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Vendors and Online Communities


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I’ve seen it happen in every online community I’ve been part of.
The owner of a business related to the topic at hand stumbles
across the discussion, and seeing an opportunity to gain some
new business, jumps in headfirst – offering their products or
services as the solution.

An internet faux paux has just been committed.

Why?

Because to the community, you just interrupted their normally
scheduled program with an advertisement. “But wait you say– “I
have a passion for this! I have the answer! I’m doing them a
favor!”

That might all be true, but as a vendor interacting with on-line
communities is a careful dance that you need to approach with
some forethought lest you get pushed out by the chaperone. I
couldn’t quickly find a guide for businesses interacting with
online communities, so began one:

Learn the Lingo: Spend enough time on the list or forum to know
what a thread is. To know what a post is. To know what trolls
and flames are.

Ask First: Spend some time on the list or at the discussion
boards lurking. Identify who the owner or moderators are, and
send them a note off-line (just one of them, they probably have
a hidden way of communicating between themselves). Outline who
you are, what your business can offer to the community, and ask
for their advice on how to best do that. They will appreciate
your thoughtfulness – and might become your biggest customers.

Look for the Right Spot: Often online communities will have
established areas for vendors to use. Look for them first.

Be Low Key: TV, radio, and the internet are filled with ads that
shout and hype. Go against that grain, and be low-key. Don’t be
the first to respond to a question – wait to see where threads
develop. Someone else might recommend your business – which is
better than you doing it. If you see a thread has a few
responses that really aren’t that helpful, then jump in. But
even then be modest, self-deprecating, and genuine. If you know
your competitor has a better or cheaper solution recommend it.
Don’t consider it a lost sale, consider it an investment in a
relationship with a future customer. The community will
appreciate the approach. Use text links when linking to your
business site – don’t use your business logo.

Don’t Bash Competitors or Past Customers: The community is not
the place to air your dirty laundry, or resolve customer service
issues. Take those off-line. Talk up your competitors strengths,
not their weaknesses.

Be Open to Feedback: If someone from the community buys your
product, be open to feedback about it. This is free market
research and usability testing for you. If someone posts a
complaint about your product, publicly thank them for taking the
time and request an off-line way to follow up. Keep in mind
everyone is watching how you handle yourself – taking the high
road is the only way to guarantee future sales here. Keep in
mind this community is already connected, and word will get
around regardless.

Offer Group Discounts: Any large web community will likely have
common needs. Offer a discount on products or services if the
community can arrange a group buy.

Offer to Support the Community: Most email lists or discussion
forums have usually have costs associated with them that either
one person is paying for, or the community is paying for. Before
they get mad at you for making money off of their efforts, offer
to help pay for those costs – sponsor a month’s worth of
hosting, or donate a product to be auctioned off. Other
advertising channels will cost you money, don’t assume this is a
free ride.

Be Involved: All too often communities see businesses post once
then never return. Don’t do that. If you’re serious about
helping this community out, become part of it. Take part in the
off-topic threads. Give advice that doesn’t include a pitch for
your products or services. Get to know the people that make up
this community on a personal level – don’t just view them as
your “target market”.

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  • Posted On April 11, 2006
  • Published articles 283513

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