In a crowded marketplace, wouldn’t it be great if you could find a genuine differentiator that generated great word of mouth within your target markets, made new prospects warm to you before they even enquired and made your customers more loyal.
Building a community of customers and prospects isn’t easy, but it can achieve all of the above, so it’s well worth the effort. You also don’t have to do it all in a day, you can do it step-by-step. You just need to know what those steps are and have a rough plan of how to progress your community over time.
Not that long ago, the web itself was considered a community in its own right. Now though it’s grown so fast that it’s a community of everyone, which is something of a contradiction! As the web has evolved though there are more and more ways for you to build your own community of like-minded people.
You can dip your toe in the water without even spending any money or losing face if it doesn’t work out.
So what is a community?
A community is essentially the same thing it was before the web – a group of people with something in common. It’s really nothing more than that – all that’s changed is that technology has given us more ways to help build and maintain that community.
Let’s leave it at that for now, so we don’t get too bogged down in the technology just yet,
Why build a community?
Some digital marketers will try and tell you that providing informative, educational content for your customers is something very new that’s only been made possible in the digital era. That’s simply not true – the best marketers have been doing this for years through direct mail, catalogues and sometimes even mailing out sales samples or even CDs and DVDs to the most engaged customers.
What digital technology has done though is put this whole process of sharing great content with your customers on steroids! Now you can do everything you used to and more, much more cheaply and quickly. Better still, you can harness user-generated content from members of the community, instead of just pushing your own content to people constantly.
Once you have a community, it also gives you something a bit more interesting to talk about in your marketing rather than just pushing your products and services all the time. That helps generate trust and lower people’s guards.
Ultimately there are two ways you can benefit from a community in the long-term and your business might use one or both of these.
Firstly it could become a valuable lead generation engine for your main product or service.
Secondly, you might have a business that could offer some sort of a premium community. For example, you might offer free courses and content, but then offer paid content or consultancy to very engaged customers
What does a good community need?
Here are some of the most common things that effective online communities have:
- A unifying theme
What does your target market have in common? Are they in the same industries or sectors? Are they businesses of roughly the same size? Are they all based locally to your business? There needs to be a meaningful common bond whereby they face similar challenges and issues and will benefit from being a part of the community.
- People willing to share openly
For a community to really work well you need input from members and they have to feel safe doing so. If your community is based around a specific industry, they may be reluctant to share certain information in case competitors are in the group. The more openness, the better for running a successful community.
- Critical mass
You need a certain, minimum amount of members to get the thing off the ground. Start with your own staff and a few carefully connected customers or prospects. Choose ones that you know well and have preferably met in person and know they will network well with others. Then use your other marketing activity (especially your blogs and newsletters) to raise awareness of the community and let them know how to join.
- Content and ideas
To start with you can just get people chatting among themselves, but you need some really compelling content that’s exclusive to community members or that they get to see first.
- Rules and admins
For it all to run smoothly it’s better to state some simple rules upfront and you will need admins from within your company to act quickly if people overstep the mark. Many groups ask you to avoid blatant self-promotion and to respect other members. It’s also good to ask questions at the point people join, just so you can vet them further.
If you think that even one of the above will be a problem for your business, then a community might not work well for you, so you need to think about it carefully.
Which sectors would a community work best for?
In theory, a community would work for any company, but in reality, it can work particularly well if any of the following apply:
- Your products or services are bespoke or complex
- Your customers work on a long buying cycle
- Your sector moves quickly and buyers need to learn new developments
- Your customers and prospects benefit from seeing how others have used your products or approached a particular challenge
- People are willing to share information and won’t see other members as direct competitors.
This list is not exhaustive and speaking to a few customers will give you much more clarity over whether or not a community would work well for your business.
Sounds good for your customers, but what about you?
So yes, this all sounds great for the members of your community getting free informative content from you, but you may be wondering what’s in it for you.
Well, imagine if you knew you could go to a networking event once a week that was full of people from your target market. You knew you’d always be the only person there from your sector and the event was free. You’d go pretty much every week, right? Maybe even send a colleague if you were busy one week?
Well, an online community is a lot like that – you don’t quite get the impact of meeting in-person but the flipside of that is you can include people in an online community from anywhere in the world and not just those local to you.
So once you get a community up and running, you’ll regularly have the ear of some well-informed buyers in your target market, you can answer their questions quickly and maybe even shape and influence the buying process that they follow. When they’re ready to buy, you’ll probably be the first and only person they speak to. If they’re already a customer, there’s less chance of them taking their business elsewhere if they interact with you regularly in your community.
You do have to be patient and not give up on it too early. Building trust with the members of your community takes time before members are warm to buying from you and start recommending you to others. Along the way, you’ll constantly be learning about your customers and prospects, which is invaluable and would be something you’d lose if you walked away from your community too soon.
Can’t you just build a community on Social Media?
There’s a simple answer to that one – yes. And that’s probably where you should start because it’s free and simple and you will need to start small and build up. Longer-term though, as your community gathers pace and momentum, you should be aiming to bring at least some of the interaction in-house and bring people to your own website.
Even if you’re in a B2B market, Facebook private groups work really well if you want a simple online place for people to come together without any upfront development costs. The massive reach of Facebook also makes it a great place to start.
Why building a community on your website should be your end game
If you rely totally on Social Media for your community, you’re effectively building an empire on rented land. It’s no surprise to anyone that the Social Media platforms exist to generate income from advertisers. If you only use the free elements of a Social Media platform, there’s a chance that your members could be targeted by ads from your competitors.
You will need to offer something meaningfully different on your website if you want people to go there instead of your Facebook group, so you should plan your content and how you will launch it, very carefully.
So how do you build it?
How you build your community depends on the nature of your business and your customers. Once you get to the point of building a community on your own website, a simple membership site for logged-in users, is now very affordable.
For example, a WordPress website can now be extended very easily to include member-only content using off-the-shelf plugins. If you have more complex goals and a budget to suit, you can even have a bespoke membership community built by a web developer.
So where should you begin?
As I’ve alluded to already, you will probably need to start your online community on a Facebook group or something similar. Keep your content free and even if you intend to charge for content or membership in the future, you should expect to have to keep it free for quite some time to begin with.
You will then need to determine what your goals are for the site – is it to generate leads for your products and services or will you sell premium memberships. You must articulate this, along with a roadmap of the key steps for your community, culminating hopefully in having a community on your own website and domain.
So there you have it – an overview of why and how to build an online community for your business. Whilst it’s a long-term commitment, it needn’t take up all of your time and the potential benefits of your business could be significant for years to come.