Jason Rand
Jason Rand
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In January, I was asked to go back to my alma mater, Colgate University, to speak to students about what it’s like to work in the social media space. Before I dive into the details, I’ll take a step back and say that much like many of the communities built on Ning today, Colgate is a close-knit and hyper-passionate community of people, so the chance to share my story and experiences working at Ning and Glam Media was something I couldn’t pass up.

©2012 Colgate University / Andrew M. Daddio.

Sian-Pierre Regis of Swagger New York (left) and Jason Rand, Ning & Glam Media. ©2012 Colgate University / Andrew M. Daddio.

A number of alumni also speaking at Colgate work in the social media and community-building space, and I wanted to hear their perspectives on creating and managing successful communities — something that’s definitely on the minds of Ning Creators and Glam Publishers. Sian-Pierre Regis, a classmate of mine, has created a media empire through his street lifestyle site, Swagger New York. Swagger introduces readers to the people, the music and the trends that are hot in New York. And they’re expanding to cover everything from news to fashion to technology to culture. Coincidentally, Swagger is also a Glam Publisher, meaning that premium brand advertisers can reach Swagger’s trendsetting community in authentic and engaging ways.

I also met with Matt Hames, Colgate’s Manager of Media Communications. His job entails managing Colgate’s digital presence and reaching out to people to showcase Colgate’s offerings as a nationally-renowned learning institute. He’s also an avid competitive curler, and leads a private Ning Network for the sport.

For all intents and purposes, Matt and Sian-Pierre are community managers at the helm of building recognition for a brand. For Matt, it’s Colgate University, and for Sian-Pierre it’s Swagger New York. More generally, they’re focused on bringing people together to share their excitement for something. This is the exact thing we see our Glam Publishers and Ning Creators doing everyday. Given their leadership, I asked Sian-Pierre and Matt to discuss their approach in building successful communities, and the things they’re doing to yield engagement, lively conversation, and valuable and impactful relationships.

How have you gone about building successful online communities?

Sian-Pierre: I have a very strong vision for the brand, and have always maintained that if the brand came off as cool, smart, different and YOUNG that Gen-Y’ers would stick by us. And they have. Through our Facebook channel specifically we have an intimate relationship with over 125k people, writing back to them when they comment, liking their posts and genuinely showing an interest in their personalities, loves, dislikes, etc. We’ve been able to get brand evangelists who have reblogged us or hyped us up with international press outlets, etc. We even used three of our fans in a GILT Man campaign, so our followers feel like they are actually a part of something bigger.

Matt: The first step is to decide what value the product or service can offer in return. It can simply be “getting people who are fans of this” into one place. Or it can be the exchange of ideas. There needs to be a thing that people get out of joining the community.

What was your uh-huh moment that an online community was not only important, but necessary?

Matt: Unlike a marketing campaign designed to get people to think a certain way about a brand, a community can be harnessed to continually learn about fans and members. Part focus group, part evangelists, this is the first time brands can give back to their best customers while giving them a voice.

What advice do you have for community organizers looking to get started?

Sian-Pierre: No one’s watching you when you start. So just start. And then build every day until you’ve got your identity…and then ATTACK.

Matt: Try to learn what your best customers/supporters want or like. They will be the beginning of your community. Learn from them. Also, they self-identify as fans. Try to let them as far inside as possible. Show them the making of TV spots. Give them access to important people.

How are you measuring success?

Sian-Pierre: Up until this point, I measured success in visual quality of the brand, press mentions, all the more superficial stuff. Now, it’s engagement, and website traffic. The fact is, if your fans and members aren’t engaged then your brand isn’t really marketable.

Matt: Good question: we’re setting some initial goals on the Facebook page. One is to attract more current students, so we’ll compare that age group’s growth in stats.

Measurement starts with specific goals. Attract more students to Facebook. Use Google+ to attract more international students. Get people who come to Colgate.edu to engage in social media.

Facebook fans and Twitter followers are important – what’s the next step beyond getting these likes and followers?

Sian-Pierre: Taking them off Facebook and Twitter and having them live on your own site.

Matt: Involve them. Most other advertising (for example, Super Bowl TV spots) tries to entertain people. Social media needs to involve people in the inner workings of the brand or organization. Let them see as far under the hood as possible.

How do you weave all the conversations together happening across the web about your brand?

Sian-Pierre: We try and interweave all the conversations together by referencing what’s happening on our other channels and driving people between where we have a presence.

Matt: First listen. Find out where people are and what they are saying and get involved.

How do you reward your community or active individuals contributing?

Matt: People like stuff. But more importantly, they like an inside look at stuff.

How do you keep people engaged and coming back to your community?

Sian-Pierre: Showing up every day, giving them what they tell us they want through their comments, and building the community with their guidance.

Matt: Work at giving them a reason to come back. Content. Think about the goals – who you want to attract and why you want to attract them. If you can answer that, you will have an idea how to engage them.

I like to think about the community in real life. If all those people were standing in a room, what would I tell them? How would I get them talking? How often will I talk?

Then, I do what I can to plan what I’ll say.