Community Netiquette: How to Avoid Stepping on Virtual Toes

Most of us know that in the typical online community, it’s not kosher to post blatant marketing materials. But when confronted by other more nuanced issues, such as how to introduce ourselves (or our company) to a community, or how to react to someone calling us names, things get a little murkier. This guide shares some of the basics of conducting yourself properly when engaging on behalf of an organization within the existing Social Web, with tools and communities your company has created and especially with those it hasn’t.

Initial Engagement
Nowhere is that old phrase “you only get one chance to make a first impression” more relevant than when a company representative engages with a community base for the first time. Come out of the gate too strong and you’re written off as too “sales focused”. Too meek and mild-mannered and you’ll be considered a bit player in the company, and only marginally interested in actually helping the community. Finding the sweet spot means developing a balance between strong willed but willing to listen.

Figure out your objective
Before diving into new social groups, figure out why it makes sense to engage with each group. Good community netiquette dictates that you participate with, not market to each community, and that’s no quick or easy task. If you’re not prepared to do the hard work, or you’re not clear on why you want to connect with a particular community, figure that out first.

Read archives, do a search
If there was one issue that most members of just about any community would agree on, it’s that members (especially new ones) don’t search the archives nearly often enough before asking a question. In fact, this issue can often bring even the most steady of community elders to the brink of anger.

Do your research before you engage. Spend at least an hour or two digging into the archives. Run searches on key terms and projects you’re interested in. Learn a little about the membership. Pick up on a few of the inside jokes.

Introduce yourself
Before you engage with the community at large, always track down that community’s leadership, be it a webmaster, an elder member, or administrator. Introduce yourself one-on-one and ask for their “blessing”, so to speak for engaging with the community. Explain to them what your purpose is, that you understand their community’s culture (more on this in a second), and that you understand and respect their rules. Understand what might concern them (or the community members they’re representing) about your participation and address those concerns directly and quickly. Make it clear that you want to be a “good guest”

This will almost always create support for you and your mission from the community leadership. Showing them the proper, and deserved respect will encourage them to help you better understand how to approach the community.

Remember, you’re a guest in someone else’s house. Act accordingly.

Be a person
Your personality is the biggest, best tool in your toolbox when working with communities. Our natural human response when working with people outside our company (or perhaps even those inside our company too) is to put on the “business face”, to try to present ourselves as a cog in a larger machine. Don’t believe me? The next time you’re presenting something to a group of colleagues outside your direct group, pay close attention to how your body language changes when you go from chatting with someone sitting next to you and how you stiffen up physically and verbally as you start presenting.

Community members want to work with a person from a company, not the cold corporate entity in the sky. They want to know that there are people who work at the company who are honestly interested in the product at least as much as they are. Show them you’re a real person and not a robot – meet them in person, or at least post a photo of yourself. Share a few bits of personal data about yourself (nothing too out there, of course). And for crying out loud, share a link to somewhere on the Web that isn’t your corporate site. LinkedIn, your business blog, or even your (work safe) Flickr stream are all great options. Of course we’re talking business casual personality sharing here, not car wash t-shirt sharing.

Ongoing Engagement
You’ve made your initial introductions, done your community research, had your first interaction with the community, and maybe even let the community get to know you as a person. Flash forward a few weeks or months; what are the best ways to continue to engage in the proper way?

Take one, leave one
Community members expect everyone, company reps included, to pull their own weight. Communities are driven largely by the amount and type of participation by their members, and now that you’re a member, you’d best be pitching in and helping out. Giving as much as you take is not only good community etiquette, it’s what enables you to continue asking for help from the community.

For every request you make of the community, give back equally. Need to have help spreading the word about a new product? Ask the community for help, but make sure that you also deliver something they’re interested in. What should you deliver? Good question! This is where your relationship with the webmaster or the community elders comes in handy. Just ask; if they haven’t told you already they’ll be sure to fill you in on their needs for free product for contest prizes, information about company developments, or official recognition of activities they’re running in the community.

Follow-up & respond
There’s nothing worse than a “drop in”… a blogger, forum poster, or commenter that swings by a community, asks for help or pitches a product then disappears never to be seen again, until the next time they need something. Proper community etiquette dictates that when you post content in a discussion that you participate until the natural conclusion of that discussion.

If you post a blog entry or forum thread, watch the discussion for people asking follow-up questions. Then answer them. If you jump into an existing thread, be prepared to see how people respond to your opinions. Community is about conversation, and conversation is not a one-way transaction.

Let a question breathe
As employees of a company responsible for a product or service that brings us into a community, our natural inclination is to pounce on open questions and problems immediately, solving them or eliminating the issue so fast that it’s not even noticed by those who are behind in their reading.

Like good wine, however, community issues benefit by being left alone for a period of time. This allows other community members to answer them first, giving them an ability to look good in front of their peers. Further, answering questions that have gone unanswered for a period, say 48 hours for instance, helps showcase you not as someone with nothing better to do than answer forum questions, but as someone who is willing to take time out of their day to pitch in and help out when and how you can.

Cautiously use inside jokes
Every social group, large and small develops its own inside jokes. These jokes are bonding elements, bits of cultural history that help connect community members over time and space. LEGO fans for example, have had an endless debate about whether space themed models are better than castle themed models. At in-person events, you hear cries of “Space!” “No Castle!” ring out regularly. It’s a bonding ritual.

While this is amusing for community members to exchange these jabs, when the company rep tries to participate equally it comes off like the parent who tries to use their child’s modern slang – it just looks silly.

That said, being able to use one of those inside jokes as a sly reference to your clear understanding of the community itself can be fantastic. LEGO enthusiasts go nuts when they hear the CEO of the LEGO Company make reference to the fact that he’s always felt Space had a leg up on Castle.

Communication
Communication is the backbone of any community group, and it’s one of the most important skills for a company representative to understand before jumping into community engagement. (For more information about communities and communication, see the OCRN whitepaper entitled “9 Tips for Inspired (and Inspiring) Text Communication”)

Everything is global
These days it’s hard to find a community that is restricted to users from a single country who speak only one language. The global nature of the internet combined with the widespread interest of nearly everything from knitting to tech support to gadget lust means that great communities attract large audiences.

  • Understand what kind of global breakdown the community actually has. If half the membership is outside your own market, you will approach your conversations far differently than if there’s only a few members from outside your market.
  • Your own language, even if you only speak English needs to be globalized. Using terms like “we” and “us” to mean “North Americans” can and will turn off those outside North America very quickly. Cultural references that won’t be understood outside your market need to be explained or even dropped all together.
  • Even if your product is sold only in certain markets, you have influencers and interested parties outside that market that should be respected. Even though Apple’s iPhone launched as a US-only product, there were thousands of Europeans lusting after the device who helped build momentum in the US (and then eventually parts of Europe)

Identify yourself
It’s generally considered sketchy for a company employee to participate in the community without fully and completely identifying themselves. This includes:

  • Avatars and/or Username: In many systems, the username and/or avatar is the first connection community members will make with you. Choose a username wisely. Consider RobotMan123 vs. LionelATdell – which one tells a story?
  • Profile: Before posting anything, fill out your profile, whatever that means to the particular tool you’re using. Add some details about yourself, and open up your persona to the world. (Remember, business casual!)
  • Content: If the social system you’re using has the ability to add content (such as photos on Flickr or applications on Facebook), spend some time to build out the content. Showcase your interest in the community by actually participating.
  • Signature lines: In forums especially, add a footer (either through the site’s My Account area or manually on each post) that clarifies who you are, where to find more information about you, and who you represent. Please, skip the massive corporate legal disclaimers!

Typing in all caps
It doesn’t matter how excited you are about your topic, there’s never a need for entire sentences of all caps text. The use of all caps is generally understood to signify yelling or anger, and as such, needs to be sparingly, if at all.

Only quote relevant parts of message
There’s enough reading we have to do online already, help your audience out by quoting smart and selective bits of the prior messages you are responding to.

Use a URL shortener
When posting URLs that are even slightly long, use a URL shortener such as:

These services all perform a similar function: they take a long URL (think Amazon product page) and turn into a very short URL that’s easier to use online or in emails. Long emails can actually break the design of many social sites, which can be irritating to community members who are trying to read content through a messed up design. Some users actually consider posting overly long URLs an act of spamming.

UPDATE: From Bill Ward in the comments: “One thing about URL shorterners though to watch out for: some people see them as URL hiders. If you post a shortened URL to a sales page, better make it clear in the text what it is you’re pointing to! Some people might resent being cookied or having you receive click-through bonuses from a shortened URL.”

Reference existing posts
Show that you’re paying attention and that you’ve done your research by referencing existing posts when you post content.

Official Avatar
Whenever possible, work with the social site webmaster (remember, by now you’re good friends, right?) to create an official, site specific avatar image that shows that you’re an “official” company representative. This helps to visually and quickly showcase your affiliation and ensure that you’re presenting a bit of pride around your company.

Grammar is a sign of respect
Web communication is notorious for poor grammar, bad spelling, and rambling sentence structure. In fact, it’s so bad that simply spell checking your postings and re-reading the content before hitting submit actually makes you look more professional and shows that you’re interested in making a good impression. (For more information about communities and communication, see the OCRN whitepaper entitled “9 Tips for Inspired (and Inspiring) Text Communication”)

Marketing & Sales
To wrap up any discussion of Community Netiquette, it’s a hard requirement that marketing and sales is mentioned. A great many words could be written about this point alone, but it all comes back to basic point: Stop selling and start participating.

In a community environment, overt sales tactics are almost always flatly rejected initially, and tricky to pull off successfully even after a solid relationship has been established. The best rule of thumb is to help cultivate an environment where community members ask you to sell to them, where they ask you to give them information on products. It will happen, but only when you let go of the idea that if you’re not pitching you’re not selling. Participation is sales.

(This content was originally posted at the Online Community Research Network and reposted here with permission)