Joining or creating online communities can be one of the most effective ways to increase your business’s visibility in the digital realm. When someone has a problem, more often than not they seek help online.
For example, if someone has a weird rash on their hand, before visiting the doctor 25% of people will Google their symptoms to find a quick solution. Looking to plan a 3 week holiday in Italy? Many users will flock to travel communities where like-minded travellers suggest the best hotels, sights and tips to avoid scams based on their own experiences.
Humans are social beings, we require a sense of belonging, with our busy work lives the Internet has become the ideal place to socialize with others.
There is an online community for just about everything, each containing a group of people who share similar interests.
In today’s article I’m going to show how businesses can create and get involved with online communities to maximize visibility.
Rule: a community is a place to share – not to sell
A community is a place where people come together to share ideas and information.
If your neighbor asked how you managed to get rid of all the weeds in your garden, you wouldn’t charge them a fee for the information. You’d happily tell them because you both live in the same area and are have a bond as neighbors and friends.
An online community is no different.
Always remember this when getting involved with any online community.
They are a place to share ideas and give advice, it’s not another channel to aggressively sell your product or service.
Some online communities won’t allow businesses to promote and will ban or remove them for doing so. If you decide to break the rules it will only negatively brand your business which defeats the purpose of joining communities.
Instead, think of online communities as a way to brand and build authority for your business, answer questions, provide advice on your areas of expertise and you’ll slowly build yourself as an authority and the go-to person for that group.
Naturally this will lead to people wanting to know more about you and your business.
Unlike traditional advertising where content is pushed to audiences, leveraging online communities is more subtle and uses the pull approach as people are coming to the community to solve their issues.
Communities help build better customer relationships
Upon waking up, we’re more likely to read a Whatsapp message from our friend then an email from business XYZ promoting their new clothing line.
We’re more likely to comment on a friend’s Facebook update then we’re to share a business’s product advert.
Why? Because humans value friendship and prioritize that above everything.
But here’s the cool thing about communities, you can build friendships with users, fans and customers in your industry. Apple are one of the biggest brands in the world and they have support communities for their customers with experts on hand to answer any questions:
If you spend time in any of their communities, you’ll see customers with thousands of posts interacting daily on their site helping others.
Yes, Apple customers are helping other Apple customers with their problems for free!
Friendships between business-customer and customer-customer can be built around your business’s product or service online.
If you can successful build your own community, customers are less likely to use your competitors increasing their customer lifetime value with you.
But okay I get it, not every business has millions of customers like Apple allowing them to build their own community.
If you’re a small or local business, how do you find communities online to engage in?
Start With Facebook
Facebook is one of the best places to find and join online communities. Using their search options you can find communities based on locations, interests, group size and more known as Facebook groups.
For example, here’s a Facebook group called New England Home And Garden Design with 443 members in Plymouth, England, seeking home and garden advice:
If you were a landscaper or builder in the Plymouth, this group is a goldmine of potential customers. As an expert in home and garden design, you could answer everyone’s questions and over time build a reputation as the go-to expert.
You could even get away with writing blog posts based on the most common problems people in the group face (as long as the content is focused on providing them value and not selling your services).
By dispensing quality advice people in the group will recommend you to their friends and may even ask for your services. There are groups on Facebook for just about everything, be sure to read the description of each group as many allow businesses to join, but do not allow them to post links to services.
Look for smaller groups of around 400-3,000 active members to make the most impact as it’s easier to leave a lasting footprint. Larger groups of 5,000 or more requires you to invest more time as posts are being updated all the time and not everyone will see your comments.
Create Communities Using #Hashtags
Hashtag communities are people who share or discuss a topic by placing the relevant hashtag in their content. Brands will often create their own hashtag and ask customers to upload content using it.
Starbucks has #Whitecup which is used by their customers on a daily basis:
All Starbucks has to do now is to type #WhiteCup into any social media search engine and they’ll be shown all content updates from customers. Being able to reply to customer interactions is streamlined (it’s all in one place) and increases the chance of customers engaging with one another who search for the same hashtag.
The added benefit of hashtag communities is the free user generated content your business receives. This free content social proofs your business and with the user’s permission, you can use it in your own marketing material going forward.
Social media search tools
Studies estimate that there are around 1.9 billion active mobile social media users in 2016:
It’s simply not practical for a business to spend hours each day searching numerous online communities for mentions of their business, industry, product or keywords.
Luckily you don’t have to.
Thanks to tools such as Hootsuite, Social Mention, Mention and many more you can receive updates of people talking about your business or industry online in a centralized location.
These tools search online communities in real-time relaying you conversations, topics and links for you to get involved right away. Perhaps someone has a question about your product on a forum, your answer may convert them into a customer.
Maybe there’s been a major news update in your industry and consumers are confused on their next move, replying in real-time to answer everyone’s questions will increase your visibility and authority.
Is real-time engagements important?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: research has shown that 42% of people who reach out to a business on Twitter expect a response within 60 minutes. Facebook has started to reveal how long it takes a business to reply to a question along with their response rate:
With unlimited choice, consumers demands have risen. They don’t want to wait 2 days for a reply or a week for you to message them back via email, they want answers now.
Here’s what consumers are likely to do if a business responds to their questions in a timely manner:
Real-time engagements also humanizes yours business and provides it with an extra dimension. Unlike a stock email reply which consumers anticipate before even opening a customer service email, real-time engagements shows consumers that there is someone listening to them.
As the graph above reveals, this will lead to consumers buying more of your items and referring you to their friends and family.
Social media is all about the now, people are discussing trending topics in real-time and you have to integrate that into your own social media strategy. To grow or validate your business in a community, you have to be there when others are talking, replying to a comment a week after the discussion started is not acceptable and actually makes your business appear lazy and uninterested in its community.
It may not be realistic to sit one of your employees in front of social media listening tools to reply to comments as they come, but once a day at a certain time they can spend an hour or so interacting with others and helping out.
That’s all it takes, an hour a day, sometimes even less.
The key to building the right kind of visibility in online communities is through value. Don’t hate on your competitors, don’t instantly pitch your products, don’t reply using stock templates – just be helpful.
Answer their questions, if you find a great news story that the community will enjoy reading or watching, post a link even if it’s to another website that doesn’t benefit your business.
Online communities heavily influence users into using certain business or advocating to certain brands. They have become an inexpensive (they are all usually free to join) way to build online visibility for businesses with minimal costs.
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