The great playwright Henrik Ibsen once described community as "like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm". The equally great (if slightly easier to digest) wordsmith Neil Tennant of The Petshop Boys, agreed, saying, "I think the world should be one community".
Though neither was referring to the internet, they're both right – community can affect your business for better or worse. The growth of social networking like Facebook and Twitter has affected the way businesses large and small now reach out to their customers. And with a dash of creativity and planning, even the smallest players can have an active and useful online community.
Want to grow your online garden? Have a look at CyberMummy blogger and PR expert Sian To's 10 Steps to a thriving online community.
1. First - ask yourself "Why?"
Why do you need an online community? And by that I mean, what do you want to get out of it – and what do you want your customers to gain? If the only reason you want to grow your community is because you think you should or "everyone else has got one", stop now! It's only worth the time and effort if you're actually offering benefits to your customers.
2. Set realistic goals
Creating a vibrant community doesn't happen overnight. You need to think of your community as a long-term project with targets set (by you!) along the way.
3. Make a space
Encourage visitors with a friendly space - create your online community where your target customers can easily find you. Think Twitter and Facebook rather than an additional page on your own brand website.
4. Promote yourself
So you've created your group and posted some interesting content - now you need to invite a few people over to look around! If you have a customer newsletter, use it as a starting point, but be creative – create a reason to visit, like a competition or a promotion, make it interactive - and don't forget to include a link!
5. Use current tools
Add a link to your community in your email signature, on orders and on your main webpage. Remember, your aim is to get people to your page.
6. Keep waving the welcome flag
Your newsletter was awesome and you got loads of people to stop by. But now you need to give them an incentive to come back again and again and again - so now is the time to start thinking about how to do that. Think offers, interactive competitions, seasonal discounts, as well as simpler things like interesting discussion threads.
7. Engage with your audience…
To keep a community active, a personal touch is crucial. Make your visitors feel welcome; speak to them, encourage interaction and always reply when they speak to you.
8. …and listen to what they tell you
Your customers know what they want before you do – so why not ask them? They're the ones who use your products and services, so their advice and opinion is invaluable. And when feedback is given, make sure you respond.
9. React fast to queries
If someone asks a question on a Facebook wall or a Twitter feed, reply as soon as you can. To encourage an active and continuing dialogue as an insight into your customers' needs, your community needs to know that you are just a DM away!
10. Encourage loyalty with rewards
As your community develops, encourage your current members to keep coming back with loyalty schemes or targeted promotions. Just like good behaviour deserves rewards, online loyalty deserves recognition.
Sian To is a PR and Social Media consultant with fifteen years experience. She’s also one of the UK’s top parent bloggers and co-founder of CyberMummy Conferences.