Edtior’s Note: Today’s post is a guest offering from Michael Silverman, CEO of Chicago-based agency Duo Consulting and author of Capturing Community: How to Build, Manage and Market Your Online Community.
I confess: I’m insecure about my business’ social media strategy. Social Media Explorer and similar websites are kind of like my support groups. I visit to commiserate with other small business owners and marketers and try to find solutions to our problems. But I need a little validation and interaction.
Editorial content has its place, but nothing matches the power of interactive communication tools. In fact, there’s a good chance that some of the most valuable content sharing may take place in the comments of this post. The advantage of participating in the discussion here, rather than on Facebook, is that the audience is narrow and purposefully arrives to learn, discuss or network around social media issues.
There is absolutely nothing in the world like the strength of a community. And since the dawn of the Internet, communities have thrived on the Web. Until recently, it felt like a good many marketers ignored these venues. Or perhaps they didn’t know how to
Participating in a community is one thing. But have you ever considered what you could do if you created your own online community? Not just a corporate blog. In fact, an unaffiliated website that isn’t even sponsored by your company.
American Express OPEN Forum is a good example of a branded community. Many of you may know it because it covers some of the same topics as SME. What the OPEN community lacks (on some level) is a unique sense of identity. Not to mention, American Express has had plenty of time to successfully build brand credibility and a gigantic following.
For other brands, starting your own niche community may seem like a waste of resources. What does your brand get out of the deal? How do you justify the budget to the CEO?
There are gigantic benefits to owning an online community like:
- Research & Feedback: Owning a community without affiliating your brand gives you a unique opportunity to gather deep insights on your target audience’s behavior. It helps you identify trends in your marketplace. You can engage directly with prospects to gain an insider’s view on the competition. With the bird’s eye view you get, you’ll never have to send out blind surveys again.
You also have a simple, central way to monitor brand perception for your business. If you’re looking to develop a new product or refine an old one, you can find out exactly what your audience wants and test ideas through them.
- Recruitment & Networking: Think of your community as a magnet for new talent. Identifying and tracking influencers gives you a clear advantage over the competition. You’ll find some of the most passionate and knowledgeable voices in your industry. You have a clear communication channel to engage them and point them to open positions in your organization.
It’s also easy to identify potential partnerships. If members are sharing valuable content, you can bet other businesses in your field will sniff out the community. They’ll contribute and connect, giving you the ability to identify other influential businesses with which to align yours.
- Brand Opportunities: Creating a community that isn’t directly affiliated with your brand helps build trust in your website. It enhances how members engage with each other by presenting an opportunity to identify with the community’s brand. When you have that trust, you can find your own opportunities to weave your brand into the conversation.
For instance, you can use advertising space within your community site to get free exposure for your brand. Your organization can sponsor contests and events. You can shine a spotlight on your business’ leaders, building their personal credibility and the credibility of your brand by association. The possibilities are limited only by your creativity.
Let’s not consider this a huge time-suck right away, either. Starting a community may require as little as creating a forum website. If you’re really ambitious, you may decide to blend editorial content and forum functionality into a well designed and user-friendly website.
Getting off the ground shouldn’t be hard. Make sure to seed your community with members and content before you launch, and you’ll get a jumpstart on building a valuable place for conversation and networking for your target audience.
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In addition to founding and leading Chicago-based Duo Consulting, Michael Silverman has headed up a number of online community development projects for 15 years. He just launched the book on online communities, Capturing Community: How to Build, Manage and Market Your Online Community.