I have been managing online communities for 12 years and when I use the term “online community,” I use it in two ways:
- A specific, hosted online community that people visit and use, like the SitePoint Forums, Flickr, BritishExpats.com, Etsy and ScubaBoard.com.
- A group of people who, using the internet, engage around a specific topic, interest or company. For example, the online community of Disney fans, who talk about and/or follow the brand on forums, Twitter, Facebook and on spaces that the brand controls – and even those it does not.
When you talk about online community for small business, you are generally talking about that second definition – or, at least, that is where you start. Your online community is the group of people who are utilizing, sharing and talking about your services or products. But what does an online community mean for small businesses and how can you harness the power it has to offer?
Where To Start
It can be smart to listen for a little while and see what people are saying about you (if anything) and where they are saying it. Set up Google Alerts for your business name. Google will then notify you whenever they index a webpage where you are mentioned. If you have a business name that is generic or shared by many, include your city or some other identifying detail in the search term to help minimize unrelated results.
If you have a website, use your analytics software to view your website referrers, the webpages where a link to your website has been posted and clicked by someone. In other words, you want to see where your traffic is coming from. Sometimes, your traffic referrers will clue you into websites where you are being talked about. If you don’t have any website statistics software in place, Google Analytics is a free, widely used solution that is easy to install.
You may discover niche communities and other social sites that you were otherwise unfamiliar with. A recent study released by Jason Falls found that 90% of the trackable online discussions around banking occurred in online forums. In talking with Jason, I learned that forums ranked as #1 or #2 for most sectors.
You wouldn’t think it because of the hype that is thrown behind Facebook, Twitter and other buzz brands of the moment, but niche communities can be just as, if not more, powerful than those platforms for certain businesses.
What To Say
A lot of business owners suffer from a type of shyness or writer’s block. “I don’t have anything to say or share! I’m boring.” It’s an understandable feeling, but we can cut through it.
To put it simply, businesses build online community around 3 things: quality, culture and appreciation.
Quality means doing good things and offering quality products and service. Apple has one of the strongest, most engaged communities – even though Apple is not known for being the most social company. The point isn’t to model yourself after Apple, the point is that their quality products drive the conversation that occurs online. If you sell garbage, you can only go so far.
Great, quality engagement is also part of this. An example is a customer asking a question on Twitter and getting an answer on Twitter, as opposed to being told to go to some contact form or call a phone number. Unless the information being exchanged is of a sensitive nature, people like to be helped in the manner that they initiated the conversation. Copying and pasting a standard “Thank you for your inquiry, please contact us at (252) 555-5555 for assistance” message to everyone who asks you a question is not quality engagement.
Culture is about understanding what makes you and your audience unique. ThinkGeek is a great example here. Read their Twitter stream (be sure to check the replies) and you’ll see a healthy dose of both culture and helpfulness. They understand who they are – geeks selling geeky stuff to other geeks – and they fully embrace that. They don’t try to be something else.
People sometimes chase numbers in an effort to grow and turn themselves into something outside of their core business. Small businesses need focus. Numbers won’t always be on your side, but you can always win at culture.
Share what makes your business unique. Give people behind the scenes access. If you make stuff, let people watch you make it. If you sell other people’s stuff, share the cool new products that you have in tweets, videos and blog posts. Make sure it fits your tone and your culture. A candy company acts different than a bed and breakfast, which acts different from a grocery store. But, they all have stories to tell.
Finally, appreciation. Thanking people is important. Being present, making sure that you appreciate people and that those people know it.
But it goes beyond that, as well. Appreciation is helping people and it is sharing the spotlight with others.
Use your online community spaces to share good stuff and to share attention with people who are engaging with your offerings in a cool way.
This could be reviews of your products, pictures that people post of them or videos where people are enjoying what you create.
Customer Service And Engagement
When it comes to responding to and talking with people, if you are committed to offering good customer service, that commitment and how you treat your customers should translate to the web.
As a small business owner, your greatest weapon is a strong relationship with your customers.
There are areas where you may not be able to compete with a larger company or a chain – namely, price. Potentially selection and convenience. But you better believe that you need to compete on how you treat the customer and on building a rapport with your customers. If you don’t compete on price, convenience, selection or customer service, customers have no reason to come back to you.
I run a small business. But, personally, I am no more inclined to support a small business than I am a big business. I am inclined to support the business that offers me the greatest value for my money and/or the best, most hassle free experience. In other words, I support the business that treats me the best, no matter how big or small they are. It amazes me when I run into small business owners that are jerks. Worst of all are the entitled jerks who don’t compete, but expect you to give them money simply because they are local. Have fun, jerk. Small, locally owned businesses run by jerks tend to die off.
Being a jerk in this day and age is amplified. If you’re a jerk online, you could kill your small business because you are the business.
When a customer service representative at a national chain does something crazy, the employee can be fired or reprimanded and the company can apologize. When an employee at a restaurant chain messes with someone’s food, the employee can be fired and the company can apologize. In other words, the company can reasonably distance itself from the actions.
If the owner of a small business does something crazy, they can’t distance themselves from the action. They did it!
I believe that the social web is well suited to smart small business owners that understand that relationships are all they have. This is something that all great small business owners know – so, in my view, the social web is made for these people. The good that these people do can be amplified online because the good is often done in front of others.
Don’t Put All Of Your Eggs In Someone Else’s Basket
While the social web is great and all, it is important to remember that Facebook owns facebook.com/you, Twitter owns twitter.com/you and the platform you are on owns the presence – not you. That isn’t to say that, if you are ethical, Facebook, Twitter or another platform will simply cut your access off. But, you don’t want one party having all of the power over you, either.
It’s important to build your own lists. That doesn’t mean you launch your own social network or forum (unless it makes a ton of sense – usually, it won’t). It just means that you build your own customer lists enabling direct access to the people who love what you do. Have your own outlets that you control, like an email newsletter, a blog that you host, etc. so that no matter what happens, a third party can’t simply shut off your online relationship to your customers.
The Only Thing You Can Control
In conclusion, here’s one big thing to remember: People will talk online about your products and services, whether or not you want them to.
I always shake my head when I see some restaurant lamenting Yelp or similar sites, criticizing them in the local or national media. Yeah, some people on Yelp are entitled jerks. Yeah, Yelp has problems. No disagreement. But it doesn’t matter. Yelp will still be there, no matter what you want. People will be talking about your restaurant, no matter what you want.
You have a very simple choice to make. How will you engage? How will you create the biggest possible benefit, both for you and your customers? Because, at the end of the day, that is the only thing that you can control.