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In my quest to find a picture for this blog post, I happened upon something else entirely, a fresh perspective. My original intent was to have a serious talk about the importance of online communities. For the small business owner who has been slow to adopt the idea of using social media as another way to engage customers into meaningful conversations and provide a non-threatening environment for them to share their experiences, I’d written just the post that would win you over. I peppered in phrases like ‘new product ideas’, ‘improved customer service’ and ‘low or no cost.’ It was very convincing.

If you do a picture search for ‘online communities,’ you’ll find many great images out there. But, there is one theme that appears often – the faceless people. Somewhat cartoonish in appearance, they’re either red, yellow, blue, green or purple..oh and pink and maybe orange. Many are huddled together in a circle, either hugging or holding hands, all looking inward toward an object in the center. I immediately had a flashback to one of my favorite movies, iRobot, in which a community of identical robots, led by a CPU gone wrong named VIKI, tried to take over a city. Sure, that’s extreme, but the thought came to mind.

As a marketer, I can tell you that the colorful images I referenced above, while resembling animated clay figures, actually represent the various groups within a community or represent the different communities themselves. The information gleaned from these communities can be used to tailor marketing messages, products, and services to these communities, thereby meeting needs and expectations and positively reinforcing the brand.

Yet while those participating in these communities are happy to be there and joined freely, it is helpful to keep in mind that, as we are crafting our messages and silently pushing our agenda (embracing our inner VIKI), these community inhabitants are well-informed consumers and not the least bit naive. They know when they’re being sold to and pushed around so don’t go there. Do this instead…

1. Keep your messages simple, fresh, and authentic. Do participate, but try to actually participate and not automate canned messages.

2. Provide good content and helpful advice that is usable and practical. Your feedback should be in human speak, not robot talk.

3. Have fun with it! Yes, generating sales is serious business, but so is nurturing a loyal community that will look to you for direction.

So, there. Go give your community a group hug.

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