Whether you post on Facebook, tweet your latest news, or share videos on YouTube, social media is an excellent and proven way to connect with potential and existing customers. But it's not the only option. Online communities for small businesses provide a powerful platform for small business owners yearning to build brand awareness.
Small Business Online Communities Vs. Social Media
An online community platform gives small business owners tight control over design and branding. Rather than uploading the company logo to a Facebook page, for example, an online community gives small business owners an opportunity to create a space they can make their own.
"It's designed to look like their brand with their logo and all of their colors," says Brian Pontarelli, founder and CEO at Inversoft, an online community platform provider. That keeps the community consistent with the company's other branding. Plus, a branded online community for small business "lets [small business owners] control the messages and the reach, and it really draws their customers into their brand," says Pontarelli.
That pull becomes increasingly important, because social media channels continue to tweak their pricing tiers and their functionality—which potentially limits how many people actually see your ad or increases the cost of connecting with customers.
Another fundamental difference between a business-driven online community and the bevy of social media channels that small businesses use to stay in touch with followers: longevity. Gili Guri-Mill, director of product marketing at Jive Software , a community solution provider, says a small firm can certainly put an ad on Facebook and find new leads.
"But in a way it's a one-off, and that's a problem," she explains. You may post an ad, but then what? "You try to track the lead, but you don't have all the money in the world to continue buying online ads."
As each campaign fades into the background, the business loses the customer engagement it hoped to establish. A small business online community supports the longer-term goal of building those connections and maintaining them throughout the customer lifecycle.
Customer Engagement & Online Communities for Small Business
The content and interactions in a small business online community create a strong environment for increased customer interest and long-term loyalty. As consumers shop around for products and services, a vibrant online community offers in-depth information for research and a way for potential customers to ask questions and to receive feedback from people who already purchased the item.
"Once people buy a product, you want the engagement to continue," says Guri-Mill. A good engagement strategy keeps customers coming back to ask questions and to provide feedback. Happy customers may also become brand advocates and post positive, supportive information within the online community. "It brings more brand-awareness and an opportunity to gain more leads."
While small business owners want increased engagement and brand awareness, those aren't the primary reasons behind the decision to build a small business online community. Instead, the driving factor is the amount of data generated by bringing customers into a brand-controlled environment.
According to Pontarelli, the real value comes from every user profile created within the community. All that data lets small business owners connect the dots. If, for example, you own "an ecommerce site and you leverage good user-management practices—such as a single sign-on tool—you can track what your users do."
Perhaps they visited the community; they entered the support system, and then purchased a product. "You can correlate all that data," says Pontarelli. "That's very challenging to do when you're using Facebook."
Maintaining Online Communities for Small Businesses
Maintaining and growing a dedicated small business online community may require more effort and attention on your part than a traditional social media platform, but that doesn't mean it needs to be time- or resource-intensive. Guri-Mill says that much of the content that a small business online community needs already exists.
"You probably have a data sheet or a new webinar recording, or you may have a new ad you posted to Twitter," she explains. "You can use all of that content and centralize it in one place—your small business online community." Business owners rarely start from scratch when they first launch an online community platform, and the content schedule they followed previously can feed the community as it grows.
Business owners may want to assign an internal person as the community manager. "This is the main person, and the entire job centers on building the community, getting people talking, and engaging them," says Pontarelli.
This person oversees the content published within the community, posts questions—such as what kind of updates people would like to see to a particular product the business offers—and answers questions posed by community members.
"That kind of interaction really drives the community forward, and it keeps people coming back," says Pontarelli. The community manager also acts as the community moderator, dealing with disruptive members and culling spam posts. That keeps the community civil and ensures that customers receive the support and engagement they need.
Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For The Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from foodservice to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.
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