10 Ways to Build Thriving Communities

Courtesy of Ingenesist

By now, you're probably aware of the power of online and offline communities. We're told to recruit our pool of advocates, ingrain them in our brands, and get them to spread the word.

Over time, who knows. You may even - gasp - reduce your marketing and advertising spend!

Before you get over-excited, however, understand this. Communities are not marketing silver bullets.

While they could help to supplement your share of voice, extend your influence and improve brand visibility, communities require you to invest a significant amount of time, effort, and emotional energy to keep them going.

Moreover, they aren't short-term solutions. Many of the most successful communities (like the legendary Harley Owners Group or HOG) have been around for decades!

Like a well-loved garden, communities require a lot of tending and caring. While some communities appear to organically grow and develop, the likelihood of this happening is slim.

How should companies then work with communities - be they online or offline?

Here are some thoughts for a start:

1) Distil the sphere of influence around your company, its products and its customers. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Who do we serve as customers?
- What are their interests and concerns?
- Where are they likely to hang out?
- How do people think about our products and services?
- What is the context in which they use them?

2) Build your community around interests and not brands. What this means is that you should centre it around topics or themes that are affiliated to your product but could extend beyond it. A good example is the BabyCenter community by P&G which provides useful tips to expecting and new mothers.

3) Identify your core group of influencers and find ways and means to reach them. They could be grassroot leaders, bloggers, or even ordinary folks who share a deep passion for a related area of interest. Reach out to these folks and invite them to be a part of your community. These "alpha" members are vital in keeping the community going when times are dry. Over time, they help to become your leading voices on their networks.

4) Hire a community manager, preferably somebody with interest in what they do. For online communities, this person should be fairly active on social networks and au fait with how they work. The community manager will generate content, trigger conversations, and organise activities to keep the group active and growing.

5) Activate online communities through occasional face-to-face get togethers. These could include cocktails, lunches, product launches, or other events. Where possible, make these exclusive and desirable so that community members would proudly blog, tweet, or post about them on their own social networks.

6) Be consistent and reliable in how you interact with them. Establish a regular content production schedule, respond to queries and feedback, and speak with the same tone of voice. Being friendly, sincere, responsive and transparent usually works.

7) Don't just make it a one way dissemination channel. Listen more than you tell if possible. If there is a lot of "chatter", change your role from that of a content producer to a conversation moderator. However, always be present.

8) Respond quickly to complaints and negative feedback but don't get defensive... ever! Explain where possible the reasons why certain things are done in a certain way. If you're wrong, just admit that you've screwed up but will work harder to do better. If you're right, take the pains to show them why with utmost respect and civility.

9) Where appropriate, get your community involved in product development and marketing decisions. Get them to be your focus group members when testing new products or services. The more engaged they are, the greater their communal sense of ownership and the higher the likelihood that they'll help to spread the word on behalf of your business.

10) Finally, don't be afraid to get personal with some of your members. If they're online, leave a comment or a "Like" on their Facebook pages, or retweet their tweets if they're meaningful. Surprise them with a positive comment if they're feeling down. Caring for your community makes a whole world of difference.

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