Every company, no matter the size, relies on the support and goodwill of its customers to survive in today's market - doubly so in an online world, where hundreds of competitors are literally just a click away. But the harsh reality is that some are better than others at learning to engage and interact with these individuals through inbound marketing and content marketing strategy, all of whom share a very important common interest: Your business and brand.
Those who fall into the former camp enjoy some crucial benefits - e.g. better relationships, heightened loyalty, greater insight into their target market, improved sales and enhanced shopper feedback. Those who don't constantly watch opportunity fly out the window. As such, the importance of cultivating one's community can't be understated, especially given that the costs of acquiring new customers can often outstrip those of selling to existing clients by tenfold.
Looking for a few simple, cost-effective and inventive ways to spark your audience's interest - and give your inbound marketing strategy a shot of adrenaline? Following are a few simple tips for building a must-see website by cultivating a vocal and passionate online community that anyone can feel proud to be a part of.
- Provide a Dedicated Forum for Discussion - The first rule of community engagement: Establish a dedicated, persistent venue where users can feel comfortable sharing, discussing and debating whatever's top of mind. Note that this outlet can take the form of a message board, newsgroup, custom social network or even Facebook fan page. A company blog can also make a compelling vehicle for ongoing conversation, allowing you to source users' opinions and engage them in active dialogue. However, whichever solution you ultimately choose, it's essential that you make a commitment to regularly updating and maintaining it, including providing ongoing responses' to users' queries and nurturing new and existing lines of discussion.
- Encourage Sharing Through Social Media - Designed to help users connect, communicate and spread the word, these platforms and services allow word-of-mouth buzz to spring up like wildfire. By giving audience members the power to re-tweet stories amongst themselves, share links to items and happenings of note and embed interesting pieces of content on their own websites, you do two things. You not only expand its reach far beyond the initial distribution list, all while providing links back to the original source, which allow new individuals with similar interests to discover and become a part of the movement. You also create a sense of momentum behind any update and allow it to potentially snowball in excitement.
- Make Communications a Two-Way Street - Looking to build an honest, trusting relationship with your customers? Then be open and transparent with them, and - most importantly - willing to listen to their feedback and concerns. Realize: A conversation in which only one party is speaking isn't a dialogue - it's a discourse. So from comments sections to ongoing surveys/polls and email submissions, you've got to give fans a vehicle to respond. Moreover, it's also imperative that acknowledgement of their input be given, even if you can't reply to every last message, as people will expect that you're listening. Besides, to stay competitive these days (when even the best-laid plans and business strategies shift in real-time based on instant feedback) it pays to keep one's ear to the ground.
- Be Committed - The joy of online and social media services is that these platforms make the entire world feel close at-hand. As such, people enjoy a greater sense of one-to-one connection while using them, and expect you and your business to be both present and listening. So before setting up that Twitter account or Facebook fan page, consider. You'll be expected to make regular updates, actually respond to users' comments and (gasp) not disappear for days on end while reams of canned responses or ghostwritten clips serve as filler. Certainly, a busy executive can't be expected to be checking their accounts personally every minute of every day. But whether you hire dedicated community managers to help or simply split up social media duties amongst existing team members, someone's always got to man the front lines.
- Say Something Unique - Universally, strong brands, topics and personalities are the lynchpins around which online communities galvanize. To this extent, generating trust and empathy with readers is paramount, as is offering a strong, knowledgeable and (most vitally) singular perspective on any given subject. In short, instead of copying what competitors are doing, pick a unique approach and run with it, making as much noise as possible to let others know what you're up to. By doing so, you'll not only rally others with similar opinions to the cause. You'll also perk up the ears of potential detractors, whose voices will add to the richness and context of any debate, providing a more compelling reason for both sides of the fence to keep participating in the discussion.
- Empower End-Users - No matter how many resources you throw at a project, there's no competing with the sheer creativity, imagination and raw output of the public at large. Moreover, unconstrained by issues like budgets, deadlines and corporate politics, users are often able to produce works of sheer genius impossible by entrepreneurial outfits and large-scale enterprises alike. Therefore, it often pays to let community members themselves take an active role producing and self-policing content. Wise business owners will also recognize and reward top performers (with special status and titles, access to exclusive events, free product, etc.) for their contributions, which make online communities more effective and compelling for all involved.
- Tap the Power of Crowdsourcing - Ultimately, people take part in communities to engage and interact with others within the context of each group's unique social fabric. Giving them the ability to participate in the design and construction of various supporting elements doesn't only allow them to do just that. (Say, by allowing users to submit designs for your new site's tagline or layout, then vote the best to the top, or create custom posters starring your company's mascot for email sharing with friends and family.) It also provides an opportunity for them to be recognized for their work, and have a lasting impact on the community at large and product, service or subject it's based around. These practices can quickly generate empathy and enthusiasm, and - as a crucial added benefit - show that you value your community members and their contributions.
Mind you, while no single content or inbound marketing strategy will work for every online community, as each consists of its own distinct collective of individuals and perspectives, the good news is as follows. With the right mix of insight and enthusiasm, not to mention the multitude of free online tools available to small business owners, any business or organization can potentially rouse thousands of fans and supporters into action. Knowing this, you don't have to be a publicist, politician or even famous to set the Internet ablaze - and enjoy the thrill of knowing you've rallied countless customers to your cause.