3 Keys to Build Your Online Community

by Eric Tsai


There has been a few interesting development recently on the social web specifically with Facebook replacing the ‘become a fan’ phrase with a ‘Like button‘ and launching ‘Community Pages‘; expect all mainstream websites to gradually adopt the like button enabling visitors to see if their friends or family like the content (peer influence) as well as the number of people liking something.

The other news is Twitter’s new tool that allows tweets to be directly embedded on third-party sites, making it easier to quote and share content .

This growing trend of the web becoming social will continue to encourage people to use it social.

The more social the web gets, the more conversations it generates resulting in a permanent record of everything and anything people talk about, including your brand. Even if you’re not online or don’t have an online business, internet will continue to record down what people say about your brand.

And reputation is word-of-mouth thus it will only benefit your business if you include your community in defining your brand. So how can brands take control of their reputation via the social web?

One solution is through community building, the foundation of your brand’s reputation.

What’s In A Community?

Think of your community as a single platform where people can all gather to interact with your brand and each other expressing their opinions about your products and services.

You don’t need  thousands or even hundreds of people to start a community, it can be started with just a few people with the same interest and are willing to participate.

When building a community consider the following groups that makes up the community ecosystem:

Prospects – Interested in your product or want to learn more about it
Customers – Made a purchase already
Employees – Individuals that works for you and/or stakeholders
Vendors – You bought from them (suppliers, service providers, operating expenses)
Partners – Companies or individuals that you have business relationship with, a reseller or distributor of your products
Media – Journalist or publications that covers your industry or your product category
Regulators – Authorities or individuals that regulates your industry, could be government or non-government

If you’ve been in business for a while, you should be familiar with the groups above.  The idea of having your own online community is to centralize communication via a single platform where you can empower members of your communities to interact with each other and engage with your brand.

How Communities Benefit Brands

Why would companies want to spend time, resources and money on building their community? The answer is simple, community defines your brand, demonstrates social proof and creates business opportunities.

Defining your brand – So instead of trying to control how you want people to see your brand, the ideal approach is to become part of that process by providing a dedicated community.

A platform that allows prospects, customers, peers, colleagues and stakeholders to interact with each other,  ask questions about your products, comment on their service experience or simply give praises.

This is why brands are uniting their customers and fans online using platforms such as an online discussion forum, a Facebook Fan Page, or a LinkedIn Group as their primary ‘homebase’ to build their community. It’s fast, simple and easy to do.

In addition you can expand the community offline or locally adding tools such as Meetup.com, Amiando or Eventbrite. The goal is to provide easy access across multiple channels for your fans to hangout and express their feelings and ideas about your brand.

Social Proof and influence -The best way to change people’s behaviors is through peers that they trust and/or respect.

Done right, your community will become one of your most powerful marketing vehicle helping you sell via conversations and defending your brand during crisis.

This is also an emerging trend as many brands are leveraging customers and employees as brand advocates to help spread the “brand voice.”

If prospective customers read some comments on how great your services are and sees many happy customer feedbacks (via your Facebook wall, Yelp, Amazon or blog), you’re likely to move them further down the sales cycle not to mention the information can be used for marketing as well as support reference.

Even Toyota is bouncing back from it’s PR nightmare because the brand still has a strong following and they’ve earned their customer’s trust over a long time. This is why sports fans are loyal to their teams and often go to the distance to defend their teams/players because they are part of a specific team’s fan community.

Opportunities to improve – Another benefit of building an online community is over time your community will accumulate enough information to enable you to abstract valuable insights to improve your products, services and reputation.

One of the more popular approach is using crowdsourced data to help craft marketing campaigns and get the community involve to deepen the trust and create brand awareness.

And with those that are concern about negative word of mouth?

My recommendation is to have a plan in place so you can respond in a timely matter with the right social media and crisis management policies.

This way, when things go south, you can quickly pinpoint the problem and identify the proper solution to resolve the issue. In fact, it’s an opportunity to turn negative buzz to strengthen the relationship with customers.

As for managing the community it really depends on how your organization is structured for customer engagement.

For example, during presale you can task your sales team to answer pre-sale questions and have your customer support staff responsible for postsale engagement.

Then categorize and archive the Q&As to be used in the future for prospectives and customers.

You can import them into your CRM system or publish them as FAQs.

Keep in mind that managing the community should not be limited to the marketing department.

In fact, the marketing department should help facilitate the interaction to improve the brand experience by providing insights abstracted from the community to other department.

Product engineers can learn how customers are using the product, sales staff can identify the main concerns of prospective customers and marketers can better position and communicate more effectively.

If your organization needs to hire a community manager, I highly recommend following the Community Maturity Model by The Community RoundTable, a private peer network for community managers and social media practitioners.

According to The Community RoundTable, “this model does two things. First, it defines the eight competencies we think are required for successful community management. Second, it attempts – at a high level – to articulate how these competencies progress from organizations without community management that are still highly hierarchical to those that have embraced a networked business ecosystem approach to their entire organization.”

This is an excellent way of looking at what’s necessary to build a serious, large scale community.

As for small businesses, I recommend to simply focus on 1 or 2 of the competencies below that aligns with your business objectives and just keep working at it.

Use a systematic approach to nurture your community and determine how it impacts your business.

Are you ready to start building your online community?

3 Keys to Building Your Community

1) Intent vs Outcome – Know why you’re doing this, what the community is about and be prepared to respond to unexpected outcomes.

Create policies and define a clear purpose also helps to motivate members by giving meaning to participation and build collaborative work by providing a common focus.

With clarity, members will define the purpose on a common ground to grow the community.

Once trust and respect are earned from the community, members will be more incline to be loyal to your brand and what you stand for which should be beyond just a profit-making machine.

It’s a commitment between the community and its members.  Your reward as a business should be fueled by the appeal you have with the community.

This is why a growing number of companies are investing in content marketing by publishing free resources to influence the perception of brand value and demonstrate expertise.

2) Communicate with Meaning and Authenticity – The key in building a meaningful community is to be authentic and stay true to you brand.

If you ask your customers what your brand means and you don’t like the answer, perhaps you need to rethink your brand strategy, marketing communication and your corporate culture.

Effective communities develop leadership teams, equip and deploy members for action, understand and engage with their community purpose to achieve impact.

Besides, if you already have customers out there, they may be waiting for you to provide a platform to speak.

Companies are humanizing themselves and to be human is to have a personality. You must accept that you will make mistakes and not everyone is going to like your personality.

However, you should be able to demonstrate expertise in whatever it is that you provide via free education and resources.

If you say what you mean and mean what you say, your community will be on your side.

3) Serve First, Sell Later – The perception of an expert is not only to have invaluable knowledge but a positive reputation. Focus on the needs of your members by making things as easy and frictionless as possible.

It’s a team effort, the community as a whole never just about one person but a collective effort to keep the community going.

The bottom line is community builds trust and it’s not related to making money.

Focusing on financial gain leads to short-term decisions based on cost that’s not sustainable for the future. A focus on the community (or the customer), on the other hand, can lead to happy customers, employees, and partners.

I thought this TEDtalk by Derek Silvers on “how to make a movement” was an interesting way to think about building a community for your brand and why leadership may be over glorified. The video is about 3 minutes long.

The take away: Brands have customers and when these customers have reasons beyond the product and services that they sell, there is a cause.

That cause is what motivates people to connect and spread your brand’s idea.

The greater the commitment to a cause the greater the commitment to the community.

Like the great American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed. It is the only thing that ever has.”

Whether it’s in a social network or a weekly local meeting, ALL brands should consider fostering relationships through community building.

For me, I have my blog and Facebook Page to build my community.

Do you have a platform to grow your community? Where should your customer go when they want to be part of what you do and what you believe in?

Further Reading



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9 Comments

  1. Ray Brown   •  

    Hi Eric Very useful article, thanks. We are about to launch a new community which will be based on “social learning” on the topic of being a Clienteer® or Clienteering. A Clienteer® being “a person who monitors, influences and facilitates good customer management across a business”. It’s going to be a fun journey. We’d love to have your help/support/interest along the way.

  2. Eric Tsai   •     Author

    Ray, no problem send me an email or use the contact form to get in touch with me, thanks.

  3. Rachel Happe   •  

    Hi Eric –

    Thanks so much for including our Community Maturity Model here – I love the dancing man video and your point about being cause driven is critical. To engage a wide constituent base, the community must be about something bigger than a profit-motive for a company… that doesn’t mean members will not recognize the value that company is providing, it just can’t be the sum of the community.

    If people are interesting in community management, we offer as many free resources as possible, including our recent 70+ page report The State of Community Management which aggregates the insights we’ve learned from our members over the past year – it’s free to download here: http://community.community-roundtable.com/forum/topics/linkedin-question?xg_source=activity

    Thanks for the shout out!

    Rachel
    .-= Rachel Happe´s last blog ..Social: Moving from Head to Heart =-.

  4. Eric Tsai   •     Author

    Hi Rachel,
    I’m a big believer in the concept of a community and have high respect for CMM. It’s totally awesome what you guys are doing at CMM, great resources and people, a community about communities 😉

    The idea of a community beyond just making money is a hard concept for many businesses (what!? you mean we can’t just think about making money?), but with the web becoming more social, the community can now exist everywhere and nowhere. So why not step up and own it? I see community management continue to become more important as part of a brand strategy discussion for many mid-large size businesses.

    As for small businesses, I think mimicking the Community Maturity Model conceptually makes sense, the only difference is in scale and aligning it with business objectives.

    Thanks for the report and your input, appreciate it!

  5. Dayton Chan   •  

    3) Serve First, Sell Later

    I whole heartedly agree, but if you talk to a sales guy, this advice might not be so agreeable. Peace.

  6. Eric Tsai   •     Author

    Dayton,
    That’s why they are sales guys :) they want their commission and rightfully so! However, great sales people don’t sell because they know where they stand with their contacts, it’s relationship that they will nurture by bringing value to the table prior to the sales pitch.

    Thanks for your comments.

  7. Ted Hessing   •  

    Excellent post per usual, Eric. Your summation is absolutely accurate – “when these customers have reasons beyond the product and services that they sell, there is a cause.”

    This is true not only for corporations but for our own personal branding, too. Tell a story, be your cause, get people vested in the outcome – your outcome. Everyone wants to be part of a winner.
    .-= Ted Hessing´s last blog ..Take Your Child to Where You Used to Work Day =-.

  8. Eric Tsai   •     Author

    Hi Ted, that’s where most businesses struggle and traditional marketers are confused. It’s really not about taking ownership of being a leader but to focus on the community that’s already out there.

    Not everything is about selling and shouldn’t be. Companies, brands and people simply want to connect at the same level – the human level. And that is one of the keys to a successful brand strategy which I wrote previously here: The 12 Principles of Brand Strategy

    Thanks for your comment.

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