Strong relationships and customer loyalty are essential for laying down a solid foundation for any business. They not only create stability, but are important for future growth. They're also helpful for claiming your piece of the pie within your industry. One of the most effective ways to develop relationships and gain loyalty is to build an online community. Here are some of the primary advantages of this strategy and the steps to take to build an online community around your business.

You're Not at Google's Mercy

As many business owners have found out in recent times, Google updates their algorithm fairly frequently. Panda, Penguin and Penguin 2.0 have caused plenty of chaos and many businesses have experienced a drop in search engine rankings. While it's smart and necessary to be SEO conscious, problems can arise by continually doing the next big thing. However, establishing a community can act as a shield in an uncertain SEO world. No matter what Google throws at webmasters, a community will be able to sustain itself and maintain a steady supply of traffic.

Increased Authority

When a potential customer is considering which business to purchase from, they'll typically choose the one that seems the most trustworthy. Making consumers feel comfortable with your business is the key to outshining competitors and making conversions. Nothing can make you appear more trustworthy than a large group of followers interacting and acknowledging your legitimacy. According to The Australian Psychological Society, 78 percent of people trust information from their peers as opposed to only 17 percent that trust information from corporate or product advertising. That's why establishing a community should ensure a steady stream of repeat customers, while making it easier to branch out and acquire even more customers.

Boost Brand Equity

Besides this, it can help to differentiate your business from competitors and increase your inherent worth in the eyes of consumers. Simply selling products or services is one thing, but creating a brand can do much more. It gives a business a unique personality that makes consumers form a bond with the business entity, increasing brand loyalty and giving customers incentive to stay updated on recent news. When faced with the choice of buying from a trusted brand or a faceless business with no personality, the majority of consumers will go with the established brand.  

With that being said, here are some tips for building your own online community around your business:

Focus on Your Audience

Being successful requires you to base your approach with the audience's interests in mind. After all, a community is about all of the members as a collective whole and not one individual. This can be accomplished by publishing valuable content, and plenty of it. Creating a steady stream of in-depth blog posts about relevant topics is a great way to get started.

Offering a free eBook or whitepaper is another idea. Basically, the goal is to show people that you view them as valuable assets of the community and not simply as dollar signs. While it's obviously your goal to promote your business and make sales, it shouldn't come at the cost of being intrusive or annoying. Being overtly salesy can be detrimental to your online community-building campaign, so use discretion.

Be the Expert

If you expect people to take you seriously and join your community, you'll have to prove your knowledge and define exactly what you bring to the table. Being the go-to source for a particular topic and the expert in your niche should encourage people to take you seriously. Expert status can often be achieved by providing sound advice via channels like:

  • Company blog posts
  • Guest blog posts
  • Videos
  • Webinars
  • Slideshows
  • Podcasts

Once you develop a positive reputation and some credibility, more and more people will want to become part of the online community.

Encourage Interaction

For a community to thrive, it requires plenty of communication from its members. That's why it should be your prerogative to get customers, readers, followers, etc., to interact as much as possible. There are a few ways to do this. 

  • Create insightful blog posts that delve into your industry and discuss relevant topics. Be sure to also ask questions that require input to get the conversation going.
  • Add a forum where your audience can post and respond to relevant threads. 
  • Start an email newsletter where subscribers receive exclusive information.
  • Place a contact box on your website where people can offer feedback
  • Begin an email outreach program, and encourage responses to your email newsletters. Be sure to A/B split test in order to determine the optimal tone, style, subject line, and format for maximizing response rates and open rates.

Although the initial stages are sometimes slow going, building an online community has an accumulative affect where progress speeds up over time. Typically, the most difficult part is getting the ball rolling. Once you gain some momentum, it gets easier to bring more members on board.

Be Responsive

To create loyalty and rapport with your target audience, it's important to show your appreciation for their involvement. Otherwise, the number of members within the online community is likely to wane over time. Being responsive isn't rocket science; it simply involves taking the time to put forth the necessary effort.

For starters, it's important to promptly respond to all questions and inquiries you receive. Whether it's after a blog post, email or a contact box, always respond within one business day. If you're unable to respond to all questions and inquiries, assign this task to another employee or team member. In the event that the community becomes large, you'll likely need to hire a community manager. That's when you know you've struck gold.

Whenever a discussion is started following a blog or social media post, chime in and contribute. This should enhance the reach of your content even further and show your audience that you're paying attention and genuinely care about their input. Over a period of time, audience members will get to know you and each other, and a community of like-minded individuals will be born.

If you notice that a particular person is constantly participating and contributing, you may even want to contact them directly to thank them for their input. Often, this simple act can really make someone feel appreciated and solidify their loyalty for years to come.

Get Social

Creating a network through social media sites is yet another way to maximize your influence and connect with the right demographic. Since the very purpose of social media is to encourage communication and sharing, it's the perfect medium for building an online community. According to Mashable, the average American spends nearly 7 hours a month on social networking sites. With users discussing and sharing content about nearly any niche you can think of, sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are ideal resources for growing a community. Tracking and analyzing your social media campaigns is crucial to ensuring success of your campaign as well. Business intelligence systems are sprouting up that can support these efforts thoroughly. Alternatively, if you're on a budget, free or inexpensive software programs like Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, and and SproutSocial are great candidates for a start.

Additionally, just like on a website or blog, quality content is crucial, so a whole-hearted effort is important for achieving results. Unlike a website or blog where you're expected to primarily create unique content, it's perfectly fine to curate content on social media sites. For example, retweeting on Twitter or reblogging on Tumblr is common and encouraged as long as you're providing value for your readers. You're actually helping others out by doing so, which can lead to further networking opportunities. Due to the inherent ease of sharing, social media can accelerate the growth of a community and maximize exposure.

June 4, 2013

Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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