Building a community is a great way for small businesses to engage more fully with their target audiences. This concept is related to brand building, but there are some important distinctions. When you build a community, the people involved (including customers) feel like they are part of what you’re doing. It's part of what has made many of the world’s top companies so successful.
Marketing, Branding and Building Community
It’s important to understand the differences between these three terms. Marketing is a very broad term that can include branding and building community. Usually, however, it refers mainly to advertising. While marketing can help you inform your potential customers about your product’s benefits, there are certain limitations to this approach. People have built up a fairly strong resistance to most forms of advertising, and will often tune out your message.
Building a brand means taking an additional step. Companies that have memorable logos or slogans are good at brand building. Some companies create mascots or characters, such as Ronald McDonald or the Geico lizard, in order to build brand awareness. These symbols can penetrate the consumer's subconscious in a way similar to popular songs. People recognize well-known brands whether they want to or not. It then becomes more likely that they will choose this brand over others, if they have no strong preference.
Building a strong, well-recognized brand, however, is not so easy for small or even medium-sized businesses. Expert brand builders almost always spend millions on things like television commercials, online ads, billboards and other mediums.
Building community, on the other hand, is something that’s much more accessible for newer and smaller businesses. The word “community” can refer to many things, from a small town, to an online forum, to a loosely knit group of people who share certain experiences. If you want to build a community around a business, you will have to focus on the latter definition -- one that emphasizes a shared interest or type of experience. This goes beyond selling products or even building brand loyalty. Here are some of the qualities you must foster if you want to build a community around your brand name.
How to Build a Community
- Emphasize shared values or beliefs. This can be something tangible or more of an aesthetic quality. For inspiration, look at the way fans follow their favorite pop stars, band and sports teams. It transcends any kind of rationality and has more to do with emotions and shared experiences. Think of the positive feelings you want to evoke with your business and focus on these qualities in your promotional efforts. This could involve health, efficiency, excitement, romance or whatever fits with your business.
- Encourage interaction. A community implies social experiences. This can be fostered both online and offline. Social media gives you opportunities to build community through videos, images, contests, reader surveys and other interactive methods. You might also want to participate in online forums and other existing online communities. When doing this, however, don’t overtly promote your business or products. Focus on the shared interest or activity and let people find out about your business through your profile or signature.
- Start locally. Don’t overlook possibilities to build community in old fashioned, offline ways. Sponsoring events, such as fundraisers for local causes, is a good way to do this. Concerts and athletic events such as 5K races are always popular. Organize the event yourself or co-sponsor a larger one. You might also sponsor a local sports team. People are always passionate about their teams, so having your brand name connected to a team is an effective way to build community.
- Send a newsletter. Send either an online or traditional print newsletter -- or both. To build community, make it more than just a promotional vehicle for your business (though it will be this as well). Make your newsletter as helpful and entertaining as possible. Encourage interaction and feedback. Ask your readers questions, and always respond to their questions and comments.
Building a community around your business is not something you can do overnight. It requires you to develop a certain mindset, one that includes your business and customers as part of a shared entity. Each business has to find its own way to do this. Start off by identifying the particular feelings you want to evoke in your customers. This will be the foundation of all your community building efforts.
Shawn Porat is the CEO of Fortune Cookie Advertising, a non-traditional and out of home media placement company selling advertising space within fortune cookies at Chinese restaurants throughout the United States.
Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.