The power of online communities for owners of teeny-tiny businesses

I’ve just checked in with one of my online communities, which was discussing how to create Facebook Live videos. I’m glad I checked in…video is an area I hope to be braver about exploring this year.

We all know about the downsides of the online environment, right? The lack of boundaries or filters. The pervasiveness and addictiveness of bad news. The temptation to put the verbal beatdown on jerks who we know are simply trying to start a fight. And on and on.

But for all the downsides, there are some startlingly wonderful upsides to it as well. For example, in my post about Facebook, I describe how I’ve remodeled it into a key element of my mental health. For every self-centered bit of ugliness, there are many more beautiful jewels ranging from the thought-provoking to the day-maker to the life-changer.

For those of us who are self-employed in some fashion, one of the best things about the web and social media is the existence of online communities. These can be conversation spaces on websites, web-based communities, or social media groups full of people who share our interests.

Especially if you live in a smaller town, as I do, having a place where I can commune with others who are on the same professional learning curve is worth having to spend a few more minutes online each day, even worth having to dodge an internet troll or sales pitch now and then.

I choose my communities based on a few factors:

What would I want out of a community?

Would it be:

  • A good conversation when I need it
  • Communing with other professionals who do what I do, to learn or teach
  • (Gently) getting the word out about what I do, how I can help, in the places where my primary customer types hang out
  • Avoiding the isolation of self-employment; being around other smart people
  • Learning from one another’s mistakes and successes as I evolve my business
  • Moral support on those days when you just want to hang it up
  • Possible fun collaborations with people who have complementary skills

How big is the community I’m checking out?

You can see that, depending on what you chose above, the size of a community does matter. If you’re trying to get visibility for your work, for example, being in a community of 4000 souls would be a challenge. Many of them are also vying for visibility, and your words can get lost in the cascade of posts every day.

Conversely, if you’re looking for a broad spectrum of ideas, trying to avoid isolation, or seeking good one-to-one conversation, then a bigger community may increase your chances of finding someone out of the masses who’s a kindred spirit (if you pay attention, you’ll spot them).

A small, focused group is best if you’re hoping to find a sense of shared purpose, longer-term relationships, collaboration opportunities, and none of the overwhelm of “200 new posts in your group!”

What’s the vibe?

I can almost guarantee that, if a community has words like “diva,” “b*tch,” or “babe” in the name, it’s entirely the wrong vibe for me.

Similarly, industry power-success jargon like “crush it,” “kill it,” “own it,” or “making bank” just isn’t what I’m up for, so the prevailing atmosphere of the site isn’t likely to be MY cup of tea.

Not all of us have the same preferences there, so to each his/her own. Trust your gut. But make sure the energy and spirit of the group match yours. The last thing you need is one more energy drain—we all have enough of those to go around.

How focused is it?

There are some highly focused “niche” communities that serve the needs of people who work in something very, very specific and want to commune with others who use that same skill or technology.

There are others that are slightly broader. One of my groups is focused specifically on the needs of people building their own small businesses, specifically people who are “conscious entrepreneurs” with a bigger vision for their work than just paying the mortgage.

And then there are groups for people who just love pictures of cats.

So, if you want to get maximum benefit from being in these kinds of spaces, think about these two factors:

Very specific = good for targeted learning, connections, solutions, Q&A. Think of it as something like a club, where you all geek out on the same subject matter.

Very general = good for a sense of community/camaraderie, contented browsing, lots of input, feeling part of something larger. Think of THAT like a big block party, where you have at least one common interest to break the ice. (And, for introverts like me, minus the “party” part 🙂

Is it just one big icky sales pitch?

This is hard to describe but easy to recognize. Many groups, on Facebook in particular, are just elaborate marketing tactics to fill the owner’s sales funnel with prospects, without really providing useful, engaging community-building. You’ll know when you find one of these, and you can decide how comfortable you are with it, and whether to stay or to leave the group.

What form does it take?

The smallest sort of community: Your own blog or business page on social media.

This is the option over which you have the most control.

If you have a blog on your website, you can create a conversation space just by opening up your blog posts to comments (which you can approve before they appear). On social media, you can regularly post useful material and invite people’s feedback around it.

In either scenario, post something interesting and engaging, and when you share it with people, treat it as an invitation to start a conversation about your topic. Ask questions. Invite comments and experiences.

Web communities

There are many, many niche groups on the web that serve as a gathering place for people of specific professions, people who all use a certain software product, fans of creative arts, and tons more. There’s Kinaxis (supply chain experts), Radiolopolis (radiologists), Journalverse (journal writers and facilitators), and Barista Exchange (self-explanatory!).

Social media communities
Facebook has over a million public, private, and secret groups, both paid and unpaid. My own short list of groups includes communities who discuss different kinds of conscious business, healthy entrepreneurship, community gardening, WordPress, storytelling, and meditation.

LinkedIn groups “provide a place for professionals in the same industry or with similar interests to share content, find answers, post and view jobs, make business contacts, and establish themselves as industry experts.” They come in all shapes and sizes and degree-of-noisiness. You can join to see what the vibe is, and leave if it isn’t your thing. Find groups to research by using the search feature at the top of your LinkedIn.

Coaching or professional community private groups are usually started by a coach, consultant, or marketing expert to create a conversation space for their own clients. Some are free and open, but the majority are paid and private. Don’t let that necessarily be a dealbreaker; sometimes it’s the only way to keep a group sustainable. For example, the Awarepreneurs community costs $5/month for their online group, group networking calls, support and coaching, and more.

How to find a group to try

Search Facebook groups by logging into your account and looking in the left column for Explore >> Groups, then clicking the Discover tab and using the search box at the top to search for your area of interest. When you join a group, remember to see the Notifications button at the top, where you can dictate which notifications from the group, if any, show up on your page notifications (the globe in the upper right).

To search LinkedIn groups, n the search box at the top of your LinkedIn homepage, type keywords of interest, and click Search. On the search results page, click the Groups tab (it’s under “More” near the top left).

You can also search Google with terms like “online community for veterinarians” or “Facebook groups for women entrepreneurs” or “online discussion group for WordPress beginners.”

. . . . .

Online communities are no substitute for real human contact. But they do come with the crazymagical modern ability to connect with a concentrated group of faraway people who share our specific challenges, who may have answers to the questions keeping us up at night, and who we can help with our own knowledge and experience. That’s something that’s hard to find in all but the biggest cities, IF it can be found at all, and so it’s been well worth it to me. Try it out.

 


 

Thanks for stopping by!

If you have a heart-based business and this message resonated with you, I’d love to have you keep in touch (in times like these, having a community of people who ‘get’ us can make all the difference between a great day and “I’m just going back to bed”). Here are some ways:

  • I send out a monthly email missive with stuff of interest to people like us – from non-geeky tech tips, to new resources for small businesses and freelancers, to feelgood stories of what’s working out there. Give it a try and see if it’s of interest to you.
  • I’m on Facebook at https://facebook.com/websitesforgood and we have some great conversations there. It’s also a great place to see new writings of all kinds.
  • Think about a free 30-minute consultation with me  (completely non-icky, with zero sales pitch at the end) to tell me what you’re up to, talk through new ideas or directions for your work, or talk about how to better tell your story online.
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