If you’re a global superbrand, chances are that a ton of people are already talking about your company and products on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. If your products or stores can be photographed, there is also a good chance that pictures tied to your brand will turn up on Instagram and Flickr. Starting a social media monitoring program will be easy. Crank up Google and Tickr, and you’ll immediately start to see how many people are talking about you, where they are having conversations, and what they are saying. Your social monitoring team can then brief PR, customer service, product management and marketing, and help coordinate real time responses, campaign messaging and targeting, etc.

But what if you’re a small company? What if you’re still a young startup? Or what if you’re a B2B organization and haven’t yet grown into a household name? Then what? Where do you start? I won’t lie to you and tell you that building a community from scratch is easy. It isn’t. You simply aren’t going to get 100,000 twitter followers overnight. You won’t be enjoying long comment threads on your Facebook updates and blog posts for months. Building your social media program, then scaling it again and again is going to take time. But if you incorporate these tactics into your new social media / social business program, you will start to see results a little faster than if you just went with a “build it and they will come” strategy.

Here is how the question usually comes up:

“We’ve created our blog, our Twitter account(s), and our Facebook page. We have dedicated monitoring and workload management tools. We’re staffed, funded and ready to go. But… no one is talking to us yet, and judging from the Tickr page we built for our brand, not many people are talking about us yet either. Where do we begin?”

Great question. If you’re in that social media program start-up phase and your main objective is to establish yourself in existing communities and grow your own, there are several things you can do to help yourself. Let’s start at the beginning:

1. Start with your analog networks.

You have customers. You have colleagues. You have vendors and partners and employees. You have friends and professional peers. Start there. Find them on LinkedIn, on Facebook, on Twitter, and invite them to like your new Facebook page, follow you on Twitter and read your blog. These customers, colleagues, vendors, employees, partners, friends and peers have networks of their own. Over time, their networks will become your networks, and the new followers and fans you will recruit from those networks will introduce you to their networks, and so on.

Initially, you will see your community grow one person at a time. It will feel like watching grass grow. You will wonder if you are doing something wrong, if you aren’t doing enough… Don’t stress out. Things will begin to speed up. Relax. The first few months are 90% work and 10% results. You will eventually see 10% work and 90% results, but not yet. The process here is a lot like moving to a brand new town where you only know five or six people. One event at a time, one coffee, meeting or luncheon at a time, you will start to meet people. They will in turn introduce you to more people. Over time, 10 people will turn into 100, then 1,000, the 1,000. Be patient. Focus on attracting quality connections, not just collecting as many fans and followers as you can. If you do it right, less is more.

Start with people you like and trust, people who already understand the value of your company and product, people who are already evangelists for either you, your brand, or your product.

2. Hunt for conversations.

There already exist communities around professions, industries, hobbies, product categories, social objects, cultural trends, and so on. What you need to do now is find them. Look across all social channels you intend to use for discussions about topics that are relevant to your company, products or industry. You make hipster jeans? Search for “hispster” and “jeans” on Twitter. (Twitter Search is one of the most powerful tools on the web, believe it or not.) Look up “hipster, community” on a few search engines and see what turns up. Set up a Tickr pages for “hipster” and “jeans.” See what turns up. Then radiate outward from these obvious keywords. Think about some of the attributes of your ideal customers. Think of some of the overlapping interests they may have: what kind of music do they listen to? What artists do they like? What shoes do they wear? What types of discussions might they have? Discuss it internally, dive into your customer data, get out on the street and in stores if you have to, poll your customers… do whatever you have to do to map out their interests and understand them better. Then do the same thing online and look for those micro-communities or overlapping interests online.

Tip: know your channels. For a denim company, Pinterest, Facebook, Spotify, Foursquare and Instagram might hold some clues. For a business services company, LinkedIn, Twitter, G+, Quora and Slideshare might yield better results.

To give you a completely different type of example, if your business is ball bearings, think about who you sell ball bearings to now. What do they make? What do they sell? Write those keywords down and search for them. See what turns up.

Identifying the right sets of keywords might take a little work, but keep at it and you’ll eventually turn up a few that will open the gates to new communities, discussion topics and social connections online.

3. Read, watch and listen more than you publish.

Once you’ve identified channels, communities, digital events (like #chats on twitter, for instance, or discussions on LinkedIn), start following people who seem interesting and relevant to your search. Could they be customers? Are they already customers? Could they help validate your brand to their network or help share your message? More importantly though, do you like them?

This might seem a strange thing to say on a business blog, but the more you like someone online, the more likely it is that you connect with them on a human level. Given that the fuel of communities is passion (for products, brands, topics, etc.), human connections and relationships are vital to both communities’ health and your relevance within them. So while “liking” someone on Facebook may only require the click of a button, liking someone online, for who they are, is also a very big part of this. It’s easy to get caught up in the mission of identifying and cataloging social media denizens (even using services like Klout and Kred to rate the extent to which they might be influential in certain circles), and that is part of the work, but keep it human. The analysis piece should be secondary. Make friends. That’s a lot more important.

At any rate, the ratio of listening to speaking in your first month should probably be 50:1. By your third month, it could ease up to 25:1. By the time that your social media presence comes of age, you might be able to  hit 5:1, if you’re lucky (when 80-90% of your “publishing” online consists of responding in some way to a mention, comment or question). Until that time comes, listen. Read. Watch.

We look at the amount of time community managers spend listening and reading other people’s content (blog posts, tweets and chats, for instance) in the first few months of their programs versus the amount of “content” they produce, and the extreme nature of the ratio is always striking. Even though community managers are doing a lot of work, in terms of content, it rarely looks like they are all that prolific. Don’t be put off by it. That’s normal. There are two simple reasons for this:

- If you only have 50-250 likes on Facebook and 100 followers on twitter, your community may not be large enough to warrant hourly updates, daily blog posts, and tweets every ten minutes. If you publish a lot of content now, no one will ever see it. It will get buried in an increasingly full timeline. Save your energy and your insights for when you have an audience.

- Too much talking and not enough listening won’t teach you much about your community or what it cares about. Your community manager’s job for the first few months is one of research, acclimation, fact-finding, analysis and social insertion. There will be plenty of time for a heavy publishing schedule later.

So at first, keep the messaging, content creation and publishing light. Growth comes in phases.

4. Share other people’s content.

A good deal of the content you will share on social networks won’t be yours. Why? Two reasons:

- It doesn’t have to be.

- Sharing and retweeting are potent forms of social currency.

One of the obvious advantages of sharing other people’s content rather than creating your own is that it takes a lot less time. In the time it might have taken your community manager to research, draft, write and publish one blog post, that same community manager might have identified, read, liked and shared someone else’s article, blog post, presentation, video, podcast, infographic or white paper twenty times over.

Another advantage is that it brings a breadth of value into a) the community that you are building and b) the communities that you are becoming an integral part of. When you share someone else’s content, you are helping people in your network discover that content. If you pick the right types of content, that adds a lot of value to a community’s activity.

Compare that to a company that spends all day creating content about itself. Sure, it’s work, but is it really interesting 24/7? No. By spending a lot of time researching content and sharing it, you become an active participant in your community’s information ecosystem. You become a source of not only relevant information but valuable insight. Do that well, and more and more people will start to not only notice you, but find your presence valuable.

A third advantage is that by sharing someone else’s content, you are shining the spotlight on them instead of yourself. That usually makes them appreciative. Everyone in a social setting likes to get a little attention and validation. Every time you share someone’s content for the right reasons, you are making a deposit in the social bank of good will. It’s a nice way of making friends. (Just don’t forget to include proper attribution in your tweets and updates. Mentioning the author of the content, even the person through whom you discovered it is the right thing to do.)

Leadership in a community often begins by frequently casting a favorable light on others. Don’t forget that.

If it seems that searching for content about a topic is too daunting at first (search engines aren’t necessarily the best real-time aggregators of news and blog posts), Tickr can obviously come in handy: set up some pages for a breadth of topics and check on them from time to time. Although it is supposed to be a brand monitoring product, it’s a very powerful real time search tool as well.

Another great place to go to find news is Pulse (a more traditional news aggregator, but with a similar format as Tickr, which is easy on the brain). Between Tickr and Pulse, your real time search needs should be pretty much covered.

Build, scan, sort, share. That should be 90% of your social content strategy in the beginning.

We hope that helped. In Part 2, we will explore the final four more tips (at least for now).

If you haven’t yet created a Tickr account, now’s a good time to give us a try.

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