If this guy can build a thriving group on industrial water treatment (no, really), you can be master of your own niche on LinkedIn.
There are almost 2 million LinkedIn Groups, since any of the more than 200 million LinkedIn users can create one. Does that mean there's no longer an opportunity for you to create and moderate a thriving group?
It all depends on your approach.
The macro-subject group turf is already well staked out but there are still great opportunities to network, create great discussions, and increase your professional profile if you're selective about your topic.
Here's an example. I stumbled across a group called Industrial Water Treatment. Discussions included questions like, "What could happen if a filming amine is overfed in a stream system?" and "Why is the conductivity of a softener's effluent water a little different than the influent water?"
Reading the questions only served to make me feel stupid but I was still fascinated by how most of the questions generated thoughtful, in-depth responses.
So I asked James McDonald, the engineer and certified water technologist who founded the group, how he founded and continues to moderate a successful LinkedIn Group.
Here are James' tips in his own words:
Build connections first.
I had a profile on LinkedIn for years and I finally decided to see what I could do with it in October 2011. I went all out and increased my connections from 180 to 1,000 in a couple months. I'm sure that's really not what LinkedIn intends, but I wanted to see what I could do with a bigger network of connections.
Check out other groups.
Then I joined several groups while thinking about starting my own group. Since I work in industrial water treatment I knew that would be my topic, but how could my group be different? Why would people want to join?
Looking at the other groups, I noticed that 1) most were not well moderated and had lots of advertising or off-topic posts, and 2) the other groups allowed members to post whatever they wanted with no real guidance or structure.
I thought a quality group would be the opposite of what I saw, so I started a very moderated group where I ask all the questions on a daily basis and let the members respond.
I invited all my contacts to join and I also shared the link with several other groups. From there it has grown organically as more and more people connect.
Focus on quality members, not quantity.
By August 26, 2012, we had 1,000 members. As of now we have 1,788 members, and hitting 2,000 isn't that far way.
That's not the millions of followers that big names have, but for a niche group, specializing in industrial water treatment, it's a lot. The membership spans the globe as well, which is a really cool aspect.
Plus a camaraderie has developed among the members, especially when the topics get more non-technical, like years of experience or how they got into the water treatment field. Those discussions often lead to members sharing stories that inspire others to share similar experiences and connections, etc.
For my 300th question of the day I asked, "How many years of industrial water treatment experience do you have? So far, members have reported a total of 1,516 years of experience with an average of 26 years. Not bad! What a brain trust we have in this group!
With the LinkedIn Search feature we can go back and search for answers on various topics. I've done that many times. It's a great technical resource.
It's important to ask questions that spark immediate discussion, but don't forget that discussions will live on and can help build a library of useful information.
Set sensible rules.
My rules are somewhat restrictive. Only I can post the original questions. Then any member can comment on those questions.
I also turned off the Promotions and Jobs settings so no one can try to post to those areas. I still have people trying to submit posts, but I go through those each morning. Most get deleted because they are mainly advertisements, but some are used as the basis for a Question of the Day. (I only get a couple of those a day, so it's not a big task.)
I decided not to allow any advertising and the group appreciates it. When I see advertising I delete it immediately and often message the member to let them know what I did and why.
I also hesitated to allow headhunters to join, but then I thought about the huge number of added connections and job opportunities they could bring to my members, so now I allow them to join. They haven't done anything to detract from the conversation so I think I made the right choice.
The key to moderating a successful group is to make it a daily habit and be consistent.
On my drive in to work I think about the next question of the day. Every morning I review the previous night's responses and approve new members, then I post the a new question.
Since water treaters are engineers, chemists, and other professionals, they behave themselves rather well. I've only had to ban one member. I really think a few of the members live for reading the next post and offering their sage advice.
Sometimes sparks fly a little, but it usually only takes a nudge from me or another member to keep things on track.
Focus on tangible and intangible goals.
I haven't gained any direct business that I know of, but that's not my driving force for doing the group. I just like to help knowledge flow in my area of interest.
But I have had colleagues within my company from across the globe that I never thought even knew my name comment on the group, and that's pretty cool. And one international member asked if I want to possibly co-author a book with him.
Will my group hit 1 million members? No. There aren't 1 million water treaters out there. But now, 1,788 of them are connected in a way they never were before.