Laura Petrolino

Six Steps for Success with Online Communities

By: Laura Petrolino | April 25, 2016 | 
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Six Steps for Success with Online CommunitiesBy Laura Petrolino

I’d guess at least once a day I compliment someone on their awesome glutes (aka gluteus maximus; aka booty, booty, booty rocking everywhere).

The other day I told someone I had a crush on their lats.

I often comment on how much thicker people’s quads have gotten.

These blunt comments about someone’s body could be, out of context, completely inappropriate, rude, and even offensive…but in both off and online communities of the bodybuilding and powerlifting world, they make sense and are complimentary.

(In other words, please don’t try this at home. If you go around complimenting people’s booties out of context, I will not be held responsible for the results.)

The Language of Online Communities

Online communities all have their own language. This could be figures of speech, acronyms, topics of interest, or language that developed around common goals or struggles.

For example, in the bodybuilding world people might talk often about “iifym,” “v-taper,” “thigh gap,” “prep,” and “peak week,” and “weeks out.” Most of these things make zero sense to someone not involved in the sport.

Likewise, common phrases, words, or terms take on different meanings.

If you talk about “symmetry” in bodybuilding online communities it means something completely different than if you talk about “symmetry” in photography.

As communications professionals, our job is to learn this language, so we can translate it into our interaction, engagement, and overall messaging.

Be an Insider

Have you ever heard someone from an older generation try to use phrases of a much younger generation? It’s often out of place and awkward (although normally hilarious), but it makes it obvious the speaker isn’t part of the community. They are, instead, an outsider trying to fit it.

That same scenario plays out over and over again when brands try to fit into online communities they are targeting, but don’t fully understand the community language.

So stop it.

It’s annoying and ineffective.

This is true if you want to build a niche online community of your own or message directly to a target group.

Stop. Just stop.

And take the time to learn the lingo without Rosetta Stone.

Become Fluent in Six Steps

Learning the language of an online community is much like learning any other language. Sure, you might not spend days conjugating verbs or making flashcards, but many of the same ideas follow suit.

Follow these six steps to become fluent in the language of the community you are trying to target.

  1. Influencers. Look for the influencers first. And not just the big names or spokespeople, but the average people who have a lot of influence. The “cool kids” in the community. It is among their ranks that most of the language of the community becomes part of the regular communication. If they use a phrase or word frequently it will spread like wild fire among the rest of the community. Analyze how they speak and how they interact (so look at both their comments and conversation). Both elements are very important and if you only pay attention to the things they say (ie. status messages, or posts) vs. how they respond to others, you’ll miss out on key aspects of the way the online community’s language works.
  2. Interaction. Cotinuing the above, pay very close attention to how the community interacts with one another—the social contract, of sorts. How do they talk to each other? What’s the tone? What kind of feel does the community have? Supportive? Competitive? Challenging?
  3. Competitors. Not until you’ve really dug into influencers and interaction should you spend anytime checking out what your competitors do. Why? Because if you look at them first you essentially learn Spanish from an Asian or Russian from a Swede. They might get some things right, but they often won’t be “native speakers.” Once you’ve done your own research you’ll be able to view what your competitors are doing intelligently. What do they do right? Wrong? Where are they off base? What is a good idea, but being applied poorly? This is a very powerful perspective to view them with (and form your own strategy).
  4. Context. Think about context and the type of conversations you want to have. What type of relationship do you want to develop between yourself and the members of the community? A parent and child communicate very differently than peers…..you need to see yourself in context of the relationship as a whole.
  5. Personality Document. Develop a personality document to guide the communication of the entire organization. This ensures consistency and clears up ambiguity. Follow this guide to create one.
  6. Practice. As with any language, practice makes perfect. The more you observe and interact, the better you’ll understand the nuances of the language and communication landscape of the community in focus.

What experiences have you had with successfully (or unsuccessfully) learning the language of an online community?

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.