There are so many different types of online communities and ways of building them. There are social sharing sites such as Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. There are standalone sites and even hosted third party portals which you can build in conjunction with other companies.
In short, community building online is alive, well and about as confusing as trying to figure out which European countries will still be using the Euro in five years.
The good news is there are some simple best practices you should be using to ensure your online community (OC) performs as well as possible.
Provide loads of objective information which will act as a lure to get potential customers familiar with you. Even if your company is already a household name, every organization needs to reinforce its place in the market through thought leadership-based education to ensure its customers continue to see it as the company in the space they should work with.
Leave the selling to your website
When customers visit online communities they don’t want a sales pitch, yet so many companies think every bit of content they produce needs to be self-promotional. Based on my experience in building hundreds of these communities for our partners, the sales pitch is the worst approach to community building there is. A website can be used to sell, but not your community.
Don’t forget video
Make sure you have lots of text on your OC, but don’t forget about multimedia like video. How-to videos regarding best practices are a great idea. For example if your company sells hiking shoes you should be sure that you produce videos on best practices for hiking from beginner to expert. Talk about mosquito repellant, rain gear, safety tips, how to maintain hydration, and more.
We have discussed being objective, but let’s focus on the importance of education. If you work in a more complex area of the market - a product more elaborate than gum or candy for example, your potential/existing customers could really benefit from being educated. For example if you are a tech company, how about helping customers understand emerging trends which will affect them such as IPV6 or HTML5?
In fact the education you give doesn’t have to be 100 percent related to what you do – for example an IP fax company could easily benefit by educating on the above matters, even if they aren’t specifically IP fax-related topics.
Your OC is a branding product primarily – it may generate leads but more importantly it will increase the chance your leads become sales. In other words by reinforcing your company’s name and products in the mind of the potential customer, a company is able to increase the likelihood that a potential customer in the sales funnel becomes a buying customer.
Technology marketing is going through a transformation at the moment with companies looking to get as many leads as possible for the lowest cost per lead. What they need to focus on even more is total marketing spend versus total marketing ROI. In other words, generating 20 percent fewer leads could be even more cost-effective because your sales people have higher close rates and waste less time on leads which will not convert. In other words, the mentality of maximizing leads at the expense of branding is a fad in my opinion. The companies remaining in the market will be the ones who understand the benefits of the holistic approach outlined in this best practices document.
Be a conversation starter
Can you relate current events into your educational activities? If you can, you are at a significant advantage as this approach to education is likely to get your audience participating and responding to your content, which in turn brings in more comments and subsequently related content.
If current events don’t make sense, be sure you provide other content which makes sense and is likely to elicit a response. If you sell fishing gear, post lists of the top fishing spots in the world. Challenge participants to send in their own videos and photos – even have a contest to reward the best entries.
Be a thought leader
You need to be a thought leader in your space. Salesforce.com is a thought leader in cloud, IBM is a thought leader in tech and consulting, Apple and Samsung in consumer electronics. What is your company a thought leader in? Do you speak at conferences? Are you promoting these topics and concepts in your community?
To become a thought leader you need to simply have thoughts which people value and amass enough of them that others look to you to point to the future of your market. Think more about how to do well here and less on maximizing leads at all costs and your sales will do well.
We are in a brave new world where companies have to give away loads of free “things” as part of their marketing initiatives. It could be content on social networks, eBooks, webinars, videos and/or podcasts but it is crucial to understand that marketing is shifting. Finally, in a world where related information is a search box or a Twitter post away, you need to ensure your company is in all the right places with all the right information so you can successfully connect with potential customers and retain existing ones.