Business to business media owners planning to strengthen the community of their readers, or stand-alone networking and events businesses are keen to develop active vertical online professional networks, whether in the guise of forums, discussion groups or pure networking sites. Yet many struggle to build numbers of active members and encourage contributions. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but below are some approaches that I have seen work for other businesses or on the professional network that I run myself (it’s the Specialist Media Network on Linked in):
1. Sign up the big names
The movers and shakers in an industry can attract others who want to learn from them. They are also often those who have the biggest personal networks. Investing time in courting the big names and then publicising their involvement is worthwhile. If you can encourage them to provide quotes, speak at events or even just contribute to discussions then the ripples will spread.
2. Drip in useful content
Original articles on hot topics can start a discussion going. Even links to well-written third party articles are valued. Top tips, useful checklists, case studies, pro-forma RFPs all provide a reason for members to sign up, and check in regularly. You need a mechanism to alert members when new stuff is posted.
3. Create live events
Online chat is great, but human contact is far better. Live events cement relationships built on-line, and establish new contacts that can be followed up virtually. An interesting speaker and a lively Q&A fast-forwards the debate, and it’s easier to understand the emotion behind a contributor’s comments. Shared experience, insight and laughter help the group to bond. Events can also be the catalyst for further online discussion, and a canny network organiser will make sure the content of the event and the ensuing debate is publicised to those who couldn’t attend the live version.
4. Add moderation
A good live debate needs stimulus and facilitation, bringing in people with interesting points of view as the discussion develops. Online discussions between professionals also benefit from moderation, so try to enlist some enthusiastic experts to guide the discussion and keep the plates spinning.
5. Use surveys
In most communities, only 10% will post online contributions at length, but a higher proportion will complete surveys and rate or rank ideas, and all will read the results avidly. Surveys are a great way to take the temperature of a group, and build a greater sense of belonging.
I’d be interested to hear your experiences of building online professional networks. Please comment below, or join the Specialist Media Network on Linked-in and add to the discussion there.
Carolyn Morgan’s consultancy, Penmaen Media, creates practical digital media and marketing strategies, and has particular expertise in all branches of media: print, events and digital. If you’d like to discuss how we could help you invigorate your professional network, please contact us.