Part five in an ongoing series about a small business start-up trying to succeed on the web without relying on traffic from the major search engines.

bento box lunchIt's long been understood that people trust the advice and opinions of their friends more than they trust the word of a marketer. The interesting thing about online communities and social media is that they've allowed people to create those "friend" connections with people they've never met in real life. Legions of people are becoming opinion leaders through blogs and communities and are gaining reputation and trust among their readers. These opinion leaders often hold more sway than even the opinions of close friends and family.

In the past, people turned to professional critics and consumer reporting services to gather feedback about a product. These days the Internet has moved beyond the simple "the guy next to me in the store said it's a great product" and now allows readers to learn enough about "the guy" to know whether they wish to trust his opinion or not. New critics are being minted each and every day and communities are forming around them as complete strangers share their advice and input on everything from their favorite movies to who should be the next president.

bento box lunchThis is one of the primary reasons businesses are so attracted to social media marketing. When done properly, it not only gives them insight into the needs and desires of their customers, it also gives them the opportunity to become a trusted member of the community.

The Challenge of Becoming Part of the Community

While becoming involved in a community related to your product or service can be a wonderful way to expand your business, learn more about your customers and to build up a loyal following, it's also a little bit like walking across a field of land minds. Get too comfortable and you may find things going up in smoke around you.

Anyone who has gone to their ten or twenty year reunion has run into that guy. The one who sells life insurance or mutual funds or works at the used car lot. The one who wants to turn every conversation into a selling opportunity and who seems to have forgotten that reunions are about reliving past fun and gloating over the popular kids that still live with their parents. That guy all too often fails to realize that the best way to sell is to get into the conversation, keep people entertained with stories and memories and then take advantage of a selling opportunity if it arises. After all, if you run into someone you know and trust, have a great conversation and then find out they offer something you need, chances are high that you'll buy from them. It's when they push the issue that you get turned off and walk away.

bento box lunchThis is the greatest challenge for most businesses when it comes to social media marketing. Picture the corporate blog that does nothing but talk about the company's own product. Think about the new forum user who decides that their product is the perfect answer to anyone else's question. These businesses miss a huge opportunity because they mistakenly believe that social media marketing is about them rather than being about their customers.

Joining a Community for Real

That's why it's essential that if you decide to delve into social media marketing, you do it with the true intention of joining the community. You must become a contributing member, not simply someone looking to hock their wares. As with blogging, you must be willing to devote the time needed to doing things properly.

So how do you become a proper member of the community?

It's simple really. You put your focus on adding value to the conversation. (And no, value is NOT shouting "hey, I have this to sell!) You put your time and effort toward becoming one of the most valuable members of the community. At the same time, you'll want to make it easy for people to find their way to your store front. There's nothing wrong with using your business name as your screen name, or with including your URL on your profile. Do this while offering something of value to the community and people will find their way to the products and services you offer.

The Bento Community

Mr. Bento PornWhen it came to joining communities for Bento Yum, we didn't have much work to do. Mostly because I'd joined several communities before I'd even hit the point of repeating "I will not start a bento blog" to myself every time I uploaded a picture to Flickr. In fact, the sales side of Bento Yum had come into existence because of my involvement in various bento communities and in the repeated interest in places to buy complete bento starter sets.

If you've been following the series from the beginning, you may remember that my first exposure to the world of bento was from the Flickr group "Mr Bento Porn." Since Flickr tells you what groups a photo belongs to, it was easy to track down other popular bento groups and to join them as well. Finally, as I started hunting for bento blogs, I noticed a link to the Live Journal Bento Lunch community popping up over and over again, so I quickly became a regular reader of that site as well. After spending a few weeks watching the groups, I finally ordered my own Mr. Bento from Amazon and started packing lunches for my husband.

It was then that I was finally able to become an active member of the community.

How to be a Good Member of the Community

bento box lunchOne of the things that had attracted me to the various bento communities was the inspiration factor. Watching the color, creative and even artistic lunches that other members put together each day was inspiring. In fact, that inspiration was the deciding factor that pushed me into joining the bento craze. When I decided to launch a bento blog, my goal was to become one of those sources of inspiration. I planned on posting each lunch I'd prepared and on including step-by-step instructions, recipes and tips whenever the opportunity arose.

When Abigail decided that she wanted to sell bento sets and we made our plans to partner, my original plans made even more sense. I've long been a proponent of "information marketing." In fact, I've built my reputation as an online marketers by giving my knowledge away to anyone who visits search engine guide. I built up my hobby site, The Lactivist by becoming a resource and an outlet for nursing mothers. People are drawn to resources and they're drawn to personalities. When it comes time for them to make a sales decision, they'll often turn to the people they've come to enjoy spending time with.

Thus, my plan was to let people know that Abigail had opened up shop and then to go back to posting in the manner I had been. After all, if I was doing enough work to become a valued member of the community, people would take the time to seek out our Bento Yum site. If they came to Bento Yum, it was quite clear that we had bento sets for sale. Our goal was to become a part of something and to earn our customers.

bento box lunchAfter all, there are no short cuts to long-term success.

That said, even when you join a community with the best of intentions, you are bound to make mistakes. Chances are high that you won't get through any foray into social media marketing with at least one misstep. Why? Because joining any new group has it's up and downs. I'll cover be covering those in the next few articles in the series.

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July 26, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Hide and Speak - Becoming Part of the Community