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Building online communities is the way to reach, and keep, customers in the era of Web 2.0. Here’s how to do it. By MIKE PRESTON and AMANDA GOME.

Building online communities is now the main marketing game – giving customers a reason to come to your site, and perhaps contribute to it.

By Mike Preston and Amanda Gome

The web has changed marketing forever. Until recently, reaching out to your customers through advertising or promotion was main game. In the era of Web 2.0, marketing is all about getting your customers to come to you.

The hard part is giving them a good reason to come. Unless you’re lucky enough to be the only player in your market category, it is unlikely that pure demand for what you sell will be enough to get the punters in. Give them the right incentives, however, and all the evidence suggests they will come.

A recent study by the US based Online Publishers Association found internet users spend almost half their online time on content – whether that’s news or information, audio or video – and just over a third of their online time on communication.

Significantly, the study found that over the past four years the average amount of time internet users spend on content has increased by 37%, while time spent on online shopping has actually decreased by 5%.

The lesson? To draw traffic to your website, and attention to your product or service, you need to offer content and communication. In short, you need to make your business the centre of an online community.

So, how do you do it? Here are 10 tips:

Tip #1 – Build a media profile as an industry expert

Whatever you do, become the go-to person in your area, someone who is on top of all the big issues and the latest trends. Establish your reputation as an expert by talking to conference and industry groups about what you do and direct them to your website as a repository of your expertise.

The media is constantly hungry for new stories and new people to talk to. Don’t be afraid to feed the beast: send letters to the press commenting on issues, offer to write opinion pieces and make a list of media contacts to whom you can send punchy, clear media releases on the latest industry news.

And don’t be afraid to say something controversial to get the media’s attention – just make sure your opinions are well thought out and, ideally, independently supported.

Campbell Sallabank, the chief executive of online jobs and networking site LinkMe, says his high media profile allows his brand to punch above its weight against larger competitors.

“People believe editorial, so even though we’re not the market leader in our sector, we want to be seen to be a ‘thought leader’ in the area and setting the agenda. So by appearing regularly in the media we can help ensure that if people are talking about the industry it’s LinkMe that comes to mind,” Sallabank says.

It is also crucial to find and establish a presence on any forums or websites that are relevant to your business. This can’t be about touting your product – you have to be able to contribute genuinely authoritative and interesting information.

Tip #2 – Don’t forget the ‘old media’

Just because you’re trying to build an online community doesn’t mean conventional media can’t give you a boost. After all, TV and newspapers remain the best way to reach a mass audience, whether through appearing the media or by advertising.

Lori Silver, co-founder of online marketing firm Clear Light Digital, says carefully chosen old media advertising can be used to complement an online strategy.

“You need to make sure to hold old media accountable for results in the same way you would online media in terms of reach a clearly identified target market,” Silver says. “TV advertising still has a certain value for a brand, if only because it says you’re big enough to afford be there.”

Tip #3 – Create champions for your product

Find the people who are the champions of your community and get them on board. Contact them individually, have lunch with them and persuade them to make a contribution by writing a blog or participating in your forums.

If you can make opinion leaders in your area passionate advocates for your product, they can be very powerful in attracting eyeballs to your site.

Web 2.0 innovator and Future Exploration Network chairman Ross Dawson says you may only identify your champions through the participation opportunities provided by your site, but once identified it is important to make a connection with them.

“Not only will they bring other people in their orbit to your website, they will bring useful or thought-provoking opinions, which are a vital resources, so champions can be very important,” Dawson says.

Tip #4 – Give your customers a voice

Make it easy for visitors to express opinion on your site. This helps create content, and people will come to your site so they can participate.

This raises a key question: what happens if some of the opinions expressed are critical of your business or your product? Rob Antulov, the founder of sports-oriented online social network 3eep, says business owners should have the courage to allow free-flowing debate.

“If you try and filter out negative comment you’re discouraging participation, and in the long run that can kill the community you’re trying to build,” he says. “You have to be willing and brave enough to open you’re brand to your consumer and let them define it.”

Tip #5 – Make your website a resource

People want content so give it to them. Make your website a place where people with an interest in anything to do with your industry can go to get a wealth of relevant, up-to-date and accurate information.

However, the most valuable content will come from users of your site. Create a blog on an interesting topic and constantly ask readers for their views, or create a forum that allows people to post contributions on issues either raised by you or other readers.

Recruiting site LinkMe has a wide range of content to attract visitors, including video tips for jobseekers, a substantial bank of career related written information, and dynamic information provided to users who have posted a resume on the site about the level of interest displayed by registered employers.

But, Campbell Sallabank says the best content is invariably generated by users. “It’s generally more interesting to readers, it’s free, and because it quickly adds up to an enormous number of pages, it also helps your search engine optimisation hugely,” he says.

Tip #6 – Become an expert at SEM and SEO

Once you have your content-rich, all-interactive site up and running, use search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimisation (SEO) to make sure it can be found. SEO means tweaking your website so that it shows up in searches on engines such as Google; while SEM involves buying adwords that show up in sponsored links alongside organic search results.

Clear Light Digital’s Lori Silver says SEO in particular is crucial to the success of a website.

It’s a given now that sites should be built in an SEO-friendly way from day one; doing it right means a free flow of traffic to your site. SEM is a good tool, but it really should just be something you do while you’re getting your content in place and your SEO right, unless you’re in a very crowded part of the web that makes it difficult to achieve a good organic search ranking,” Silver says.

Tip #7 – Let your customers interact – with your business, and each other

Forums are a crucial way of fostering a community around your brand. Ideally, your website should become a place where people who are connected by a common interest in what you do come to talk and socialise. This, more than anything else, will create content and keep people coming back to your website.

“Interaction is the main drawcard for any website; in effect, it is the payoff you offer visitors for coming to your website,” says Ross Dawson, chairman of Future Exploration Network.

Dawson says you can also give people a stake in your product by giving them the opportunity to participate in the way your business works: a competition to name or choose a colour or style for a product can give people a reason to come to your website, and tell their friends.

For more on this, check out SmartCompany’s top story on Making forums work.

Tip #8 – Constantly work at developing marketing partners

Identify marketing partners who have networks that can be used to help you get your message out and cultivate them. They can be industry groups, consultants in your industry, media, social groups, even friends and family. To be authoritative, they must be able to talk about you without the baggage of a commercial relationship, so they can’t be customers, suppliers or advertisers.

Unlike your champions, however, they will generally not be people who are just fans of your business, so you need to be able to offer them something. Set up a calendar on your site that they can list their events on, put them on your links page or provide them with content from your site – anything to get them to increase awareness of your brand in their networks.

Tip #9 – Break it down and build it out

For businesses in areas that are rich with interest material, it makes sense to break down content, blogs and forums into topics, sub-topics and micro-topics. The more you are able to cater to visitors’ and customers’ specialised interests, the more likely you are to attract and retain their attention.

Conversely, if you don’t feel there is enough in what you do to draw eyeballs to your site, broaden it out to related areas that are of interest.

A great example of this is baby nappy brand Huggies, which despite its mundane product has established an immensely successful forum.

“Huggies’ forum works because it’s not just about nappies – it’s about bringing up your kids and being a mother – finding out what people who buy your product are interested in and forging links between it and your brand,” says Clear Light Digital’s Lori Silver.

Entrepreneur Fred Milgrom, founder of online retailer Zazz.com.au, says that building an online community is crucial to his business model. “Zazz advertises one product a day – that’s it. We can’t do user reviews because that doesn’t suit the business model so we looked for a way to build a community that was relevant to our business.”

Forums were the answer. “They are not an ideal model, and they are difficult to navigate but they are familiar. They also make people feel that you are part of their community rather than being part of ours and that’s very important. So rather than you becoming another supplier you become a tool to assist them.” Zazz gets about 300 comments a day. “Each business is different but it takes about 25 comments a day to for the forum to start to work.”

Forums are also important because once people are part of your community, they give you permission to communicate with them, he says.

Tip #10 – Be relentless

In all but the most exceptional circumstances, building an online community around your product will take long and relentless work. Content constantly needs to be refreshed, media releases prepared and interviews done, new marketing partners or champions sought.

And not only is it a slow build; the growth of online communities is often non-linear, with each successful new innovation causing traffic to jump and then quickly plateau until the next effort.

“There are very few overnight success stories, and many of those won’t be sustainable,” says 3eep founder Rob Antulov. “It’s a long-term exercise, and you need to be prepared to keep working, putting in resources and evolving what you’re doing to keep and grow an online community, just like a real one.”

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