Turning your customers into a community

There’s nothing better than turning your customers into a community of fans. That is the dream of most companies and bloggers on the net. It’s what has turned Facebook from a “reunion set-up” site to a community building juggernaut.  With a community of fans comes more sales, more feedback, more interaction and fun. What could be better than that?

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to do. 

What makes it hard is many companies want to create these “communities” on their own terms. For instance many groups who see a bunch of chatter on Twitter about them, will open up forums for those people to congregate and continue their “Chatter”.  Most of the time, however, the attempt never catches on while the chatter on Twitter remains.

A local Chamber of Commerce group here is always trying to get their members to come to special “education” sessions, or networking meetings – but despite their membership of 300 businesses only a handful attend each event. Are they fighting against the grain?

Likewise a large internet marketing conference series has had a hard time getting their forum to catch on within the membership – despite lively conversations happening everyday on Twitter, Skype and Facebook. Is the forum lacking some “draw”, something exclusive or it is just inconvenient?

So what is the key to turning customers into a community?

There are a couple trends among groups who’ve created successful communities. The first is “be first”. The Virtual Assistant Group VANetworking created a group on LinkedIn for Virtual Assistants. Without knowing the group was flourishing, VANetworking had amassed a group of 7,000 VA’s in their LinkedIn group.  They had merely created the place for a community to exist – and voila! it grew.

Another successful “community” is the type Lynn Terry has put together with her membership forum. While chatter about Lynn’s teachings is rampant on Twitter, and comments on her blog remain very active she was able to move that to the forum. From an outsider’s perspective it appears that the secret to her forum is the access she grants of” herself to the members. The “draw” is what you can learn from Lynn and the community comes from the shared experience.

Lastly, take advantage of the community that is already present. If there’s a bunch of chatter on Twitter, instead of trying to move that natural speak to a forum, why not join them there? The use of hash tags on Twitter enables “communities” of people to search for others in the same group.

In another case, I was recently involved in an online swim group where the focal point was a Google Doc Spreadsheet people updated every day with their stats. The head of the group did have a separate forum set up, but it didn’t get used much by our group’s members. What we did was leave “comments” in the spreadsheet. Instead of asking us to move our comments to the forum, the organizer began commenting himself and leaving comments. Instead of trying to remake the community – he joined it.

As to the Chamber of Commerce group, perhaps a community isn’t what members are looking for. Perhaps businesses have joined the Chamber to put the sticker in their window? Perhaps they have joined the Chamber to put the symbol on their business card.  Perhaps the community the Chamber needs to build is not one represented by a forum or attendance, but through the reputation of its efforts.

Not every group has the ability to create a community.

Think about your cable guy, your plumber or your banker. Can you see yourself actively participating in a forum on their websites?  For most people the answer would be no. But that doesn’t mean these groups can’t harness the idea of community another way. There are a myriad of ways local businesses can get their customers and fans together without the internet.

If you’ve seen a great example for us to learn from, please leave a comment below. We love success stories.

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