Networking is the key to success in the digital world, and online communities are based on this idea. They allow for the interconnecting of people that share similar interests, whether for business or leisure and recreation. These online communities provide a highly focused target that enable marketers to be precise with messaging and touch the exact market they are looking for.

Online communities are

Social networks, forums and interactive platforms are considered online communities. Social networks including Facebook, LinkedIn and Slideshare, let users post brief updates to their profiles and interact with a specific group of individuals they are ‘connected’ to. Forums like Digitalpoint and phpBB are used for more open online communities that encourage group discussion from the overall site membership. Forums tend to bring strangers with similar interests together where as social networks digitally connect people that are already acquainted with each other. But online communities aren’t only about sharing what you had for dinner or letting everyone know you worked out today. There are sites like Github, an online community for software developers, that allow professionals to virtually collaborate, or Quora, a question and answer site also qualify as online communities.

Marketing benefits

Brands know the benefits of marketing in and around those communities. The first benefit is reaching out to audiences. Online communities generate a lot of online traffic and their membership bases give brands instant access to these highly segmented potential customers.

The second benefit is the ease of interaction. These days overt sales tactics such as spamming a forum with posts related to your product are no longer accepted methods of targeting members of an online community. A brand can pitch its product/service using subtle techniques, but being upfront about it is a clear NO. Online communities tend to operate on an advertising based revenue model, however it must balance user experience against how overt and aggressive the marketers it allows in can be.

The links you see in the guise of references on forums and QA sites are actually meant for brand promotion. The URL that appears at the end of a contributors video on YouTube is where the video provider wants the viewers to land. They are all examples of marketing craftsmanship, only the user doesn’t necessarily recognize them as so.

Building an online community

Some brands have become proactive enough not to depend on already existing online communities and set up their own. Building a community online is undoubtedly a great idea if you know all the “how-tos”, which include:

Community vision

Make sure the community has a vision users can easily relate to and also reflects the theme of your brand. For example, if you sell fashion accessories and set up a forum for car owners, the community theme wouldn’t match that of your brand.

A community vision is also the community purpose. Why has the community been created? The vision behind a community can be as simple as bringing like-minded people together for discussion, or to connect people looking for people to share offline experiences (like dating, or hobbies).

Here’s an example. One of our clients is a custom manufacturer of sport fishing boats. One their site, they have a forum. They encourage not just owners, but anyone else that shares a love of boating and fishing to join. This community not only brings people together of similar interests, it also reinforces the brand for those that maybe in the market for a new boat, as well as driving traffic to their online ship store.

So it is important to meet two conditions when developing a vision for your online community; make the vision compatible with the theme of your brand and secondly, ensure that community members will want to share the vision.

Content is key

Content plays a major role in the success of an online community. Informative content can push leads deeper into the sales funnel. Community members want information that they consider important. Brands can provide them such information. This is how, a strong connection between a brand and its audiences can be formed.

Don’t try to sell them anything, rather work on the connection as that’s the prerequisite to turn casual users or blog readers into loyal customers. Let’s use our boat manufacturer as an example to better explain; imagine you build boats, and have set up an online community for boat lovers.

If you offer information on how boats are build, the materials used in the building process, the brands of materials and motors available, how the required skills are acquired, etc., then your community is providing a value added resource all fans of boating can turn to. Once you have the captive audience, you can inform them about how your brand of boats can make time on the water more fun, safer, etc.. It is through this content that you can capture their attention and persuade them to buy your product.

Demographic details

Birds of a feather flock together. Two community members having similar demographic characteristics have greater chances to bond than two members having different characteristics. Make sure you acknowledge this.

You can group users under demographic categories such as age group, ethnicity, educational qualification, employment status, etc. This will make it easy for them to interact with each other. Social media demographic insights are immensely important for brands. As community members interact, you can analyze their interaction and gather such insights.

No advertisement

Advertisers look for online communities that are frequented by a strong user base. They know to put their advertisements on sites with the most ‘eyeballs’, but ads interfere with the user-experience, which is why, it’s wise for online communities to avoid them when possible.

Now you’ve set up the community for your own promotion, not for the promotion of another brand or commercial entity. If you want to offer advertising space to outside companies, be sure they are for complimenting products or services and not anything too similar to your own.

Brand benefit

Don’t expect results overnight. Wait patiently because it takes time for community experience to turn into sales. With time, however, the online community you’ve founded will give you positive results.

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