Online communities can help you stay connected to your customers as well as promote your business in a time when many companies are struggling. All around the world, people are sheltered in place due to coronavirus. Since they can't go to work, school, houses of worship, restaurants, and sports games, they are now turning to their main source of education, entertainment, and connection—the internet.
As a business owner, you should be investing in building online communities to ensure the success of your brand throughout this crisis and beyond. Here's how.
What are online communities?
Online communities are places where you gather with likeminded people and talk about shared interests. They exist on social media, business' websites, online forums, and more.
In the most effective online communities, "all members give something of themselves, be it advice, a personal anecdote or the like," says Diana Hickey, the founder and CEO of Cuebey. "That's a bit harder to come by than passive 'likes' on social media, but once you have it, you're golden."
Why are online communities important?
During this time, it's crucial to build online communities for customer engagement. Even if your physical location is shut down, you can remain in close contact with potential and current customers this way, according to Tiffany Allen, founder of Boss on a Budget.
"It's a great way to get a pulse check on where your customers are," she says. "If the business owner has done the work to build relationships, they can easily reach out to ask what their customers' current pain points/issues are, beta test potential new products and get quick feedback, and also launch new products in response to COVID-19."
Should your business be on every social platform?
There are many different platforms out there, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit, Slack and Snapchat. Figure out where your colleagues and customers are hanging out already and then build online communities there.
Jennifer McGinley, CEO of JLM Strategic Communications, says, "I began with LinkedIn, added Twitter, then FB and Instagram. I started slowly so I could really learn what content resonated with each platform. It really needs to be tailored to each audience and the purpose of each platform."
Hickey points out that while large social media platforms reign supreme when it comes to finding new potential customers, if you already have a following, "you may want to create a deeper, more meaningful community using community forums on your website and other online tools designed to help foster deeper connections."
Once you decide which platforms you need to be on, it's time to start building online communities. These three guidelines will help you on your journey.
1. Solve a problem
One of the best customer engagement strategies in online communities is to solve a problem for your members. According to Hickey, if there is a nagging issue that you have, you can bet that at least some of your followers also have it.
"By providing a solution to those problems, not only are you being of service, [but] you'll also find that members of your community will start sharing their solutions, and before you know it, you've got a lively discussion going where community members are sharing ideas and thoughts, and slowly getting to know one another," Hickey says.
2. Don't spam them
Your online community should not be the place where you constantly push products and services. Otherwise, people will leave pretty quickly, since they didn't join just to see advertising.
Ben Wehrman, who runs the online community Green Investor on Reddit says, "If you bombard them with spammy posts that are clearly advertising your service or product, they will leave. It's much better to nurture their presence, and provide great value to them for a long period of time before you begin to sprinkle in links to your business."
3. Engage with members
Your online communities are not where you can go and post something and then leave. Instead, continue to engage with the post, as well as the posts from others you value and admire, according to McGinley.
You could comment on other people's posts as well as reply to comments on your own, for instance. "It's important to create a community where your audience believes their voice matters," says Gina Moccio, founder of Babe Crafted. "If they feel unsupported or like no one cares about what they have to say, they're not going to comment and post. But if they feel cared about, then they'll excitedly share."
Hickey believes that you should get your followers to engage with each other, too, because you'll "create a genuine community where information and knowledge can be shared through you, not just from you."
Nobody knows how long shelter in place orders are going to last. If you want your business not just to survive, but also thrive right now, building online communities can provide an outlet for doing just that.
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