Online Communities - Seize the Power of Crowds
Take a look around your local community and make a list of the truly superior small businesses — the ones you trust so thoroughly that you’d recommend them to your friends, your boss and even your in-laws. Chances are your list is fairly short.
Now think about all the ads for local businesses that fill your newspaper, clutter your doorstep and mailbox, and reach you in dozens of other ways. How many of those businesses are on your list? More than likely, not many. In fact, you’ll probably find that the most heavily advertised local businesses are among those you never plan to patronize, no matter how many 50 percent off specials you’re offered.
So, how do you go about finding a top-quality business when you need something? Almost surely, whether you need a new roof on your house, a web company for your business or a restaurant for a Saturday night out, you ask for a recommendation from a knowledgeable and trustworthy source. That’s why online community building is important for e-commerce businesses.
Community and the web: A perfect fit
Communities and websites are a good match because they have a great deal in common. Both are built on two powerful concepts: trust and connectivity.
A community is essentially an association, a set of individuals and organizations with the common purpose of joining forces for mutual benefit. These entities are strengthened through their connection to one another. The community serves as the core entity that all the individual companies trust to act in the best interests of all of them. Through their cooperation and connectivity, the individuals become a more powerful force of one, using the combined resources of the association.
This dynamic extends to the web. Building an effective web presence is about establishing a strong, credible and professional online brand. Functionality and features serve to support this, not the other way around. Here, a community creates a connection between a business, its industry, and its current and potential customers. For this reason, site users must implicitly trust the entities presented by the websites.
Online community benefits
The creation of and active participation in a web-based community automatically gives e-tailers and small businesses the chance to cast their nets further and capture bigger shares of their markets.
Online business communities also offer increased credibility to small e-retail businesses, whose brands may otherwise be totally unknown or mistrusted. Just think of what membership in the Better Business Bureau — which is basically a business community with specified and agreed service levels and conduct for its members — means to small businesses that have- its endorsement.
So, how do small business owners build a sense of community around their own online businesses? The best and easiest way is with the following two-pronged approach:
- Create an internal community strategy. This involves offering community-based tools on business owners’ websites. These can range from blogs, chats and forums to creating and updating specific knowledge bases and informational resources, such as links to complementary companies and associations. The idea is for business owners to create their websites as areas for information, discussion and reference for prospective customers.
- Create an external community strategy. This requires joining and participating in business communities. While there are many online networking groups for most industries today, business owners can start their own groups and invite key members of their industries to join.
Business owners, however, must be willing to invest the time to build relationships with members — even one on one. This isn’t a quick fix communications strategy. The more active and critical business owners become part of the dialogue in their industries, as they play a more central role. And this will certainly deliver business benefits through the communities in which they’re active members.
But keep in mind that using community and social media sites shouldn’t be the only way to attract and retain customers. They should be part of your entire marketing mix, alongside newsletters, phone calls, seminars or partnering.
Daniel Meyerov is founder and CEO of OnlyBusiness.com, a Los Angeles-based business platform and community that provides small businesses with web-based tools and services. Reach Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org.