Time is a commodity so marketers interested in this practice will need to focus exclusiely on those forums or destinations with the most active and engaged community.

Perhaps the best way to identify where there is active participation is to simply search for them and do a cursory review - and that's easy thanks to Google and Bing.  

Conduct a search using the query "(keyword or industry) + (forum or message board) and it is very likely you'll find numerous places in which you can participate. Once you've built a list of five or ten, and apply some form of potential ranking measurement (be it the number of inbound links, PageRank, or Klout Score) it should be relatively easy to identify where the participation, and the highest quality of participation is is occurring.

You will find that this approach works for pretty much any topic or vertical - regardless of how 'micro' or 'macro' the topic.

Say, for example, that you sell printed 'skins' for gaming controllers. Potential keyword queries might include "xbox user message board" or "playstation game forum". This will put you directly in from the audience you need, but that's only the very first step. 

+ Focus on Adding Value to the Discussion
The reason social participation doesn't work for most is because they are approaching the community wrong and engaging in a way that turns off other users and essentially limits discussion.

Most see the open digital fields of forums and like networks as opportunities to simply blast out their product or service benefits, when in reality the best thing to do really is serve, not shout.

This is not a numbers game but rather a practice that demands quality over quantity. The most successful enterprises today (and most successful digital marketers) are those who put the customer first, are out there actively helping to solve problems, answering general questions, and sharing opinions that will be valued by the community. Those without the temptation to spam (that's exactly what it is) are those that get the best response over time.

Once marketers commit to using a "white hat" approach, where can they find content that will engage their potential audience and actually provide value to their customer journey? Everywhere.

Quora and related question/answer community providers (e.g. Yahoo Answers, Askville,, Answerbag), the communities identified in the research phase of this intiative (discussion forums, message boards, blogs, etc.), in addition to the primary social networks, all serve as as excellent starting points to find what users are most interested in (from an education or entertainment perspective).

If you're looking for a low-impact way to get started, one of the best ways I've found to identify potential topics of interest is to simply use a feed reader service like Feedly. What makes the service so useful (even at the free level) is that it indicates how popular the content I subscribe to is, providing insights into what is 'already' most popular.  

I personally subscribe to hundreds of "social" site feeds through the service, and without a feature which did the analysis of what is most valuable to a similar audience already, I'd be left to my own evaluations of quality (which is subjective and prone to inaccuracy at best, and potentially, outright error in judgement). Most good feed readers, as well as "read-it-later" style applications, offer some form of functionality to show what's most popular among its users (Pocket is the most recent vendor).

+ Engage Regularly
Perhaps the biggest mistake most marketers make when engaging in online communities is that they do so irregularly.

To maximize your investment in this practice, and establish your voice as one of authority, there needs to be consistency in presence. With regular visits, marketers will come to understand the regular players, forge relationships/partnerships with key performers, and their voice, as a result, will be magnified. In this context, inconsistency, not familiarity, breeds contempt.

To make sure social participation results in dividends it is necessary to make it part of the marketing timeline, building it into daily, weekly, or monthly tasks or processes. That can be as simple as adding regular reminders to visit and engage in the communities previously identified. Active social participation should be built into broader marketing plans, but much of the practice is tactical rather than strategic, and needs to be treated as such. 

+ Just Do It Already!
There are of course many other guidelines that marketers looking to capitalize on social participation must abide including creating an informative or illustrative user name and avatar, using a compelling profile, making sure to introduce yourself first (and welcoming other new members), using signatures effectively and pretty much staying away from bad actors and heated conversations (as very little useful comes out of the practice).