Human beings are social creatures who have organically created and joined social communities for centuries. Some of you may recall the "fan clubs" that were popular in the days before the Internet. These communities and many others were created around shared interests. Their reach and scope, of course, was limited by the existing communication channels.
The internet changed all of that. In the online world, communities may have started with the arrival of America Online, and others quickly followed suit. Initially called bulletin boards or forums, they're now commonly known as "communities" or "groups", and they've become exceptionally popular in social media, including business-focused sites like LinkedIn.
Wayne Breitbarth, author of The Power Formula for LinkedIn Success, was once a skeptic, but is now an outspoken advocate of the use of groups for business professionals. When Breitbarth does surveys twice each year to ask LinkedIn users what they like most about the site's features, "Groups" generally shows up in either the #1 or #2 spot.
The insurance industry is already onboard; a LinkedIn Groups search for the term "insurance" yields more than 8000 results, including a group called "Insurance Professionals" with more than 76,000 members.
But big numbers don't necessarily indicate effectiveness. Breitbarth says that there has been growing frustration among LinkedIn group participants about spam and irrelevant posts that clog up the conversational threads in large groups.
Smaller, more tightly knit communities can actually be more useful because the conversation stays more focused on members' interests.
Another option is participation in proprietary communities hosted on organizations' web sites. Some, like ExecuNet, take a hybrid approach, managing both a proprietary and a LinkedIn group.
Anthony Vlahos is Chief Marketing Officer at ExecuNet, a private network that "helps business leaders shape positive change to achieve what's next in their individual executive lives." ExecuNet has about 250,000 members, and ExecuNet also operates Executive Suite on LinkedIn.
"I look at it as the difference between the private, intimate world indoors versus the great outdoors," says Vlahos. "There's a whole lot to do inside that you can't do outside. Outside is beautiful, the sun is out, but inside you can meet people who are like you, who are interested in the things you're interested in."
Vlahos says the term "communities" makes him think of things like fan clubs, or the well-known Italian-American community on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Communities, he says, are fundamentally about "creating real neighborhood spirit-a spirit about not just being the same and caring about similar things, but most importantly wanting to share, wanting to give of yourself to help each other." The same values, he says, exist in online communities.
Next week... read more on getting maximum value from communities.
Lin Grensing-Pophal has written on topics ranging from health and wellness, to careers and HR-related topics, to marketing and social media. Her most recent book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Strategic Planning" (Penguin), was released in spring 2011. Lin is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Association of Health Care Journalists, and the Society of Professional Journalists.