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Q What is the best and most cost-effective way for a small business to create an online community for users to stay connected, share information and receive updates?
CO-FOUNDER AND COO,
A Fostering a sense of community among your customers is one way of strengthening your customer relationships. The Internet offers a number of community-building alternatives (many of them free). Which alternative to pursue depends on the degree of interactivity you want to provide customers and the control you want to maintain.
After you identify the types of relationships you want to develop with your customers, you can decide exactly what type of community is most appropriate. Your options range from simple communities where customers are passive participants to complex, customer-driven communities (the Harley Owners Group, for example).
With passive communities, you might highlight customer experiences and successes on your website, in a blog you maintain, or an e-mail newsletter you distribute. You can also share information and updates on your company to increase customers' connectedness.
To create more interactivity within the community, you can maintain public-private customer forums where customers can post stories, ask questions and generally try to influence the direction your company is taking. In such communities, you have to decide who moderates the conversations -- either your company or members of the community. Allowing customers to moderate community conversations cedes some level of control of the community to them.
Focus your community-building around your website so you can maintain an integrated marketing communications strategy. There are plenty of free resources (e.g. blogging services) you can leverage, but don't try to be everywhere or to use every resource. Rather, thoughtfully choose the few that maximize the impact of your community-building.
ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF MARKETING,
UNIVERSITY OF ST. THOMAS
OPUS COLLEGE OF BUSINESS