Building an Online Customer Community

by | May 16, 2016 | Customer Service | 0 comments

“A brand community is a business strategy…Online social networks can serve valuable community functions. They help people find rich solutions to ambiguous problems and serendipitous connections to people and ideas.” – Harvard Business Review

Customer-company relationships have seen several changes and the most significant one seems to be that the interactions have moved beyond straightforward business dealings. Customers have ceased to be mere ‘spectators’ and audience, which is why companies now are investing in building an online customer community. With technology affording so many options, it would seem impractical for companies to ignore the opportunities to draw customers close and keep them for a very long time. Why does it no longer suffice for an existing or potential customer to be only an audience? The reason is that there is a huge difference between an audience and a community.

The fact is customers now refuse to be just an audience – that would make the communication with companies one-way, non-social, passive, and non-interactive. Where is power and control in such a scenario? Being a community on the other hand is participative, interactive, has the ability to share and discuss and most important an online customer community has the power to form and change opinions about a company. There is a two-way communication between both ‘parties’ and this facilitates a healthy exchange of ideas and enables ‘social sharing’. It is clear in the current business scenario that staying in touch through online customer community is possibly one of the most effective ways for a company to enhance engagement and interest for its business among both existing and potential customers.

Communicating is all about what a company says and writes about – great content then, is the key to building a close-knit and effective online customer community. The content must revolve around what interests the customers in the ‘community’ – interests outside of the confines of business. The content must be interesting, informative, educational, and most importantly unique – something they would not get anywhere else. Everyone knows that with the birth of the internet, information and content are no longer in short supply. This is precisely the reason that a company must find ways to ‘shine’ through the confusion and be heard above the ‘din’ of the loud ‘information noises’. Coming through as different and irreplaceable would get more people into the ‘fold’ and strengthen your presence among your online customer community, which eventually will ‘spill over’ to the offline world. Create a niche for your business through top class content and watch your competitors ‘eat their heart out’.

Whatever a business does must be done in a consistent and uniform manner. If we look at publishing great content, this too must be a regular and on-going feature – it cannot be erratic and at will. This tends to confuse customers, who would end up believing that your company or business has ‘folded up’ or is no longer interested in engaging customers – none of these opinions would help your business. There is strength in continuity and consistency – they incite trust and eagerness amongst your target and existing customers to know what will come next. If you have built or are looking to build an online customer community, ensure that you use the contemporary styles of content sharing – blogs, v-logs, articles, and other content – distributing them through as many channels and mediums as possible. Most people have a ‘page’ or presence on several sites and a business must select the most preferred ones for their online customer community / communities.

Given that, a business may be limited in its capacity to reach out (for whatever reason), it would be prudent to ensure that the online customer community is able to share, respond, and comment on the content shared by the company. If the content makes a huge positive impression, customers are most likely to ‘share’ it with their friends, family, and even business associates. Of course, it is essential that the company make its content catchy and arresting – starting with an eyeball-grabbing headline and a great introduction – whatever the technique, the content must get attention for it to be liked and spread around.  Adding a Call to Action button is a great way to remind your online customer community and other readers to spread the content – make it easy for readers to share your content and they will. When your online ‘army’ supports a business, it is able to increase its reach and raise awareness for itself in hitherto untapped markets and unknown customer bases. This form of advertisement is more potent than any other type of promotion or publicizing.

Social media – a boon for almost everyone, when used well and judiciously! It would be safe to assume that almost everyone in a company’s online customer community would have a presence on social media too. While some ‘spaces’ may be reserved strictly for business and professional purposes, there are a plethora of ‘sites’ that allow people to share ideas, discuss topics and companies, share content, and take other such actions in an informal ‘setting’ – more like a circle of friends or close associates. Interacting with your online customer community through such sites allows a company to gain insights about its customers outside of business – get to know them on a personal level, which in turn helps in designing products, services, and creating the kind of service they would want. For the online customer community it is a chance to ‘see’ the company in a humane light and interact with them on a one-on-one level. The greatest advantage of engaging your customer community via social media is the opportunity to raise the comfort level and remain in the forefront with them at times that they deem convenient and appropriate.

Your online customer community engaging with your business through various channels expect attention. Given that, a business will grow and with it the customer community, interacting with each could pose a challenge and result in a drop in the attention a business may have been able to give earlier. However, slacking off on paying attention to your online customer community and in the real world could prove detrimental and it is the onus of a company to put in place strategies and measures to ensure that their customers always feel welcomed and important. It must be remembered that customers can make out the difference between genuine care and feigned interest – even the slightest hint of pretence will send them out the door, straight to a competitor. Irrespective of your company’s stature and reputation, customers do not tolerate being told half-truths or companies trying to fool them – if you expect your online customer community to stay true to your business, they must first know that they are getting the real deal.

A happy offline and online customer community will be more than willing to promote your business and gain long-term traction. This would of course begin by appreciating your customer community for their business, acknowledging their achievements, and giving them credit whenever it is due. Customers are more than likely to appreciate your business in return, making the association mutually beneficial and rewarding.

It is no mean task to build a successful and loyal online customer community. However, a company that is able to do this consistently would gain for itself a powerful ‘army’ of supporters and a team of enablers. This online customer community can potentially guarantee the success of a business when they receive the best service from the company they associate and will empower it by making it known to as many people as possible. Your online customer community can be your most powerful ally or your most dreaded foe – it is your responsibility to choose.

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