6 Tips for Starting an Online Community

social media how toAre you considering building an online community? In order to build a strong community, there are a few key factors every business should take into consideration.

This article will assist you in gathering the building blocks for a strong online community.

#1: Know Your Audience

Every business should begin its focus on its audience, the customers. No online community can exist without a firm foundation and if your online community is to truly succeed, you need to know the demographics of your target audience.

What are demographics, you ask? Demographics are the characteristics of your audience. These characteristics are helpful in assessing the changing trends of audience behavior and narrowing down a wide audience into smaller segments.

General categories of demographics use age, gender, life-cycle stage, income, social class, lifestyle, education, religion and location and are collected by varying means of market research. These categories help give shape and definition to your audience and clarify who they are, what they do, their habits and more.

target audience

If you know who your audience is, your business will be better able to understand the needs of and what drives the audience. Image source: http://www.istockphoto.com/.

#2: Know Their Needs

How does a business find out what its audience needs? Ask questions! Engage with your audience to determine what they want, need and desire from your business. This is not a once-and-done type of inventory. Audiences are comprised of dynamic individuals and with time their needs will change organically. Also, external factors applying pressure to the collective audience will also cause ebbs and flows in needs.

By asking and being open to the response from the audience, your business can benefit from knowing not only generically what is needed, but you can gather insight on trends and benchmarks; potential problems or issues; research and development opportunities; product, process and service improvements; crisis communication plans and more.

gift problem

How can you get in front of your audience to ask about their needs? Image source: http://www.istockphoto.com/

David Canty, director of loyalty at JetBlue Airways, explains how JetBlue discovers the ever-changing needs of the dynamic members of their TrueBlue community, “We are constantly in dialog with our customers, whether it be online, through email, or face to face. We host a number of customer events all over the country and we use these forums to have ‘human’ conversations about what we are doing well, where we can improve, what would they like and more.

jetblue

TrueBlue Community lets members make friends and make plans, discuss restaurants, sightseeing and travel tips.

“During one of our tactical promotions, ‘All You Can Jet’ (AYCJ), we noticed that the customers who participated were looking for ways to communicate with each other, and this was the foundation we used to form a community,” Canty said.

aycj pins

Use your AYCJ pass for business, pleasure, to visit your favorite cities or meet with a client.

Above all else, your customers are feeling validated in knowing that their needs are being heard and quite possibly acted upon. That validation can unite the audience with a sense of common purpose.

#3: Know Your Business

All effective and successful businesses are customer-centric. Without your customers, your business wouldn’t exist. So intimately knowing the needs and wants of your audience can help shape and purpose your business and its future plans. Giving your customers a role and voice in the direction of your business lends itself to creating a sense of community.

strategy plansAs the focus and leader of the community, it is imperative that your business plan is known and understood by your leaders and staff. How can you expect to rally a community of customers around your business if you don’t know your own business?

Start with a strategic plan with the goal of mapping out the future based on the needs of now and the lessons learned from the past. Do you know what your business’s plans for growth, contingencies, expansion, product and service development, reduction and possible shuttering are?

You should know these answers about your business!

#4: Know Your Stuff

Knowing these answers about your business can lend itself to building credibility as a business within your online community. Audience members learn to trust those representing businesses that know what they are talking about.

You can build that trust by using your knowledge base to answer their questions, listen to their feedback, troubleshoot their issues and—if you can—fix the problems they have with your product or service. Every conversation you have with an audience member is an opportunity to build or destroy your business’s credibility!

Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the following questions about your community-building efforts:

  • Are we fostering mutual respect or disrespect in our response?
  • Is there ever a time to admit that we do not know what the answer is and that we need to do our homework before answering?
  • Is there a time to admit that a competitor may be a better option for a customer’s needs?
  • Is there someone else in the business who can answer a question or respond to negative feedback better than I can?

Remember, how you respond to negative comments and complaints is just as much a credibility opportunity as how you respond to the compliments and positive feedback!

#5: Know Your Limitations

While your business can certainly respond to many of the needs of the online community, is it wise for the business to dictate all of the interactions of the audience? Not always.

Consider the possibility that you may not always have the best answer for building the community and may need to let the community build itself. Your customers have the potential to be your best brand ambassadors.

The audience members should be encouraged to build relationships and connections with one another and grow dynamic interactions within your online community. The benefit to you, you ask? Your business is the commonality in the community.

Who can better attest to the viability and relevance of your product or service than the customers? You as a business representative are admittedly biased in your opinions of your products or services and this is limiting. Unbind your community and encourage it to explore the possibilities in the experiences of other audience members!

#6: Know How to Appreciate

Recognize and appreciate your community members for participation, brand loyalty, solutions orientation, patronization and for any number of other activities that merit appreciation. Your appreciation will encourage them to come back and visit your online community more frequently, to encourage their sphere of influence to join and even lend itself to increasing their purchasing behaviors with your business!

A few examples of demonstrating your appreciation:

thank you

When asked how JetBlue shows their appreciation for their community members, David Canty explained, “We don’t necessarily differentiate between community members and non-community members. They are all customers and both are valuable.

“We do actually travel the country and arrange for dinners, sporting events, lunches, town halls, performing events, etc., to which we invite some of our best customers. We use these events to ask questions and listen to what our customers have to tell us. These events will usually include myself and some of our executive team members including our CEO, Dave Barger. They do not have any scripts—they are human interactions and conversations and we find them hugely valuable.

Canty went on to say, “We have multiple ways by which we gather feedback. We have a “Speak Up” link on our website JetBlue.com, and every single email we receive is answered by a human being—there is no script.

jetblue help contact

Speak Up is much easier than picking up the phone.

“We also send out 30 surveys for every single flight we launch, and in these surveys we ask customers about their experience throughout the travel ribbon. We collate all the feedback and report it on a weekly basis internally and we can track the feedback to specific flights, airports, in-flight crews, etc.

jetblue

JetBlue customer satisfaction survey.

“We’re constantly keeping our finger on the pulse and ensuring we listen to what our customers are telling us. If we are failing in any way, we must address it and ensure we live up to our promise of bringing humanity back to air travel.”

The moral of this community-building tale?

Building community around your business online supports the community-building you’re doing offline. More and more customers are beginning their purchasing decisions with online research. Don’t miss this opportunity for your customers to speak for your brand!

An online community of brand-loyal, well-appreciated and encouraged members and customers speaks volumes for the relevancy and credibility of your business.

What steps have you taken to foster an online community around your business? What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing businesses that are trying to develop a community? Feel free to post your comments and feedback in the box below.

Photos mentioned above from iStockPhoto can be found here.

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About the Author, Stephanie Gehman

Stephanie Gehman is the marketing manager for Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania. She writes, blogs, speaks and teaches on the full gambit of traditional and emerging marketing touch points. Other posts by »




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  • http://bloggerjet.com/ Tim Soulo

    Hey Stephanie, thanks for this post! I think the community starts growing once you allow your customers to actually affect your product/service. As people see that their questions are being answered, their suggestions are being implemented and the issues they report are being fixed – they start to love your product even more as they become a part of it. This is how you actually nurture brand evangelists :)

  • http://www.colemanmg.com Antonio Coleman

    Stephanie is people know their business and audience, then the rest of the work because easy because you will know exactly what to say to get people to listen and follow through.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  • http://www.ranashahbaz.com/ Rana Shahbaz

    Strategic plan is must.

    At the end of the day tools are only tools and success depends on how do you use it Therefore, for creating a great community you should have a long term plan in place.

    Here is a deal.

    MUST USE THE PLAN :)

  • http://dinodogan.com/ Dino Dogan

    This is a very poignant and timely post for me. My blogging community is growing and my web-platform is blowing up. So I have to constantly stay in touch with the users, listen, engage, respond, etc. It makes me feel great and sleepy all at once :-)

  • http://twitter.com/Dale_Burks Dale B.

    Like!

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

    Thank you for the thoughtful feedback, gentlemen.

    @ranashahbaz:disqus I agree that a strategic plan is a must, having a plan helps not only keep you on track, but assists in benchmarking the traction and growth the community may experience!

    @dinodogan:disqus I too often end up quite sleepy and excited during the explosive growth stages in community development. It comes with the territory!

    @timsoulo:disqus Yes, what you’re suggesting is giving ownership to your product/service consumers and that validation adds to their experience with your brand.

  • http://twitter.com/NutsboutGranola Sarah Lanphier-owner

    Way to go Stephanie!!! Love your stuff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

    @twitter-287785778:disqus Thank you! Anything specific that you liked about the article?

    @twitter-20115387:disqus I appreciate that, thank you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

    Thank you for the feedback!

  • http://aremorch.com/ Are Morch

    Stephanie I really enjoyed and loved this article.

    You really touch on some core principles here that still is important to put emphasis on. People seems to think that Social Media is some kind of magic wand that remove these core principles. I am a fan of Social CRM. But I not 100% sure if the word Social here benefits the CRM part of it.

    Maybe we need to replace it with Networking CRM, You should start with Customer Relationship and then continue work on Customer Care. Customer Service should only come in play if everything else fails. The new element that will properly handle Customer Relationship and Customer Care is Consumer Engagement.

    Cheers.. @Are_Morch:disqus

  • http://twitter.com/NutsboutGranola Sarah Lanphier-owner

    Too many businesses think social media in the cure for all their marketing whoas. I love that fact that you emphasize the need for a solid foundation and fundamental understanding of your business and market.

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

    Are, you’re correct, you have to start with the customer and continue to care and foster their relationship with your business, brand, and product(s)/service(s).

    Social CRM is a layer of the multi-level relationship that businesses (healthy ones) should have with their customers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=755708111 Kurt Frenier

    Hi Stephanie. Great advice, straight in the heart of the matter… back to simple basics for building any (business) relationship if you think about it. Then again, that works. Simplemindedness, focus, deliberate action, and yes … the power of “thank you” really do the trick. Greetings! @kurtfrenier:twitter

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

    Thanks for your comments.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, Kurt. Online community building is quite similar to offline community building. Gratitude and helpfulness should be at the core of both efforts!

  • Michetrab

    Hi Stephanie, thank you very much for your easy but direct to the main points. When I start my business I will take them in deep consideration..meantime I read you and other wise bloggers

  • http://blog.powerserve.net Powerserve

    Can’t stress the ‘know your stuff’ section enough! Knowing every aspect of your business in and out will allow you to have a much more conversational and personal interaction with your customers. Sounding / writing in a relaxed manner will show you know what you’re talking about and an expert they can trust with their business.

    Thanks for the excellent post!

  • http://twitter.com/ConnieMcKnight Connie McKnight

    Stephanie,  Jet Blue sounds like they really know how to find out what their customers want and knows how to appreciate them. Thanks for sharing those tips.

    Knowing your audience and knowing what they need are completely separate points and you explained that really well. Engaging and asking questions is the only way to find out what anyone needs.

    Thanks for the comprehensive list.

    Connie

  • Tim

    Thanks for the education, I really need it, and free too, you just can’t beat that…..Tim

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002385813975 Julian Giraldo

    thank you for the information, actually im looking for an Community Builder Expert, if somebody know please letting me know, this is my website  CRM Software

  • http://twitter.com/n0ellee Marie Noelle Marinea

    That’s a great post! I personnaly find it difficult to get readers to leave a comment. Even by asking them questions, I barely get one comment on each of my post. My blog is still pretty new but I know from my stats that I have readers! I just don’t know WHY they don’t leave any comments! Anyway, I’ll try to apply what’s in your post!

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

     Thank you, you’re very kind.  I wish you the best of luck with your new business endeavor! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

     My pleasure and thank you for the feedback.  I agree knowing one’s business makes a professional a great asset to the customers!

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

    You’re welcome!  What type of questions are you asking to engage your customers and to find out what they need, Connie?

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

     Thanks, Tim.  What aspects of the article do you feel helped you the most?

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

     Thank you for your feedback, Julian!

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

     Thanks for your feedback, Noelle.  Don’t be discouraged, knowing that you have readers is the first step.  It takes time for a community to ramp up!  Please keep me posted on how your reader engagement unfolds!

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

    Thank you!  It’s really important that both enterprise and individual social networkers understand that social media is only one aspect of an overarching strategy for engagement with customers.

  • http://www.listpopular.com/ ListPopular

    Great post. Starting an online community isn’t easy. We’ve done a couple, and find that getting started is very difficult. My advice is to keep at it. It will eventually start to snowball and although no-one may be listening in the beggining, eventually your hard work will pay off. Just don’t quit.  Thanks again for some great ideas and tips. 

  • David

    I hope I know what I am doing as a Cyberspace Community Developer; I have 1000′s of folks visit my Web Community @OurSmallBusinessTV.com. 

  • http://socialmediadiyworkshop.com/ Charlene (@SocialMediaDIY)

    Great post, Stephanie. I especially appreciate your focus on the ongoing process and appreciation. There is so much social media mythology around “if you build it they will come” that I find many business people don’t understand these basic ideas. What a great introduction to community building. Thanks for your contribution to social media myth busting!

  • disqus_UtXnQmRIQ7

    great article!
    I would add one more: Know your competition
    many times I ask startups what is your competition doing? and many have no idea. Find out through others what they are offering  and what they are not, fill the void!.
    “Like” their pages, see what they customers are praising them for and what they are complaninig about, learn from that and do a better job. I could go on and on, but you get the idea

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  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

    Thank you, MediaTown!  And, I agree that it does take a lot of patience and continuous effort to get a community rolling. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

    Charlene, I believe gratitude to be one of the biggest components of a successful enterprise or individual effort.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

    Cecilia, thank you!  I agree.  One of my foundational principles in my own enterprise efforts is to “watch what your competitors are doing, don’t mimic.”  efforts is to “watch what your competitors are doing, don’t mimic.” 

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  • Murray Galbraith

     Hi Stephanie, some great points laid out here at an incredibly poignant moment. I’m just about to start developing my first small business community for a client and it’s great to know that many of the principles I’ve set out are in line with your recommendations.

    Especially wanted to say thanks to Kurt for his comment which is exactly what I was thinking… I’m so grateful that the ‘brand democratisation power’ of social media is finally forcing organisations to think more like their customers and how they would like to be treated in any regular social situation.

    Keep the great articles coming!

    Cheers
    Murray

  • http://www.facebook.com/slgehman Stephanie Fisher Gehman

     Thanks, Murray for sharing that the article hit you at a relevant time.  That’s awesome!   Are there any tips in particular that were particularly timely for you?

  • Cabbiecuisine8

    I am in the process of starting a business.  I will not start my “service” to my customers until July 1st 2011.  Do you think that I should start questioning what they want prior to launching?  I have a service that pretty much everyone in a 25 mile radius from me will benefit from do you think that social marketing will be sufficient marketing initially to start?   

  • Little_Diddle

    I have tried (without success) to make my boss see how beneficial it would be if his site (the one I work for) had a community section where people can interact! I am going to show him this article to see if maybe that will change his tune! (but it probably won’t)

    OH well! 

  • Pastorscott

    Stephanie, Thanks for the link back to iStock for the photos. I’m an Exclusive photographer with iStock and value your addition to ‘our’ community. :)

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  • Drew Frey

    YES! I couldn’t agree more Stephanie. It’s so important to know your audience and nail your overall strategy before you put any resources into an online community. 

    I also see many communities fail because they weren’t given enough time to reach their full potential. It takes months…even years to get something like an online community off the ground and running! So don’t be discouraged if after a few weeks, you’re not seeing your goals met. It’s ok! Thanks!-Drew http://bit.ly/QDi7E2

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