I recently got back from attending the RSA Conference in San Francisco.   This event is pretty much the headline event in IT Security for North America and one of the largest in the world.  The conference had about 16,000 people in attendance this year.  Due to the size of this event, multiple smaller events have popped up.  One of those events was Security B-Sides.

B-Sides San Francisco was about 400 people this year, a fraction of the size of RSA.  After the events someone asked me to explain the difference between RSA and B-Sides.  My explanation was that most of the people at RSA are there because they are paid by their companies to be there in one form or another.  Most of the people on the show floor care about security because that is what the people that pay their checks want them to care about.  If they went to work for a furniture distributor tomorrow they would really care about furniture.  This is probably a gross exaggeration but what I did observe was that the people at B-Sides really cared about security.  It is their passion.  It is what they spend their nights and weekends doing because they care.

So why am I telling about this trip on a site about social?  One of my take aways from this year's event is that you have to take the time to understand your community - or the community you want to be a part of one day.  Not all avatars are created equal.  If you have done the homework to understand how your community functions, how information flows, how it is structured and you clearly understand your objectives then you can do something productive.  If you have no clue about these things then you are just shouting crap on Twitter like all the other vendors, hoping that it sticks.

There is so much noise coming at any given community every day that they quickly filter out the noise.  As a brand trying to engage with that community you have to understand how you add value to the community so you don't get filtered out.

We do that very simply.  We build genuine relationships with people in the industry that are passionate about the subjects they engage in and we look for opportunities to help the community.  We have found that the individual relationships come first and benefit from this activity.  Over time the brand is allowed to play a role.  If that brand becomes a megaphone in the B-Sides crowd it will do damage to the brand.  In the RSA crowd I think it is expected, so it is just considered part of the noise.

You must understand the structure of the network is also.  You quickly find out the roles of people in the community and how information flows.  As you build relationships, your role in the community grows.  Believe it or not there are many, many more roles in the community other than influencers.  We have found that these roles are complex things that are often very intertwined among multiple objectives, people and contexts.

So before you go jam a campaign through Twitter or Facebook, really try to understand your community and where you stand relative to that community.  Once you understand how it operates, where you are and where you want to be, you have the ability to take action.

For most of the vendors that were shouting on Twitter over at RSA they missed the fact that many of the people that are pushing the conversation, speak at events, are hubs of information flow online and off where hanging out over at a small event next door because that is how this community is evolving.  Don't get me wrong, there are lots of people that care about the same subject over at RSA but for the most part the crowd that uses online social channels to communicate was over at B-Sides.  This group has become the one of the hubs of information flow within the security and compliance community online.

Understanding this dynamic allows you to understand your routes to building relationships in the community in the ways that people are open to.  With this you can build one of the most under appreciated assets your organization can have - a powerful community that you can leverage in multiple ways across many different business objectives.  The beauty is that you don't have to game the system.  These are people I would help if they needed it and I feel like they would do the same.  That is the case because many of these people have become friends because of the desire to build genuine relationships.  When I need something and I put out the call on Twitter it is this network of friends that respond first and most vigorously because of the relationships.  It is not the other 1200 people that follow me.  It is not the social media people I interact with.

I built relationships like this in the past during another venture.  At an event one night I asked one of the top bloggers in the world for this community why he choose to write a very in-depth review of a version 1 product we just launched.  His response was that it was because we were friends.  People on our team had built a relationship in which he was willing to do things for us that he would not normally do.  The ability to be a  person who genuinely connects with people is a very powerful thing - more brands and people should try it.