I nod to a passing stranger, and the stranger nods back, and two human beings go off, feeling a little less anonymous. ~Robert Brault
“Build the website, and they will come!”
If only it were that easy. Just having a website, blog, and social media accounts is not enough to get noticed online. In addition to having search engine basics in place, you need to invest time and energy in creating and fostering an online community.
An online community is a group of people with common interests or goals who interact online. These are your brand’s followers! Your community may consist largely of people who come to you because of the educational, helpful content your brand provides, or you may have people engaging with one another in a forum you’ve created, in the comments section of your blog, or via one of your social media profiles. Whatever the purpose of your community, there are some tactics you can use to keep your community growing, positive and relevant.
How to Build an Online Community
Here are some important steps to take to have your online community up and running successfully:
- Work with your team to define the purpose of your community. What do you want your customers to gain from participating in your community? How will information be presented to them, and how will they be invited to participate? What role will your team take in the community? (Remember, a community should be about your customers, not your organization. People can sniff out a phony community quickly, and they will leave and not come back.) Make sure your entire team is working based on a shared understanding of the goal(s) of your community.
- Decide where your community will live. There are many benefits to hosting your community on your own online platform (as part of your website, for example) as opposed to it existing on Facebook, LinkedIn or another platform that you have less control over. Sometimes a community extends from the website onto social media, and that’s okay, but a primary benefit of your community being on your own platform is the ability to better analyze search and visitor activity. (We’ll talk more about analytics later on.)
- Know your customer. Before you can build your online community, you need to understand who your ideal customer is, and where they are online. Persona development will help you understand what questions your ideal customer has, and how they want information delivered to them. This knowledge helps you create content that is best suited to the people you want to be part of your community.
- Offer something of value. People have information coming at them from many directions, all day long. Give them a reason to connect with you. Most of us won’t follow a brand for the sake of following – we have to get something out of it. That “something” can be as simple as clever marketing. There are a few companies that I follow, even though I don’t use the product yet, because their marketing and branding is really good, and I find value in that alone.
- Be human! This is a big one. It is so important to humanize your brand. Demonstrate that there are real people behind your logo. Engage and interact with your community. Answer their questions. When they tell you they are happy (or upset!), respond. Always be professional and courteous, even when it’s hard. When they Share, Forward, or Tweet, thank them for being an active part of your community. (More on this later, too.)
- Be an active participant. In addition to interacting with your own audience, practice genuine engagement with other brands on social media. Share, retweet, “like,” and comment on others’ valuable content. Follow others inside or outside your industry, and engage! It doesn’t always have to be “shop” talk. Is there a restaurant your team loves to frequent? Follow and engage with them on social media. Share pictures when you and your coworkers have a great meal there. Again, these actions make your brand human, and increase your exposure to a broader audience.
- Ask for engagement! Give your audience a reason to interact with you. Ask questions. Ask for feedback. Offer unique opportunities for them to engage with your brand. For example, Zappos.com asks customers to share photos of how they are reusing their shipping boxes by printing the request right on the box!
- Make sure your audience can find you. As you are growing your online community, be sure to have your SEO in order, so people searching for what you offer can find your brand online. You will find that as your community starts to grow, it can have a great effect on how you rank in search engines.
- Stay current and consistent. Make sure you are consistently offering a combination of both fresh and evergreen content. (Evergreen content is material that remains relevant for your audience throughout time. Some examples are how-to guides, case studies, and book reviews.) When you publish new content on a predictable basis, your audience will understand when they will hear from you and ideally begin to seek you out. (An increase in subscribers and followers is the most obvious sign that this is happening.) When you have people checking in to see “what you have to say today,” that is an important accomplishment. It allows you to start leading the conversation surrounding your brand, which is a great position to be in.
How an Online Community Helps Business
There are many benefits of an online community, particularly to your bottom line. (And let’s be honest, that’s what all businesses want.) An active online community providing relevant, valuable consistent information to its audience helps with customer retention and advocacy, as well as opportunities to cross-sell to existing customers. The information you gain from a powerful set of analytics tools will help you understand what kinds of information and content your audience is most interested in, which not only informs your content strategy but is also excellent information for your sales team to have.
In the eyes of our team, some of the best examples of online communities are LEGO Ideas, Quora, Hacker News, Life is Good, and Glennon Melton’s Momastery community. The Quora and Hacker News communities are fueled by user-generated questions and answers. Life is Good and LEGO Ideas are great examples of consumers goods being used as a springboard for a larger, more meaningful community. The Life is Good community is dedicated to creating and spreading optimism. As the name suggests, LEGO Ideas invites fans to suggest ideas for new LEGO sets to be voted on by the community. If the winning idea is commercially produced, the winner is eligible for 1% of royalties. Momastery is an excellent example of a member-regulated community. Followers understand the purpose of the community and will educate new followers as needed in a manner consistent with the positive energy of the community.
Nurturing an active, engaged online community requires an ongoing, consistent commitment. Providing a steady flow of valuable content, monitoring conversations, interacting with and responding to your audience – you have to invest the time to do this effectively. With the right strategy in place, you can be your brand’s pied piper!
Do you have a favorite online community? What’s working well in your own brand’s community? Talk to us in the comments!