Online Communities: They’re not just for trendy teenagers anymore.

We all know what MySpace is. We’ve all heard of Facebook. (If you actually don’t know what I’m talking about, I apologize; drop me a line and let me know what it’s been like living under that rock.) But how many of us are actually tapped into these resources? If you think that online communities are just for trendy teenagers, it’s time to think again. Virtual communities are emerging across age, industry, and lifestyle as one of the greatest networking and informational tools to which we have access. So don’t be afraid to jump right in and see where the wave takes you.

Virtual social networks offer many more benefits than just learning your coworker’s favorite bands or sneaking a peak at how many “friends” your competitors have. Creating or joining one of these networks creates what is in essence an instant networking platform, where you can meet, learn about, and collaborate with individuals, companies, resources, organizations and more. Not only is the door open to traditional business networking, but it affords the opportunity for the exchange of any kind of information you’d like: prior work, suggestions, contests, networking forums, archived information- the list goes on and on. A corporate online community can also give your employees, clients, and associates unique voices that almost become testimonials to the human side of your business.

A virtual community can serve many functions and in some cases supercedes the need for a traditional web site. It can become a significant part of your business communications strategy. Let employees write their own bios and credentials, deliver company news as blog or bulletin board entries, post photo and video galleries from clients. Plug in content from other notable authorities relevant to what you sell. The possibilities are endless and the communication is two-way. Invite prospects, clients and resources to join groups and engage with you and each other. It becomes a single, layered, yet easy-to-use interactive package. In essence, your community site becomes a publishing system for a full range of business and personal content.

So you’ve heard the arguments for starting a community site, and you’re pretty sure it would take your company in the right direction; now you’re just not sure how to take that initial step, right? How do you even begin to tap into all of the marvelous resources that an online community can offer? It’s definitely possible to manage a community site the wrong way, and you shouldn’t grope in the dark trying to create or maintain your site. Before adding any content, you must evaluate the specific purposes you want the site to serve and what kind of content can help achieve these goals. Think about how you want to portray your company and who will be viewing your content. A professional marketing or strategic firm with experience in community sites can help you create a site that moves beyond favorite songs and goofy news to create truly marketable, viewer-worthy content.

A word of warning: your online community won’t become an all-in-one, ready-to-go magnetic resource overnight. It will take time to raise awareness and gain membership, and it will even take time for you to become familiar and comfortable with all of the opportunities that your site affords. Get the ball rolling by “seeding” the site with content: begin with your own profile, add photos, video and news, and make it a point to prompt discussions and subgroups. Be sure that internal people and close associates actively participate in the exchange; a community doesn’t work with just one member! Once you have lain down this basic foundation, you can begin to invite more sensitive outside sources to visit the site, set up their own profiles, and begin to exchange information. Before you know it, content will begin to blossom in ways you’d never thought possible.