How to Build an Online Community for Your Small Business

These days attracting customers to your brand means building an online community. That requires maintaining an active presence on industry-specific online forums and social media sites--and occasionally taking the conversation offline, too.

Having previously discussed email list building strategies as a means of reaching new prospects and turning them into customers, it's now time to look at the benefits on community-building, both online and offline.

These days, most people think of "social media" when they hear "community building," but forums, membership sites and old-fashioned meet-ups are also good places to promote your brand, share your expertise and attract customers.

Membership Sites: Exclusive Resources, for a Fee

One way of building an online community is by creating a membership site, where you charge a membership fee in exchange for exclusive resources that can range from tutorials to software programs. Just make sure the information that you'll provide is unique, has high value and is unavailable elsewhere for free.

You can take several approaches with pricing. One is a fixed price, paid up front, for one year of membership. Another is a fixed monthly price. A third option is a low introductory price that will then roll over into a monthly fee.

How-to: Build an Online Business From Scratch

Tips: Manage Your Personal Online Brand: 3 Must-Do Steps

Using a monthly rate as opposed to a yearly fee will ease sticker shock. For example, a yearly price of $199 could turn off potential customers, but a monthly fee of $19.95 may not—and with the latter fee, you would actually earn more over the course of a year. Monthly rates also make subscribers less likely to cancel their membership, since they don't see the larger $199 fee recurring once a year. ClickBank has some tools that will allow you to create a recurring fee structure for a membership site.

Founderfly

One site that takes a low-end approach is FounderFly, a site for online marketers that offers videos, marketing tools and forums where members can interact, ask questions and share resources. Initially, you can test the site for a three-day, $1 trial; after that membership is $19.95 per month.

MemberGate

Another membership site option is MemberGate, a program for managing membership or subscription sites. MemberGate itself is a subscription-based service ($197 per month with a three-month minimum) with features that include integrated shopping carts, credit card processing, discussion groups and support for numerous membership plans. Businesses that use MemberGate include publishers, trade associations, hospitality firms and nonprofits.

WishList

Finally, if you're comfortable with WordPress, you could WishList, which will let you integrate a membership component into your WordPress site.

WishList, which has a one-time cost of $97 for a single-site license and $297 for unlimited domains (with updates available for an additional $47 per year), also offers shopping cart and autoresponder integration, flexible membership options and affiliate program integration, as well as secure RSS feeds.

Forums: Learn From, Share With Peers

Warrior Forum

Online forums offer an opportunity to learn from and share your expertise with peers. The Warrior Forum, a popular destination for Internet marketers, gives users a place to discuss topics such as coding and marketing and to share special offers with the community. The idea here is not only to make sales but to entice people to sign up for your list; once they do, you can market more expensive products to them.

A useful technique for communicating with potential customers in an online forum is using signature files, which typically includes text and images about a product or service and a call to action. Here's an example:

Signature File

If you participate in numerous forums, this is a great way to increase your visibility and generate interest in your brand. A quick online search will point you to the forums that apply to your market—or you can ask your peers to recommend the sites they frequent.

Social Media: You Can't Build an Online Community Without It

Social media sites are an obvious target for any brand--large or small--trying to build a community. Sites are free to join, so membership is huge, but that also makes the sites breeding grounds for social media scams, so small business owners need to keep online security basics in mind as they increase their social networking endeavors.

Helping people on LinkedIn can also help you build a following. By working with freelance writers on several LinkedIn forums, I built a list of 70 new subscribers in a single week. I did this by answering questions and directing users to a squeeze page where, they signed up for my email list in exchange for a free report.

Related: 5 LinkedIn Features You May Not (But Should) Know About

Another good community building strategy is to build a community—that is, to form a LinkedIn Group. Launched in 2009, LinkedIn Groups are communities based on common interests, experiences and affiliations. If you are willing to put the time and effort into cultivating a group related to your professional expertise, a LinkedIn Group, over time, could become a significant source of contacts and revenue.

Facebook is popular among many marketing professionals for promoting their products and services as well as participating in Facebook Groups that pertain to their interests. These groups can have quite a wide reach, too; the Internet Marketing Super Friends, for example, has more than 4,200 members.

As for promoting and building your business on Facebook, services such as Get 10,000 Fans and FB Profit Method may be worth a look. Tread carefully, though, and avoid any service through which you "buy" followers, since those new followers could be fake Facebook accounts, spammers or worse. It's better to have a small, active and loyal group of followers than a large number of followers who aren't real.

Tips: How to Spot a Social Media Scam

How-to: How and Why to Launch a Business Presence on Twitter

The same goes for Twitter, which is also popular for community-building, posting information about products and services and sharing information about your particular industry. Quality followers who will engage with you (and your followers) are better than fake, spam or porn accounts.

There are a couple other ways to use Twitter to for branding and community building. One way is to have conversations, or Tweet Chats, on a regular basis about a particular topic. All you need to do is designate a hashtag—a phrase with a # in front of it—set a time and spread the word. Another way is to schedule an offline event, known as a Tweetup, during which nearby Twitter followers can meet you in real life at a coffee shop, restaurant or other spot where it's easy to have a casual conversation.

Additional social media sites to consider include Pinterest, an "online scrapbook" site that recently unveiled Pinterest Business Pages, and Google Plus, a social networking site tightly integrated with other Google products such as Blogger, Picasa and YouTube.

Tips: 14 Ways to Use Pinterest for Business

As you use various online marketing tools to build email lists and communicate with your customers, you'll start to see support for social networking sites. With iContact, for example, you can send a message to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn followers in addition to your list.

As you can see, community building requires legwork both online and off. Depending on your business model, one or more of the strategies listed here—likely, a combination of several—will work best for you. Be sure to research the websites and strategies discussed here before you get started, both to use the tools more effectively and to avoid costly or embarrassing mistakes.

Nathan Segal has been working as a freelance writer, photographer and artist for 14 years. He is based in British Columbia, Canada. Reach him via email or visit his website. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

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