Online Community Networking: Lessons from 10+ Years of Online Business

By Alexis Rodrigo | Entrepreneurship

Jul 24
Online Community Networking
Everyone striking out into business for the first time faces the same challenge: getting their first paying clients.

It doesn’t matter if you’re selling writing services, one-to-one coaching, or handmade purses, you have the same question. “Who’s going to pay me for this?”

I was lucky, I guess, because I stumbled into a client-getting strategy by accident.

How I got my very first copywriting clients

I did it because I genuinely wanted to learn from home-based business owners who were already making a steady income.

I did it because I truly needed to interact with other women like me who were juggling babies, a household, and a small business.

I’m talking about joining an online community.

One day, I posted on the forum, “Okay, I’ve done my copywriting training. Now how do I get clients?”

“I’ll hire you! How much are you charging?” another member responded.

Then a few others followed suit.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

As I said, I joined the online community for the camaraderie and practical help. But I got so much more.

Aside from my first clients, I also got referrals and joint venture partners. I got “content amplifiers” or people who simply shared my content with their networks.

And let’s not forget the best benefit: the real-life friendships that have lasted many years… and counting.

As with face-to-face networking, there’s a wrong and right way to network in online communities.

Do it wrong and you end up destroying your reputation and getting kicked out.

And so, I’m going to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from 11 years of participating in online communities—the right way.
Online community networking

Lesson 1: Show Up

This sounds obvious, but the first step in community networking is to be active in the community.

The more you participate, the more visible you’ll be. And visibility is exactly what gets you clients.

Posting in the community forum benefits you, your fellow members, and the community’s owner. These benefits include:
  • You get more visibility, which may result in referrals and actual paying clients.
  • Other members get practical help from your inputs.
  • You make connections with other members, which can lead to joint venture partnerships, bartering, and other forms of mutual support.
  • The community owner’s job gets easier because it’s awfully hard to keep a forum active.
Here’s a checklist to assess your level of participation:
  • You have completed your profile, along with a nice photo and, if applicable, short bio, links, and tagline.
  • You post in the community forum at least once every couple of weeks. (More on what to post later)
  • You attend community events, like webinars, web-based meetings, and live streams.
  • Bonus points if you attend in-person meetups (assuming they do take place). Even though I’m talking about online communities here, meeting people face-to-face is still the more powerful way to make and strengthen connections. This is why a lot of online communities have in-person meetups.
  • When appropriate, you follow up on conversations with individual members outside the community forum, such as by email, private messaging, or even getting together in-person.

A lot of people join communities and then never participate. No judgement here; I’ve done this myself.

Mostly, you’re too busy working on your business and it’s all too easy to inadvertently waste time in these communities when you do participate.

Here are some tips that might help:

  • Commit a regular time to do things within the community. Add this to your calendar and set up reminders so you don’t forget.
  • Use a timer to ensure you don’t spend more time than you planned to. For example, if you check the community forums every Friday for 30 minutes, do so at about the same time every Friday. When your timer goes off, exit the forum and move on to the next item on your to-do list.
  • If you fall off the bandwagon and become inactive for a while, make a plan to do better next time. Just get right back on the bandwagon again and stick to your schedule. Make up for your absence by being present in other ways.

For example, I’ve missed two consecutive weeks of our accountability meetings at Laptop Lifestyle YOUniversity. (Including, ironically, today because I had a doctor’s appointment.)

To make up, I’m going to post on the video recording when it goes up in the members area. It’s not the same as being there during the meeting itself, but it’s still better than being completely AWOL from the group.

In other words, do your best.

What should you post in community forums? That’s the topic of the next lesson.

Can joining an online community help you get more email subscribers and clients? You betcha! Read on to find out how....

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Online community networking - How to post in community forums

Always be positive in community forums.

Lesson 2: Post helpful, positive stuff.

Here’s what you can post to maximize your helpfulness:

1. Meaningful responses to others

Answer members’ questions, if you know the answer. Give constructive feedback, but only when someone asks for it. Often, someone will post something like, “Would you please take a look at my landing page and let me know what you think?”

Also, respond to the community owner’s prompts. As I said earlier, it can take a lot of work to get people to engage in a forum. And so, the forum owner may post prompts and other “seeds” of discussion. Help them out by giving thoughtful responses.

2. Your own questions

When you have a question that’s relevant to the group, especially one that other members may be struggling with, too, then post it in the forum. Remember how I got my first copywriting client by asking in a forum, “How do I get clients?” It was an honest question; I wasn’t fishing for clients. Genuine questions like this can stimulate valuable discussions that benefit you and other members.

If you notice that things are pretty slow in the forum, you may also decide to post a question that’s meant to spark meaningful conversation. For example, in a forum for bloggers, you might post, “Research shows that long-form blog posts (2K words and longer) get more shares and traffic. Have you been writing longer blog posts? Why or why not?”

3. Messages of commiseration and support

Sometimes you don’t have the answers. Sometimes, you’re not in a position to give effective feedback. What do you do then? Just let the other person know you sympathize. You could say something like, “Sorry, I don’t know how to [xyz], but I hear your frustration! In fact, I’m following this thread to learn the answer myself.” Or how about, “I’m sorry to hear that you’re going through this. (((hugs)))”

Simple, right? You can do this!

Million-Dollar Question: Should you post links to your products or promotions?

Yes, if the community owner allows it. When they do, they also usually provide a specific thread for it. Only use the appropriate and allowed channels! And use this only sparingly. Don’t hog the promo thread.

If promotions are not allowed, make the most of your forum profile to potentially get members to your site. If you can, link to your website and social media accounts. Many forums also let you append a signature to all your posts. Maximize your signature by adding a compelling tagline and an invitation to one of your free offers (but first make sure you’re allowed to do this).

Should you post promotions for your products in an online forum? Read the answer here....

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More Tips on Posting in Community Forums

Before I let you go, I just wanted to make sure you know these additional tips:

  • Always be positive. We entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs already get enough negativity. Don’t add to it by being negative in the boards as well. Even when you’re giving feedback that someone asked for, couch your criticism in a positive way.
  • Stay on-point. Post stuff that’s relevant to specific threads. Don’t get the members off-track.
  • Be purposeful. Most forums have a search function. Use this to find posts that you can respond to with expertise. For example, I could search “copywriting,” “landing page,” or “sales page” to see if there are posts where I can share my copywriting know-how.
  • Remember your “back end.” No, not that back end, but the website or pages that you’re linking to from your forum profile and signature. Make sure they’re ready to receive visitors from the forum. You may even build a landing page specifically for people from the forum, which can make them feel very welcome, indeed!
  • Volunteer. Occasionally, the community owner may ask for volunteers to help out. If your schedule allows, then by all means, volunteer. For example, Angela Wills, who runs Laptop Lifestyle YOUniversity, recently asked for help to run the weekly accountability meetings during the summer. Volunteering for simple things like that increases your visibility and elevates your reputation in the community.

Participating like this in the right community will bring you many benefits, guaranteed.

Exciting stuff, right?

In the next lesson, I’ll share my thoughts on how to choose the right community. 

How to choose the right online community

Lesson 3. Choose the right online community.

I’ve joined and left several online communities through the years. These are the qualities of communities that have helped me get measurable results for my business:

1. The members are your ideal clients.

This sounds obvious, but a common mistake is to join communities with people who are just like you. If you’re a freelance writer, then you join a community of freelance writers. If you’re a coach, then you join a community of coaches, and so on.

There’s nothing wrong with that if all you want is to get support from others know what you’re going through. However, for finding clients, that’s not the best way.

Think about who your ideal clients are. Find out where they hang out online (and offline), and hang out there, too.

2. The members engage with each other.

Choose a community where members actively participate and engage with each other. How do you know?

Check the forums. Members should be posting every day, answering each other questions, and giving each other moral support.

3. You have to pay to play.

Free communities are fine, but if you’re looking for prospects, paid communities are better, in my opinion. People who join paid communities are already investing in their businesses. They know that the good stuff comes with a price tag. It’s one sure sign that they’re not freebie seekers.

4. You get personal attention from the community owner.

Many online communities are established by business owners… and then left alone for members to fend for themselves. The community owner makes themselves scarce, delegating the running of the community to virtual assistants or community managers.

While I don’t disagree with delegating, I’d still like to see the community in the forum at least once in a while. Even the busiest business owner can make time to answer questions occasionally. It shows that they value and respect your membership in the community.

5. Self-promotion is allowed.

If at all possible, find a community that does allow self-promotion. This just makes things easier.

On the other hand, if a community is ideal in every other way, then try the workaround I shared with you in Lesson 2. I gave you a workaround in case promotions aren’t allowed in the forum. If the best community you can find doesn’t allow promotions, then this is your best recourse. In other words, this last criterion is not a deal-breaker.

Even if the community you choose does allow self-promotion, remember to always, always follow the community’s rules for doing so.

This completes our series of lessons on community networking. Here are the 3 lessons again:

Lesson 1: Show up

Lesson 2: Post helpful, positive stuff.

Lesson 3: Choose the right community.

If you’re looking for an online community, I invite you to consider the Laptop Lifestyle YOUniversity

I’ve been a member of LLYOU since December 2018, and it has helped me to:

  • Create three new digital products to either give away or sell
  • Add more than 500 new subscribers to my email list
  • Recruit more affiliates whom I trust will promote my products with integrity
  • Make more sales
  • Connect with new friends and mentors
  • Find an accountability partner

Try Laptop Lifestyle YOUniversity for Free

LLYOU meets all five criteria—for ME.

Is it a community where you’ll find your ideal clients? Sign up for the free, 30-day trial and find out.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. This means I earn a commission when you buy through the links on this page. While I only recommend products I myself use or have vetted, you should always do your due diligence before making any purchases. (Full Disclosure)

Free online communities aren't the best places to find paying clients. Here's why.

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About the Author

Lexi Rodrigo is a communication and marketing professional for multimillion-dollar businesses, co-author of Blog Post Ideas: 21 Proven Ways to Create Compelling Content and Kiss Writer's Block Goodbye, and host of "Marketing Insights LIVE!." Connect with Lexi on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

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