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Pearl Morbs is a gamer in every sense of the word. An activist, artist, cosplayer and social media project manager, even her online nom de plume derives from her gamer heritage.

On the other hand, Morbs doesn’t play games with digital engagement and social media marketing. The millennial already has worked in social media and online communities for seven years.

She speaks with the authority that drew the attention of Ivana Taylor and Iva Ignjatovic. They discussed how to build an online community, how to engage with your audience, and followers.

Taylor owns DIYMarketers, a company “committed to helping small business owners get out of overwhelm.” Ignjatovic is a marketing, strategy, leadership and business consultant.

They weighed the difference between a network and a community.

“They can be similar,” Taylor said. “A network is a community, but I don’t think all communities are networks. Networks are more about connecting. Communities are about affiliation.”

Ignjatovic took a broad perspective.

“Community is more than being a member,” she said. “It’s is about membership and belonging, intentionally participating.”

These online networks are economically potent. According to eMarketer, 44 percent of local businesses said they depend on social media to generate brand awareness. Plus, 41 percent depend on it to drive revenue.

“A network contains people connected by beliefs, values and social norms who frequently share info, experiences or behaviors with each other,” Morbs said. “A network represents connections or ties between people.

“A community is often smaller and more centered on organic relationships with others and the feeling that community members matter to each other and to the community as a whole,” she said. “A community represents relationships between people.”

These are no distinct differences between the terms.

“Networks and communities are not mutually exclusive,” Morbs said. “There can be some overlap. For example, you could find multiple communities within a single network.”

You can’t force communities together and get good results. Members should be there willingly and want to participate.

“Communities occur naturally, like a forest,” Taylor said. “Yet, they can be built and nurtured like a garden.”

Usually, communities don’t miraculously appear.

“Community is always intentional,” Ignjatovic said. “People can gather around the cause or brand, but to keep them around you need to be intentional.”

Businesses have vested interests in seeing their communities succeed.

“Most communities form naturally – organically,” Morbs said. “However, brands can influence communities by providing an environment that encourages relationship building around a product, service or cause.

“Communities definitely can change and evolve — and no wonder,” Morbs said. “People change and evolve over time and so do brands.”

These days, it might be easier to build online communities first, particularly if participants aren’t local. In any case, in-person interaction brings in all dimensions.

Taylor believes both online and in-person communities have their share of challenges, while Ignjatovic thinks they mesh together.

“Online and offline are all the same,” Ignjatovic said. “People are online. Even if you’re offline, you have to ‘wire up’ your reach.

“Building a community is so much more than scheduling posts,” she said. “It takes real conversation and engagement — and all that in continuity.”

Saying it takes time and effort to grow communities online and off, Morbs gave these building keys:

  • Create quality content of value to your community.
  • Engage meaningfully and regularly.
  • Provide co-creation opportunities.
  • Motivate support and cooperation within your community.

“Time and effort are absolutely part of both,” Morbs said. “Where you have to prepare a physical space for offline community building and events, you have to prepare a digital space for online community building and events.

“Social media and online spaces also have become second nature to Gen X, millennials and younger generations,” she said. “There are people now who have grown up with the internet and online communities. This is a natural space for them.”

The experience likewise has become natural for business. According to Small Business Trends, 53 percent of users say they bought a product they first saw on Twitter.

“I don’t think you have a community without engagement,” Taylor aid. “It’s the ‘air’ that keeps the community alive.”

Engagement, for Ignjatovic, relies on brand awareness, brand ambassadorship, being close to the audience, being able to serve it better and exchange of knowledge.

“Engagement builds relationships between your community and your brand,” Morbs said. “It’s where the human touch comes into play and allows authenticity and compassion to shine through. Engagement also stimulates discussions and sharing across networks.

“Engagement can boost additional metrics indirectly,” she said.

Morbs took her own experience to depict how much engagement can boost community development in as little as three months.

“Thriving, healthy communities engage with each other regularly, even outside community events,” Taylor said.

Ignjatovic finds those communities are characterized by freedom of expression, commitment, exchange of knowledge and experience, and a common goal.

“Thriving communities have strong community culture, active engagement, brand transparency, advocates who sing the praises of your brand via word of mouth — earned media,” Morbs said. “They have co-created concepts that fuel brand innovations and improvements.”

Marketing research firm Ascend2 finds that 49 percent of marketers say social media is the most effective channel to include in their digital marketing plan.

Engaged communities might include only a few or a lot of people.

“You can have thousands of engaged members, but 50 people who engage give the opportunity to build relationships and create energy,” Taylor said.

While Ignjatovic said, “The more the merrier,” Morbs pumped the brakes on quantity.

“Engaged communities can be any size,” Morbs said. “Don’t get caught up in the numbers.

“Engaged simply means there is two-way communication happening from brand to consumers, consumers to brand, or consumers to consumers,” she said. “Focus on quality engagement. Growth will come.”

To build and maintain and online community, be present and active. That demands a commitment of time, effort and caring.

“Keeping the community engaged can be challenging,” Taylor said. “You need touchstones and reminders.”

Knowing where to start is important.

“Select the engagement platform,” Ignjatovic said. “Then create the appropriate engagement strategy, and remain consistent.”

Morbs broke out three main challenges:

  • Community Moderation. People like to communicate in spaces where they feel safe and heard. Since community is all about relationships and interactions, brands should ensure communication in the community is healthy, not toxic.
  • Time Management. An online community rarely sleeps because the internet is 24-7-365. Depending on your budget, you may want to invest in a social media team and social tools. Delegate tasks.
  • Crisis Management. Your community will expect a timely, transparent and authentic response. This may involve a sincere apology and demonstrating a commitment to change. Poor crisis management can damage your community.

“Acknowledging folks who contribute to the community is important,” Taylor said. “Even if they only say something once, you need to acknowledge them.”

No one should be taken for granted.

“Brands often don’t have conversations with their members,” Ignjatovic said. “They think just being on social, having members or followers is having a community.”

Morbs has found these common engagement mistakes:

  • Not engaging.
  • Jumping into conversations to make a hard sell.
  • Delayed response times.
  • Lack of personalized responses, also known as sounding robotic.

Great community managers are passionate. You can see their enthusiasm in their writing or on video. Taylor said these managers not only acknowledge but reach out and ask questions.

“They host, engage, answer and post,” Ignjatovic said. “They keep the conversation going and make it meaningful in a specific context.”

Morbs said great community managers share key attributes:

  • Fuel participation through content that appeals to extrinsic and intrinsic motivations.
  • Engage using discussion-driving questions and positive or helpful responses.
  • Ask the community what they want. Then follow-through.

“Giving is the key that unlocks many doors,” Morbs said. “Especially when starting out, you’ll want to give to your community more than you expect to receive. A strong community will pay you back tenfold in time.”

Twitter chats are far and away the best online communities. They are unlimited, wide ranging and instant. By comparison, Facebook or other groups are small community centers.

Ignjatovic also favors Twitter, taking its place in her heart vacated by Google-plus.

“My favorite platforms for online communities are Twitter, Reddit and Facebook Groups,” Morbs said. “I may soon add Instagram to that list because its visual content provides a unique way for people to connect. It has a lot of potential, and the platform is growing.”

Visual content also commands growing importance.

“There’s a lot of room to humanize yourself or your brand in a way that you can’t through text-only content,” Morbs said. “We can be super creative with engagement when visual media enters the picture.”

She and Taylor continued chatting about community building and engagement in this YouTube video.

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Jim Katzaman
Jim Katzaman is a manager at Largo Financial Services. A writer by trade, he graduated from Lebanon Valley College, Pennsylvania, with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He enlisted in the Air Force and served for 25 years in public affairs – better known in the civilian world as public relations. He also earned an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science in Public Affairs. Since retiring, he has been a consultant and in the federal General Service as a public affairs specialist. He also acquired life and health insurance licenses, which resulted in his present affiliation with Largo Financial Services. In addition to expertise in financial affairs, he gathers the majority of his story content from Twitter chats. This has led him to publish about a wide range of topics such as social media, marketing, sexual harassment, workplace trends, productivity and financial management. Medium has named him a top writer in social media.

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