Building an online community is much more than just social media: It's relationships. The relationships that you have with your customers. The relationships that your customers have with each other. And most importantly, the relationships that your customers have with the outside world. We all know the benefits of having an online community, but how do you build a community that is targeted to work for you?
1. Grow with brand champions
You will always have community members that stand out among the rest. The users that post, comment and talk the most are the greatest asset that you have in your community. These individuals serve as both guardian and host to the community as a whole. Providing a small amount of reward and privilege to these members will pay ten-fold. The title of this post is "ways to grow" and these individuals are the epicenter of growth.
2. Grow by embracing user individuality
The most successful online communities are, and will always be, the great grandfather of social media: forums. Forums still remain one of the top producers of web traffic and content for the Internet. A common denominator that you see in forums are post numbers, avatars, signatures, badges, etc., that allow users to be a part of a community while still maintaining their individuality. Nobody wants to feel like a small part of a machine, even if that is why you're building the community. Let them be themselves and they will grow your community. Example: Tom's Hardware, a hard-core computer user and technology community.
3. Grow with a VIP feel
Community members are an inside part of your brand and certain perks should come with that. Releasing information to them early (for example) may sound like a waste of good PR but think about all the times that you've told people about information that you believed you had first access to. Another benefit could be coupons, private product releases and implemented research & development feedback. Treat them like they are the most important people your business knows, everyday. Example: The "Society of the Crown" where Crown Royal builds their community.
4. Grow based on needs
Your web analytics and FAQs will have all the answers you need here. Determine what people want to know about your company through common search terms and orient your community around addressing those answers in an honest and transparent way. Having a strong community may mean that you won't have to do this on your own: You could have people that believe in your brand enough to do it for you. Example: Jet Blue's True Blue community.
5. Grow through relationships
Did you really think that I would use the word "relationships" 4 times in the opening statement and not use it in the top 5? Everything should promote strong relationships. EVERYTHING. If you read about a specific font that a researcher somewhere has found promotes a psychological cohesion when used within a community, YOU USE IT. Give members every opportunity to speak with each other and more importantly, speak with a trained member of your staff. Having a familiar face representing the brand to your customers is very important when the community wants (or expects) some answers to their concerns.
—Anthony Richardson is the founder of Fugitive Marketing, a new media and communications consultancy serving internet startups. Originally from St. Louis he currently lives in Orlando with his golden retriever, Raya.
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