Learning the Rules of the RoadJuly 2nd, 2010 by Li Evans
We’ve covered some pretty basic concepts that companies and marketers need to consider when they are starting to build a community in social media and I’d like to round out this weeks topic with the importance of Learning the Rules of the Road. Communities have them for a reason, and if you don’t pay attention to them, you can really find yourself either in a heap of trouble with community members or out in the cold and having no friends or allies to build a community with.
Read the Written Rules
When a community posts its rules for everyone to see and read, they mean it. You may get lucky if your break one of their written rules once by exclaiming “you didn’t know there were rules”, but if it’s a rule that was put in place because it angers community members and they know you are a marketer, claiming that you “didn’t know” might not be something that saves you.
Over the years admins of communities have been hammered by spammers, and abused by marketers. For these reasons, a lot of times, this is why the rules are posted. You might not be allowed to drop a link, you might not be allowed to be promotional, you might not be allowed to use your company’s logo as an icon, you won’t know unless you read the rules first. The rules can be your friend, they can help guide you through the ins and outs of the community as well as give you subtle queues and hints into the reasons why the rules are there in the first place. The last thing you want is for your actions to be a reason another rule is written, so read them and use them wisely.
Learn the Unwritten Rules
The unwritten rules, or norms, are a bit trickier to navigate in the beginning. These rules aren’t written anywhere and the only way you really get to know them is to first, observe and then engage. The first layer of norms you’ll be able to see when you watch how the community interacts. Perhaps the community is a bit relaxed and a small bit of vulgarity is acceptable, or it can be a completely professional and conservative community where if you use any remotely vulgar language in your engagement, you’ll find yourself shunned. That takes observation to figure out.
The second layer of norms that you may encounter isn’t until you actually start engaging. The way you interact with people can have a whole other set of norms you won’t uncover until you start making friends in the community. Maybe there are back conversations going on behind what’s posted publicly. You won’t find that out just by lurking. Once you start building the relationships you’ll find that the members might converse off the site via IM, or email or the private message system the community offers. These unwritten norms can be tough to learn and slow going, but in the end are well worth learning to move your efforts forward.
When you learn the rules and use them as a guide, whether they are posted for all to see or you have to figure them out, you’ll be much better off than if you just jumped into the community with both barrels blazing and pissing community members off because you didn’t take the time to respect them or their community rules.
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