Four Steps for Building an Online Community

It’s the ultimate success story: your business provides a beloved product or service, and now you’re starting to build a loyal base of customers and fans. Pretty great, right?

Don’t rest on your laurels just yet. As your small business attracts a bigger audience, you’ll need to think about how to approach your next step — building an online community.

Why focus on building a community? For starters, an online community can help spread awareness of your brand. Your community can also serve as an invaluable source of feedback, user-generated content, and PR opportunities, according to Inc.

So, how do you build an online community around your brand, and where should you start?

1. Identify your audience

The first step to building an online community is to identify your audience at a fundamental level. Who are they? Where do they live? What are their interests? Are they parents? Retirees? School-age kids?

Your audience isn’t a monolith, but by looking closely at who your audience includes, you’ll begin to identify common threads among your fans and customers.

2. Understand what your audience needs

Once you identify your audience, it’s time to tackle the big question: What do they need?

At the most basic level, your audience loves your product or service because it provides a solution to a problem. Sometimes, understanding your audience’s needs seems pretty straightforward: a person who calls a locksmith needs help getting back into their house, or a patron at the laundromat needs help keeping their t-shirts clean.

But other times, your audience has needs that you may not even recognize — and you may already be meeting those needs without realizing it. If you’re a bakery owner, for example, you’re not just selling cakes so that your customers have a sweet treat to serve at a birthday party; you’re helping create a lifelong memory by providing a one-of-a-kind confection that serves as the centerpiece of the birthday table. Consider both the concrete and abstract ways you provide solutions for your audience.

3. Create engaging content that solves problems

When you understand what your audience needs, you can create content that fills the void. For an auto repair shop, maybe it’s a weekly blog with DIY car maintenance tips. For a bakery, maybe it’s a short-and-sweet guide to throwing a kid’s birthday party. Your content should relate to your business, but it doesn’t have to be limited to the product or service you’re selling; just focus on connecting content back to your audience’s needs.

And don’t think of “content” as only blogs or newsletters. Your social media channels are another venue where you can establish a meaningful connection with your audience, especially if you take advantage of interactive features like polls on Twitter and Instagram to get a feel for what your fans care most about.

4. Engage your audience with your brand’s authentic personality

A personal touch goes a long way toward building trust and brand loyalty. When customers and fans reach out via email or in the comments on your blog, go the extra mile and provide a personal response. This gesture generates goodwill with your audience, and it gives you an opportunity to show the human side of your business — don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. If emojis fit within your brand voice, for example, go ahead and sprinkle in a few smileys.

Aside from blog comments, remember to closely monitor and participate in social media conversations. Don’t delete negative comments or reviews. If you’re faced with criticism, respond to the user with kindness and patience, and offer to follow up offline and address their concerns.

Grow your audience by putting customers first

By thinking critically about who your audience is and how you can help them solve problems, you’ll be well on your way to building an online community that will remain loyal to your brand for years to come.

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