How to create an authentic online community

This Q & A with Jay Daughtry illuminates the powerful role of trust in online communities. As a society, we often spend more time nurturing relationships online than with the person living next door. Consequently, online communities have become central hubs for sharing ideas, aspirations, and values.

I met Jay on Twitter, and through a few 140-character exchanges quickly identified him as a trusted resource.  When I decided to interview an expert in online engagement, I intuitively thought of Jay because of the positive and earnest impression he made with so few words.

Through this interview, I learned the subtleties and purposefulness of his approach, and it has shifted my own online engagement. Instead of meeting new people online by assessing their vanity statistics, such as number of followers or friends, I assess their propensity to engage based on re-tweets and comments on others’ ideas. I discover people who engage in my work by engaging in theirs. The net result feels an awful lot like a community, to which I say, “Thanks, Jay.”

1.  Why is engagement essential in online communities?

Gone are the days when companies and brands can simply broadcast their messages through ads in newspapers,  magazines, radio, and TV.  Using social media as a broadcasting tool is missing the point, and it’s missing opportunities. There are two purposes of social media (1) to give people a sense of belonging and engagement and, (2) to receive input and feedback from your community of supporters. Sometimes there are ideas out there that will improve your offerings if you take the time to listen.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts related to this topic, including: “Social media is a two-way street” and “What do Greg Jennings and Kahlua cheesecake have to do with good customer service and social media?”

Follow up question: What motivates you personally?
A sense of online community is what drew me (and many others) to social media in the first place. Now I no longer have to be in the same physical space with contacts to have a shared experience. I no longer have to meet face-to-face to learn from industry peers on a given topic. I no longer have to read journalists or other writers who are merely a byline; I can read the posts of those I’ve grown to know and respect. I take that sense of online community to what I do. If I like what someone says and think it is worthwhile, I’ll share it with my community.

That’s why content curation is so influential. People prefer to receive information from a trusted and personal source.   Those who are most engaged with what I have to say are generally going to get more referrals and recommendations on what they have to say. It’s not always equal, but it’s this concept of social currency. I’m more willing to engage with and help those who have engaged with me.

2.  What sort of impression do you want to make when you encounter someone online?

I want people to realize right away that I’m a real person; that it’s not some automated feed. This comes across in a couple of ways: 1) by making comments on what others post and 2) by providing timely responses to their engagement with me.  A thank you goes a long way. I want people to trust the content I’m giving them.

My Twitter profile shows that I have varied interests and read numerous sources. If people take the time to ask me a question or to comment, I want them to see a response to know I’m listening. I’ve made connections with people around the world, and I want them to come away from our encounter knowing that I’m interested in them, their business, their goals, etc., and that I remember them from previous conversations.

3.  So, you want people to perceive you as genuine and credible; how do you achieve that?

First of all, I try to address people by name- not every time, but frequently. It’s been said that the sweetest sound is that of one’s own name. I think there’s some truth to this. Our communications are getting shorter and shorter (Twitter, text messages, etc.), and taking the time to use someone’s name shows that you care and that you’re paying attention.

Second, I try to give information by curating content, contributing to discussions, etc.  I also ask questions–genuine questions that encourage feedback and input. Most people find great value and connectedness in being able to contribute in this way.

Third, I take an interest in the interests of others. As a former teacher and a student at heart, I find curiosity goes a long way to establishing community. There are many things to learn from others who have different interests, come from different disciplines, or work in different industries than yours. I’ll also proactively reach back out to people I have not contacted in a while. It is a powerful moment when they realize they have not been forgotten.

4. How do online communities foster a sense of trust?

When you’re new to a community, you may not know who to trust. The indicators of activity levels or numbers for connections, friends, followers, etc., have nothing to do with trust. New members enter cautiously, looking for signs, such as: Do members lead you to reputable sources? Are they engaged in dialogue or merely talking about their business, their agenda, and their goals? How do people respond when I comment?  In order to build trust, there has to be some give and take.

Their initial interactions are likely to predict, to a certain extent, future engagement. In other words, their willingness to engage is going to encourage or discourage a commitment to the community. We’re back to social currency.  Communities foster trust in this sense. Let’s say I’m trusting these two or three people, and then a person comes along who is new to me but not new to the community. I look to those I trust for social cues about the value I should place on this new member until I can make my own determination.

5.  What advice can you offer to businesses that wish to establish greater rapport and trust through online engagement?

Businesses need to be real.  Real people must represent the voice of the organization. Business leaders need to approach online engagement as they approach in-person interactions. Let’s take a retail store as an example. When a customer walks in, are they greeted by a member of the staff? Are employees friendly and helpful? Do they come across as knowledgeable about the brand and individual products or offerings?

Businesses should always (1) listen for references to your brand or organization, (2) encourage and nurture the slightest interest in your offerings, and (3) act as a reliable resource—for your solutions or those of a partner or another entity.  The online voice of the business can, and should occasionally show some personal interests, but only in moderation. Make sure the focus stays primarily on customers and their interests. If businesses fail to meet the basic needs of customers, their competitors will be there with more authenticity and more influence.

Finally, the voice of the company should be the voice of a person. Enabling employees to retain their personalities while at work—and not merely acting as corporate drones—makes organizations more authentic, human, and likeable, and ultimately wins more customers.


Jay Daughtry

Jay Daughtry started ChatterBachs in 2010 as a social media and communications consulting firm focused on social media, content, technology, and online communities. He has worked with numerous online communities to foster a sense of identity and belonging as well as to highlight the benefits to a community’s members. Jay understands that engaging with an individual’s professional and personal interests is vital for building trust. He believes that everyone has a story, and getting to that story motivates his personal and professional interest in online engagement. Follow him on Twitter @ChatterBachs and visit his blog



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