Build a community around your business
Many businesses now find themselves with a digital fan and follower base; they also have loyal customers and contacts who come back or endorse them time and again.
Questions naturally emerge from this realisation, in particular – how do you develop greater tangibility to these important groups? How do you evolve the goodwill of those fans, followers and customers into a greater advocate pool, but one which is a win:win for both them and for you. How do you build a community around your business?
Establishing a Win:Win community for your business
For the business, a community offers many opportunities, for example:
- A loyal band of advocates who can helpfully bring referrals and deliver positive social proof that can influence potential customers in their decision-making.
- A pool of critical friends keen to help you evolve well and improve your approach and offering.
- A forum for insight on market trends and experiences to guide your business plans and decision-making.
- A means for progressing current customers into a more involved and loyal relationship with your business.
It’s not always as easy identifying opportunities for potential community members and this is where businesses often struggle to create a community that remains well-supported and active. Community members need to enjoy being part of the group – even if it’s a virtual one in the current climate.
If they feel they gain something valuable or worthwhile from the experience, they’ll return time and again. That worthwhile experience can feature:
- Forging new business or personal contacts
- Gaining insight to be more effective in their work or personal lives
- Being alerted to new developments, sneak peaks of product or service innovations or improvements
- Having a part to play in developing something with others
- Getting help or support with something
- Enjoying the interactions with fellow community members
Which worthwhile experience will resonate with your potential community members very much depends on them. You can find clues in the content of social media interactions you receive, customer/contact comments and doing research as part of your planning.
Creating a community – early considerations
Like any business activity, it’s important to be clear why you are doing this because it does require effort, time and investment. Clarity also ensures you’ve got a greater chance of your efforts achieving what you want – you’ll be more focused in how you set up and develop the community. So decide a) what you want to achieve as a business with this community and b) what you want your community members to get out it. Why should they invest their time here?
Identifying your community audience
It’s helpful to start small and get the basics of the community right before you push for a big membership recruitment drive. Begin by visualising the types of members you’d love to be involved in your community – start with who you know. In doing so, consider specific customer contacts, passionate followers and supporters on your social media channels, contacts and referrers who put in a good word for you and endorse you. In particular:
- What is it about you, what you communicate or do that engages their interest?
- What do they vocalise in their support of your business? What do they say? And how do they say it?
- What themes become evident in their support of you? Is it Product quality? Customer service? Other Qualities?
- Why do they do this? What value do they gain from supporting you (how does it interest, help them or make them look good?)
The answers to these will guide you on who to invite initially to be part of the community and what you need to be doing with the community to encourage their involvement. They’ll also start to form a picture of your ideal community member profile and its characteristics.
Defining the Community’s spirit
A community is likely to survive if there is clarity of purpose, synergy of spirit and support for its values amongst the group. Don’t shy away from articulating these right from the start. It also helps if the purpose is simple (not numerous). For example, you see communities focused purely on innovation/ideas creation, self-help or networking. The focus helps to develop the spirit of the community. Some communities do outline basic rules for involvement to members, others articulate their values. As the lead initiator of the community, your business will set the tone and it’s worth thinking very carefully about the spirit you want the community to embody.
Finding the best environment for your community
When you mention community most people think of online forum groups that have been a big feature of the IT sector for years. There have been other traditional communities fostered by businesses, for example, business clubs and customer panels. Over the past few years businesses have used social media, such as LinkedIn, to create groups. The environment for your community’s interactions doesn’t have to be exclusively online in a text-dominated dialogue. When current restrictions are lifted you can bring people face to face in events – mini conferences, regular networking sessions, lunches, other soirees, sneak peek receptions, hangouts and roadshows. This may help you to appeal more to community members’ interests and create those valuable moments which are a worthwhile investment of their time.
Managing your business community
Many businesses worry about this facet. How do you manage your community and not lose control or create something which becomes at odds with your original goals and plans? Here are some pointers to help:
- What’s your role? It’s sensible to aim for a position where you’re a facilitator not a director (and certainly not a censor) of the community. Building it from a small base and giving thought to the people you want to be involved at the beginning, will help you get the right people to drive the tone, values, energy and passion of community going forward. By all means, communicate principles for the group (rather than rules), so an etiquette or understanding is established.
- Nourishing your community – It also helps to be prepared to have a back-bone of ideas, themes and added value things to filter through to the community over time. At other times be prepared to go with the flow of what they want to discuss and generate. If you do dictate and orchestrate the community too much you may find people disengage or, worse still, create a backlash.
- Listening and responding – You also have to listen and be responsive and be timely with that response. Consider allocating a dedicated member of the team to be the representative of the business so there’s a definite face/name in community discussions rather than an anonymous corporate voice. Also draw in other specialists from your organisation (R&D, customer service, marketing, etc) to come in for specific interactions or topics where it will add value to the discussion. As your community evolves you’ll be able to see when members want a response from the business and when they want to discuss something amongst themselves. At times like these if you pounce in too quickly and too frequently it can kill the discussion. The trick is to understand when to come in but this comes with time and knowledge of your community’s personalities.
- Having the right tone of voice – When you do offer insight and comment, it should always be positive to encourage further engagement and demonstrate being grateful for any insights shared. Defensiveness and negativity will only prompt people to disengage.
- Growing your community – When you’ve got the basics in place and are happy with how the community’s developing, you can market it to those who echo the ideal community member profile. Talk to your existing community members and encourage them to invite people to join who they think would value community involvement and who the community would value too. Get a small community working well before growing it – you’ll encounter less problems down the line.
- Measure the effort and investment – A community will take time to build but that shouldn’t stop you measuring the impact it is having on your business. If you have established goals right from the outset you should focus on measuring the progress in achieving those. For example, you may track upselling instances amongst the group, improved customer loyalty, increased referrals and recommendations, valuable customer insights/feedback. You should also find ways to check that community members continue to value their involvement. You can monitor the engagement levels of members and also periodically ask them how they find the group and what suggestions for improvements they have.
Relationships between a business and its community members perform best when the business sees the community as a critical friend and not an audience to be sold to. A spirit of mutual respect, genuine interest and trust produces a valuable experience for both. It does require consistent effort and resources over time to build, and then maintain a strong community where everyone values their involvement in it. The decision to build a community should therefore not be taken lightly. To do it well for a sustained period of time, it will require ongoing commitment and resources. Get it right, though, and it can become a huge asset to your business and its reputation.