This post is authored by Joel Don, ISA's community manager and a social media marketing & PR consultant.
You started a LinkedIn group to bring visibility to your brand or attract more customers to your automation or control industry business. Maybe your goal is to showcase an industry topic or initiative. But despite your best efforts, discussions are few and membership is flat. If you are willing to put in a little extra time stimulating discussions and encouraging participation, you can turn a lackluster group into a great success.
First, you made the right choice in picking LinkedIn to host your discussion group. LinkedIn is an ideal social networking platform for business, especially when you consider your group will have access to more than 380 million potential worldwide members. Sure Facebook may well exceed 1 billion active users, and a Facebook group is a great option if your research shows members do most of their social networking on that platform.
But if you are looking for new ways to build business or extend your professional or company network, LinkedIn's impressive demographics plus the authenticity and transparency of the LinkedIn member profile translates into a rich source of potential members and an extremely easy way to reach out to new members from a pool of colleagues, co-workers, business associates, and the coveted "friends of friends" (in LinkedIn parlance, 2nd and 3rd degree connections). Over at Facebook, member profile information is often scant and incomplete. At LinkedIn, profiles are far more reliable, plus embellished profiles are easy to spot and professionally risky.
Aside from the business focus of the LinkedIn network, I especially like that users are limited to joining a maximum of 50 groups. (Update: In late 2015 LinkedIn increased that number to 100). That restriction means members really want to be part of your group. It also means you are competing against nearly 2 million other groups. So it's your job as manager to make your group a great social networking experience and valued professional resource.
Your job as manager is to make your group a great social networking experience and a valued professional resource
LinkedIn groups often struggle to meet their potential because they fail to generate a sufficient level of member participation. If your group is languishing, try some of these tips to get your LinkedIn group off the ground and buzzing with discussions, questions, debates and interesting shares:
1) Group vs. Page
Did you start a LinkedIn group but really should have created a LinkedIn company page? LinkedIn enables users to create groups on virtually any topic or theme. You can even dedicate a group to a company, brand, product, manufacturing trend or automation industry technical initiative. The operative concept for a group is they are supposed to serve as platforms for member discussions. On the other hand, a LinkedIn company page is designed for a business or organization to post news, updates, and information on products and services — but followers can only comment or like posts in the company stream. They cannot create posts on your page. Why opt for a company page? Company page updates have an advantage over groups: Posts are broadcast to the news feeds of every follower. So if you are not interested in developing an active group with original discussions from members, a company page may actually be a better solution for reaching LinkedIn followers with company and product news.
2) Get the ball rolling
Initially, group managers may need to spark member engagement by posting interesting topics, questions and other discussion prompts. If you want to maximize comments and discussions on your posts, do your homework. Research trade publications, news portals, automation, control and manufacturing industry blogs, Reddit, and even other (competing) automation industry LinkedIn groups. Build a topic list of issues, trends, industry advancements, technical questions — anything relevant to your group theme or focus. This is your opportunity to demonstrate group leadership and subject domain authority. Remember you are competing against hundreds of groups already focused on the automation and control industry. Post topic discussions that are likely to stimulate discussions and member interaction. If your topics are dated or appear contrived, members won't respond. Look for industry hot buttons, pain points and controversy. Then once you achieve LinkedIn group momentum, you can decide the best mix of manager- vs. member-originated discussions. Suggestion: Post a discussion query to your members ask what they'd like for the group. What better than to let the "group" decide.
3) If you build it...
New members not showing up? Hardly any posts or comments? Here's the part where you need step in and do some active group marketing. It's time to leverage your employees, co-workers, friends, and business associates. Word-of-mouth marketing is considered one of the most successful strategies for attracting customers as well as enrolling members to join social networking groups and and follow company pages. Compose a personal (i.e. avoid the stilted boilerplate pitch) email message and invite LinkedIn connections that you actually know to your group. You can invite from an extended list of contacts, but do a change-up on your outreach email; take the time to introduce yourself along with the objectives of the group. Now ask employees, co-workers, business associates to do the same. No mass mailings! Recommendation: I'll assume any friend or colleague that you enlist to help market your group is already a member. It also helps if your colleagues and friends have posted discussions or commented on posts in your group. Actually, that helps a lot. It's never a good sign when someone invites you to join, and you discover that person never shows in the group.
4) It takes a community
As new members join, you'll want to make sure to increase group participation. To be effective, spurring engagement must be a continuous effort — it's an ongoing commitment to exercise, not a visit to the gym twice a year. Remember that topic list you created and all your co-workers, business colleagues and friends you enlisted to invite members? Now it's time to leverage your community further by asking them to help rev up the level of discussions in your group by posting discussions with the help of your topic list, and commenting on existing posts. If your group is connected to a company or organization, create a plan to task employees and company leaders with the job of regularly posting discussions or comments to the group. Do the same with business colleagues and friends outside of your company. The chorus of many different voices and views will easily spur more people to join your group and stimulate active engagement between members.
5) Forget selling
Unless your LinkedIn group is expressly dedicated to a specific brand, company, product or service, using a LinkedIn group as a marketing broadcast channel may not be a sustainable strategy. Again, decide whether you want a successful discussion group or a company page. LinkedIn groups are unique in social media and not well-suited as platforms for sole contributions by managers. You can of course use the promotion section of your group to market your brand. That section, by the way, is open to any member for promoting company news, products, services, events, links to articles without discussion prompts, etc. The challenge of posting to the promotion section of a group is that it probably doesn't receive the same traffic as the main discussions section. The scant level of comments and likes to posts in most promotions sections further supports the notion that people don't join groups to be marketed.
6) Size matters not
Measure ROI in participation levels, not headcount. Forget about quantity, look for quality. A group with 200 members actively posting and commenting is far more successful than a group with 2,000 members with the majority of posts coming from a manager.
7) Don't forget housekeeping
Nothing will spoil the group experience more than to see the main discussion section peppered with sales and marketing posts, press releases, or just plain spammy content completely unrelated to the theme of the group. It's your job to police all content and comments posted to the group to prevent intentional and unintentional spam. For active groups, that's a daily task. Luckily, LinkedIn provides management tools to throttle members who repeatedly post inappropriate content. The most powerful tool is the ability to place a member in moderation, which means every post or comment must be approved by a group manager. Worst case scenario: A manager can ban a member from the group. Members can also flag any post as a promotion or job (the two additional sections in a LinkedIn group). However, LinkedIn's change to group administration this year has turned post flagging into a somewhat murky function.
8) Steering the course
Some LinkedIn groups take a laissez–faire approach to the definition of a "discussion": Members are allowed to post just about anything, other than obvious business marketing content. In groups that aren't actively managed, anything goes. Weak group management can lead to a preponderance of "link-dropping" where members simply post a link to an article or blog with no discussion prompt or question. Social media tools such as Hootsuite enable people to post links to groups without actually directly visiting the LinkedIn site or viewing the context of other group discussions. Invariably, link-droppers and members posting remotely with social media apps (i.e. blind posting) rarely show up to respond to comments or questions to their posts. Imagine meeting a person at a business networking event who hands you an article, says nothing and then walks away. What members may not appreciate is a LinkedIn group effectively is an online professional business networking event. Frankly, it's not a great way for your professional brand to show up in a group and it definitely leads to account moderation. Link-dropping or posting in absentia doesn't promote discussions between members. It turns a group into a news service. That's why groups need to be actively managed, or risk losing members who, after all, can only join a limited number of groups. It's certainly OK to includes links in a post, but for discussions you probably will achieve better results if members spend a minute or two composing a question or statement about a topic or issue, and then they can also include links to articles as backup or source material for the discussion. LinkedIn allows managers to create published "group rules" that can offer posting guidelines for members. Keep your group on track, encourage participation and reach out to members who may need help crafting "discussion" posts. That's active management.
I'd like to hear how your LinkedIn group is doing, and help you achieve your group goals. Share your questions in the comments section of this post.